Episode 71! MOTHERS AND FATHERS: HOW PARENTS ARE REPRESENTED IN PICTURE BOOKS, conversation with Jennifer MANN
Welcome to episode 71 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Alvina Ling and Jennifer Mann discuss Jennifer’s essay, “Mothers and Fathers: How Parents are Represented in Picture Books.” You can hear and/or read Jennifer’s essay was featured in episode 70.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Jennifer Mann who writes under the name J. Albert Mann is the author of middle grade and young adult novels. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Highlights for Children, once winning the magazine’s annual Fiction Contest. Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers is set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the early life of Margaret Sanger. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where she also obtained the Picture Book Intensive certificate. She prefers books with unhappy endings to happy ones.
Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (a division of Hachette Book Group) where she has worked since 1999. She edits children's books for all ages, from picture books to young adult. She has edited such books as A Big Mooncake For Little Star by Grace Lin; Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown; Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer, The Candymakers by Wendy Mass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. She Tweets with the handle @planetalvina and is on Instagram @alvinaling and is also the co-host (with Grace Lin) of another podcast, Book Friends Forever.
alvina: Hi I'm Alvina Lang and I identify as a she or her. I'll be talking with author Jennifer Mann who writes under J. Albert Mann. Hi Jenn.
jennifer: Hi Alvina.
alvina: Would you like to self identify as well?
jennifer: I sure would. I identify as she/her.
alvina: Great, today we're discussing Jenn's essay, Mothers and Fathers:How parents are represented in picture books. Jenn conducted her own study and discussed her findings in her essay. Jenn, thanks of joining me.
jennifer: I'm so happy to be here.
alvina: Great. As an editor working in publishing, I found your essay really intriguing. Let's just talk about it. I wanted to ask ... first off, why don't you just talk about why did you write your essay.
jennifer: I wrote it in response to a blog post I read about an author's book journey. I love reading author's book journeys, and this particular writer had written their book and sent it in to their editor and the editor had rejected it. The writer revised of course, and sent it back in. Again it was rejected, this went back and forth until the writer made a decision to switch out the mother for a father. The writer sent it back to the editor, the editor bought the book, and published the book. It went on to garner a lots of starred reviews, and it ended up winning a Caldecott honor. This particular journey was fascinating to me. I was like, "What?" What was it that made the book not work with a mother, but then made the book overly work for a father. Not only was it purchased, but it wasn't just the editor who felt wow this book is fantastic, but lots of other people thought the same way about it.
jennifer: I believe that the book didn't work with the mother, because the parental role in the book called for a parent who was quirky, and absent minded and fun. In fact the entire book's premise really hung on these attributes of the parent. Without the parent being quirky and absent minded and fun, the book's plot didn't work. I think the book didn't work for the editor when the parent was female, because sadly we don't really allow female parents to be quirky and absent minded and fun in picture books. Maybe even in life. I was so interested in what happened with this book that I actually ended up studying parents in picture books for my critical thesis for my masters, and doing a really in depth study.
jennifer: What I discovered is that this Caldecott honor book is not a fluke. It's the norm. The industry has really changed when it comes to portraying gender in our child main characters which is fantastic, but it hasn't changed when it comes to parents, in our parent characters. I essentially feel as though what we're saying to little girls is have a really good time now, because it's all going to end.
alvina: That's depressing. Just to followup on something you said, you said when you read the book, you were imagining I assume the mother being the character and did you feel like it wouldn't work as well? Did you feel like this definitely works well with the father, but it wouldn't have worked as well with the mother.
jennifer: That's such a great question. I listened to all of the [inaudible 00:03:55] podcasts and heard so many of us say the same thing, that we ourselves are not without bias. I was born in this country, I was born into a female body, and I identify as female. I am filled with sexist feelings against females. I believe we all are, because we're surrounded culturally by it. To answer your question, maybe I did think it worked better with a father, or it worked with a father, where it didn't with a mother. Again, the premise of the book was the parent had to not really be paying attention, and that the fun part at the end was that not only was this child doing something that was fun and subversive, but we find out in the end that the parent was also doing the same fun, subversive thing. That's the great surprise of the book. I just don't know if we allow our mothers to be fun and subversive. We definitely don't allow our mothers to not being paying attention to their children.
alvina: Right. Do you feel comfortable sharing the title of that book or would you prefer to keep it anonymous?
jennifer: I'm going to talk about another book later, but I just ... the one thing that I just don't want to do is call individual writers. I say that even in my blog post, is that I just feel like we all have them, and I didn't want to be like you did it and you did it, and you did it. [crosstalk 00:05:32].
alvina: Right, I totally get it. Assuming perhaps I might have been an editor of one of the books that you studied, so that's probably for the best.
jennifer: I one day might be a writer or maybe I have been a writer of something that wasn't completely great. I feel like it's a mistake almost all of us can make. I guess I just don't want to say what book it was.
alvina: Yes, that's fine. Okay. What are you afraid people have or will misunderstand about your essay?
jennifer: Definitely I'm afraid people will dismiss what I'm saying as going too far. I sometimes think that the deeper the biases are within us, the more uncomfortable we feel about having the brought out, and the quicker we'd like to get out of being uncomfortable, so we say things like this has gone too far, or this is just too much now. Of course change can't really happen if we don't recognize that a problem is a problem. Or we don't recognize that there actually is a problem.
