Dudes on top…

Because I am physically incapable of walking past a political debate, whether I know anything or not (this is a crippling disease, people), I feel the need to chime in on this brouhahahahahahaha, concerning the fact that the ALA very often awards the Caldecott to men.

I am, generally, a raging knee-jerk feminist.  Because someone’s gotta be, and I have a uterus, after all.  I think there’s a lot to be said about gender bias. I do believe that as a culture we (by which I mean women, most of all) tend to lavish praise on men when they decide to do “women’s work.”  We like that they’re not above it.  And also (and I mean this seriously) men are cute and fun to have around.  I think I’m guilty of this crime myself, probably.  I like to chat with the dads at the preschool.

I also want to say that I keep waiting for someone to crunch the ratio of overall children’s books published by women to children’s books published by men. Because I suspect THAT will be the real jaw dropper.  People always seem to toss these numbers around, looking for a 50/50 split of awards or NYRB reviews or stars or end-of-year-lists. But what if 80% of the books for kids are by women? What would a good award ratio be then?  (I’ll add that if you enjoy staring at upsetting numbers about literary gender bias, you need to check out VIDA’s THE COUNT)

So yeah, I’m one of those women. I’m a harpy.





There’s something else in play here, something I haven’t heard people talking about… (if they are, please send me a link).  And that is the possibility that when something is hard to do, when there are barriers to success, the resulting levels of devotion and quality work are simply better. Because the worker has so many reasons to quit.

What am I saying? I’m suggesting that when little Johnny Green was a high school kid (and I am absolutely making this up, forgive me) the most obvious path before him was probably not that he become a YA author.  Likewise little Boopsie Raschka and his pretty puppy pictures.  So what I’m suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, boys that end up in these fields are extra dedicated to them. Because otherwise they’d have gone into other, more obvious,  lines of work.  Involving guns or bulldozers or rocketships or other manly things (ie management).

If this is true– if the men who go into kidlit (or pediatrics or childcare or primary education, or, or, or…) are doing so despite the laughter of their frat-brothers, and their mom who only wanted them to become  doctors… then maybe the inflated numbers of men succeeding are just due in part to to super high levels of quality at the top.

Probably the answer is not so simple. Probably (as in most things) it’s both and neither.  But I wanted to add this to the conversation/debate.

And for the record, yeah, I love Raschka. I just really do.



13 Responses to “Dudes on top…”

  1. Lara Says:

    There’s also the argument that men often treat it more like a business than women do, because they’re programmed to think it’s their job to be the provider. I’ve heard more than a few men say this. And even though I’m a raging feminist, too, I don’t think it’s an accident that so many successful female kidlit authors have very well-employed husbands. I also don’t think it’s an accident that so many super-successful male authors are charming and/or easy on the eyes. But, I suppose the same could be said for women on that one, too.

  2. Kate Messner Says:

    Hmm…I think I want to play devil’s advocate to your devil’s advocate, because if this were true:

    “…when something is hard to do, when there are barriers to success, the resulting levels of devotion and quality work are simply better. Because the worker has so many reasons to quit.”

    …then wouldn’t it stand to reason that women in traditionally male fields would be earning more money, awards, and accolades than men in those fields? We just don’t see that.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ve been thinking about a related question, and that’s the equal-pay-for-equal-work issue. A while back, I was trying to determine my conference speaking fee for next year and did some research into what different educator presenters charge. I found that the (relatively few) men in the field were being paid more than women with similar qualifications and publishing credits. Why? Is it because the men are simply asking for more? Is it because the committees making the booking decisions value their voices more (committees made up, by and large, of women)? Without pointing fingers at anybody’s committee, I think both issues are worth talking about.

  3. laurel Says:

    Well, no.. because they’d still face straight-up sexism. I’m not saying that goes away. I’m only suggesting that the concentration of boys at the tippy top might be a hardened crew of geniuses.

    But this is just a thought. I’m just trying to look at things from different directions.

  4. laurel Says:

    Hmmm… this is SO hard to talk about on a case by case basis, because the work is all so subjective. It’s not like EVERYONE EVER AGREES that the award belongs to one person, but they don’t get it, and then it’s clear that gender bias was in play. We’re really looking at a deep rooted cultural problem here, not something easy to pin on an organization.

    I think it’s a little easier to spot when you look at VIDA’s number on reviews. When the NYRB simply doesn’t bother reviewing books by women, or having women review books, you can play the editorial staff.

  5. Kaethe Says:

    Laurel, I don’t think your feminism is going nearly far enough. You seem to be working from the assumption that there are fewer men illustrating picture books, because it isn’t a stereotypically masculine career. It isn’t as if writing and illustrating pictures books is a strongly stereotyped feminine career. And the most lauded illustrators in my lifetime would be Seuss, Sendak, and Carle. Your argument seems to come down to guys getting bonus points for that Y chromosome, which is itself the problem under discussion.

    We don’t know how many picture books a year are illustrated by people of either gender. Hell, we don’t know exactly how many picture books are published in a year. W also don’t have any sort of breakdown by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion. But we know that there is sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) There is deeply entrenched institutional prejudice of all kinds. Rather than blaming or praising any individual efforts, we need to look at the entire system and say, “yes, there is prejudice all the way down. And what can we do about it?” If our lists don’t reflect the range of diversity available then we aren’t doing enough. The NYT needs to increase coverage of under-represented authors. Publishers need to work on making their lists of go-to illustrators as diverse as possible. Readers need to pick, read, and recommend to their friends the widest range possible.

