Imagine if men were treated like women in the workplace. Imagine if their appearance was commented on rather than their achievements or contributions. Just imagine!

It seems outlandish, like the premise for an Amy Schumer skit meant to reveal the ridiculousness of how women are objectified. In the children’s book world this scenario of male co-workers being fawned over for their looks is not merely a joke or a thought experiment. Men in our field are celebrated and feted in a way that feels oddly familiar: it has less to do with their books than their looks. Or their maleness. I’ve talked before about the treatment of men in the industry and how uncomfortable it makes me. In that blog post I talked about the way we swim in sexism so it can feel weird to point it out. I think I’ve moved past that a little bit. We’re still swimming in that ocean, but I feel more and more compelled to talk about it in the hopes that we can change it.

When the article about this topic came out yesterday, here’s what I tweeted:

But even as I sent the tweet, I knew it wasn’t entirely true because the article revealed an uncomfortable truth for me. O’Connell quotes illustrator Jennifer Daniel who says, “I think the librarian lobby is behind the illustration eugenics movement.” And here’s the thing: I think she has a point. While I do think many women librarians would be appalled by the article, would we also recognize ourselves? I’ve been in groups of librarians discussing which authors we would like to see. Frequently the authors suggested are men, done so with a little giggle and a blush. And I’ll admit I’ve been a part of it: I remember when I was a graduate student I attended a Simmons children’s literature symposium in which a male YA author had 300 women swooning simply by being on stage and talking about writing. It’s not a moment I am proud of. I laughed about it for years — how weird it was that we were fanning ourselves! — but now, like Roger Sutton I find that what was amusing once is annoying now and I have worked to make sure my swooning is saved for the work.

So, yes, it’s true I have stared with deep, deep envy at Linda Urban’s hair, but why I want her to come talk to my students is because she is a smart writer who really gets kids. I want Nate Ball to come to my school because we are embarking on a year of invention and that’s what he writes about and that’s what he does. Those are the reasons to invite a writer to your school or conference. Those are my reasons to swoon.
Meaghan O’Connell has since apologized for the article. I never thought she had gone into this with any malice. I didn’t think she was trolling for hits or anything like that. I figured a corner of our world was lifted up to her, and she found the bizarreness of it funny, as bizarre things do often seem when we first encounter them. I have less patience with her dismissal of the writing of children’s books as something of a hobby for wealthy middle-aged women swirling around the world in their Eileen Fisher wardrobe. Really, if she’d done her research she’d know that the clothing brand of choice for children’s book authors is Boden, which we can’t really afford either but splurge on when we get an advance (just me?).

Still, I am glad she wrote this article because it does reflect a mirror on our industry that shows us one of the less attractive aspects of our world. We do swim in this sexist ocean, and that can explain why in an industry led by women, men still, as O’Connell writes, “get much of the credit, the glory, the jokey posts about how hot they are.” She’s given us all a chance for some self-reflection, so let’s take a good look.

Mirror Gazing

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