    When you get to the award-winning narrow end of the bell curve everyone has worked hard and overcome adversity and is totally deserving. I believe the short list award nominees consists of geniuses. But there are always more geniuses than there are awards. Whenever the sample doesn’t equal the general population we need to consider selecting a different sample. And given how subjective the awards are, it doesn’t really matter what the criteria is.

  6. laurel Says:

    Oh, please don’t misunderstand me… I wasn’t trying to argue so much as think out loud.

    Yes, yes…

  7. laurel Says:

    Thinking more, Kaethe. And yes, I think everything you say here is true. I think the entire culture suffers this way. And that we need to work agains that. I do think it’s much easier in places like NYT or NYRB or the trade pubs, where there tends to be a fairly static voice at the top.

    But I really don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. I wasn’t thinking about it in a generalized or statistical way, to be honest. I was thinking about my brother, and myself. I was thinking about individuals I know, anecdotal stuff that holds no water.

    I was just thinking…

    But in my own generation, for what it’s worth, I do think men were less encouraged in the arts, and especially in any field where children were involved. Not that this means much. But I feel that to be true.

  8. HWPetty Says:

    I think you’re awesome, but this just REEKS of male entitlement.

    First, it shows a lack of understanding of the ENTIRE history of literature and children’s literature, which has been more than dominated by men since about the time things started getting bound into book-like entities and continued on that path until only the very recent few years.

    Second, it makes it seem as though gender stereotypes somehow make things harder on those poor men-folk. (I really can’t seem to write this without dripping sarcasm. I do apologize. It is not meant to be an attack on you.) That is really just so untrue. SO. UNTRUE. The gender bias in our culture consistently celebrates men no matter which profession they choose. When women delve into positions that are traditionally male, they are looked at with suspicion and expected to fail.

    Finally, it is demeaning to kidlit and all of the amazing men and women who have worked hard and poured all of their passion and genius into their work to suggest that it is somehow easier for a woman to write books if they are “just for kids.”

    The fact that men consistently receive more awards and accolades in every possible field has everything to do with a culture that is predicated on male entitlement and gender bias, not at all on the quality of women’s work in those fields or the ease with which we slide into roles that the stereotypes would suggest we fit.

    Sorry to rant, but my reading of this entire post was punctuated by my cries of “AH!” and “NO! NO! NO!” This may or may not have hurt me in my feminism. ;)

  9. laurel Says:


    Okay, okay. I REALLY was just batting around some ideas. I’m really not advocating anything. I was just joining a conversation. But I’ll accept all of this, except this line:

    “somehow easier for a woman to write books if they are “just for kids.”

    I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it was easier for a woman. I suggested that maybe women are less likely to jump off the train at an early stage. I suggested that maybe men are less likely to try. That’s all I meant to ssay. “Suggested” and “maybe” and “Might.”

    I’m inclined to take down this entire post if people feel it has a tone of authority. I thought I was pretty clear in the fact that I was just playing devil’s advocate.

  10. laurel Says:

    ALso, I didn’t mean to suggest it made sense of the numbers. I only meant to add a thought. Truly.

  11. Kaethe Says:

    Poor Laurel. That’ll teach you not to defend the poor men.

    “I do think men were less encouraged in the arts, and especially in any field where children were involved”

    Of course, because the work that women traditionally do gets no respect, no one is really encouraged to work with kids. It’s a fallback position. Likewise, the arts are considered nice and a pleasant addition to life; they’re fine for people who don’t have to make a living and support a family. But HWPetty is also right, that any male who does venture into traditional female realms gets all kind of special privileges. So the daily work of cooking meals for the family is female work and unappreciated, but the top chefs are all men. And men who teach elementary school are routinely paid more than their women colleagues. And men who write children’s books get more reviews and more awards. At the worst end of this extreme, male sexual predators can victimize children with near impunity, because the community at large is so impressed with the man who devotes his energy to children.

  12. steve Says:

    The distribution of talent is a very strange thing. We understand very, very little about it.
    In particular, we have a very poor grasp of the relationship between talent (which we can’t define) and achievement (something we can argue about using evidence).
    Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. All wrote plays within 100 years of each other.
    The free male population of Athens was roughly similar to the middle class population of Scranton PA.
    Where did the Athenians’ talent come from? Why don’t we see clusters of that magnitude more often?

    So let’s reduce Laurel’s remarks to one question:
    If books were published blind – a numerical code replacing the author’s name – would the distribution of awards look different? Maybe.

    Whether there are deserving authors who should win awards but do not (Joyce, Borges, Nabokov), or whether career pressures on women and men are different (duh, yes. still. way different). If you like the books that win awards and think they are right up there with the best, then we are living in something close to a meritocracy – not very close, but perhaps as close as we can get.
    Would you really want to set out a theory of talent distribution and make the awards fit on the theory that if you fix the incentives, the talent distribution and the achievement distribution will eventually look the same? What is your theory? How many slots in the playwright’s pantheon are there for Athenians? About 0.0001.
    No theory. Vote for the books you like.

  13. Kaethe Says:

    Arguably, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes weren’t especially talented. Their plays survived, and became enshrined as classics, but few people know them outside of translations. While they may still be known, and are routinely studied, they aren’t exactly packing in the crowds on Broadway, nor are they regulars on TV or film. They’re the canon, it’s beside the point to discuss if they’re any good, and impossible to discuss if they were actually the best their period had to offer.

    Why not make the awards fit the distribution? The Caldecott goes to one book out of a field of thousands. Three made honors this year. “Vote for the books you like” isn’t necessarily bad advice. But if you can’t appreciate two books by women out of a field of thousands then we need you to seriously consider why it is you always and only like white guys. Everyone has unconscious bias. It doesn’t make us sexist, it makes us members of a certain culture. But a sexist clings to that bias after it has been pointed out.

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