alvina: Well one thing I was wondering, I'm going a little bit off script here, but when I was reading your essay, you started by listing the stereotypes that have historically been the case where fathers were often not present in picture books, and if they were, they were never shown in a nurturing role. Do you think that maybe there was an effort in publishing to reverse, and maybe publishing took it too far in trying to reverse that? Or do you think it is our ... do you blame it more on our sexist biases?
jennifer: No, I think we actually did try. It's pretty well documented. Gender is not something that hasn't been studied in children's literature. Gender has really been studied quite well over the years in children's literature by many great scholars. I do think that as people in the industry we've gone to try to fix these things. Yeah, I think we have tried to fix fathers, and they weren't present and if they were they weren't nurturing, and now they are present and they're also nurturing. I just find it interesting and probably part of our bias against women, against ourselves, because we're an industry of women that we don't fix the problems with ourselves.
jennifer: The problem with women, which was as mothers, we were present in books, but we were only there to make the sandwich and put the child to bed, which nurturing I will say is wonderful, and great, and necessary, and meaningful, but there's this whole other aspect that if that's the only thing we're showing them to do, that has consequences.
alvina: Right, well maybe after reading your blog post, editors will maybe once again try to course correct, and now acquire picture books and maybe authors too will write on those pictures books, then we can publish more picture books that feature adventurous mothers who are also nurturing eventually. Is that something that you hope that people will take away from your essay?
jennifer: Definitely. I think the main thing I want people to take away from my essay is that in our industry we are making men more special than women inside the pages of children's literature. By doing this, we're teaching our children to continue the practice. That's really the crux of my essay. In my essay I talk about two big gender problems found, which we already talked about, which was the fathers not being there and the mothers being there for nurturing and my studies show that not only did we correct fathers, but we took it one step further with fathers. I believe that the reason the Caldecott honor book worked with the father, but not with the mother is because fathers aren't just present in books, they're present and they're having fun. They're doing exciting things with their kids. We were actually featuring them. Going out for adventures at night, they're riding roller coasters, they're going out for ice cream.
jennifer: These are the ways that we're showing fathers and by doing this and by starring these books and what we're saying is this relationship, the father child relationship is not only special, but it's also really, really fun. We're not showing that with mothers. We're just continuing to show them in this nurturing way, and when we do that, we present that relationship in my opinion in a less special way than we present the father child relationship. In fact, in my critical thesis, I don't have it in the blog that of all the books, there's lots of books that had showed both parents. Then there were a group of books that show just father child, then there was a group of books that showed mother child. In the group of books that showed mother child, none of the books were a mother with her daughter. They were all mothers with their sons.
jennifer: I found that really interesting.
alvina: [crosstalk 00:10:54].
alvina: That is really interesting. What was the hardest part for you personally in writing this essay?
jennifer: Probably the hardest part, and probably this was the hardest part for many of us, it's just the fear of being openly critical of our industry, or being openly critical of power, because the children's lit industry is pretty powerful. The most obviously power of course is its power over my career as a writer, but its power is even bigger that over me, because writing is more than just a career for me, it's a piece of who I am. This means that the industry actually has power over a piece of who I am. To answer the question, the hardest part of writing the essay and being interviewed today is really about speaking up. This may sound overly dramatic, but I think history is littered with lives devastated by people who speak up, but that said, history is also littered with devastated lives because not enough people speak up. Even though it's hard to do this, I'd much rather be a part of that former group.
alvina: Well, I definitely appreciate you speaking out, and I'm thankful that you're talking to me today [crosstalk 00:12:09].
jennifer: Thanks Alvina.
alvina: Did you, when you were thinking about writing this Kid Lit Women blog post, did you have other ideas that you were considering addressing?
jennifer: I actually didn't, because last March when Kid Lit Women was born, I had actually just finished my critical thesis on parents in picture books, so it felt really natural to just immediately attempt to condense this really long paper into a post, but I will say my heart sang all month long reading the posts of my fellow kid lit lovers. I was just like, "Christine Taylor Butler, yes. Louise Hall, yes." I felt like the whole experience was like taking a long, hot shower. Although I didn't think myself to write these subjects, I feel like we were all living them, and whether it was conscious or unconscious, and so having people give voice to all these things was ... it was an amazing month.
alvina: It really was, and I'm happy to be the part of this podcast, because I am ashamed to say that I did not write a post even though I wanted to, and I thought about it, I just ... I personally couldn't come up with a topic. I'm happy to be participating in this way at least. Is there anything that you had, well I guess you had this huge, long thesis, so there probably was a lot that you had to leave out, but was there something specific that you considered adding to your post, but then chose to leave out?
jennifer: Yes, definitely. I left out middle grade and YA. It's definitely happening in these books too. I like to play this little game with myself, so whenever I come upon a synopsis or I'm in a book store or at a library, and I read about a book or hear about a book, and it has a single father or a single mother, the first thing I do is I go and look at the four biggest trade reviewers, and I just take a look at what they thought. What I find over and over again is that books with single fathers receive many, many more stars than books with single mothers. I believe that that happens for two reasons. The first reason is single fathers just garner instant sympathy. For both the main character and the male parent, there's just an instant sympathy that we have for single dads. Wow, he's doing this alone, and oh my gosh, it's just there. It's within us.
jennifer: I don't know why we don't have that for single mothers, but we just don't. I think that's one thing that goes on. That's one thing that immediately this relationship is more special than a single mother. The second thing that I see happen is that we get instant agency for the main character. In other words, if you put that main character with a single dad, that main character can just run all over town and have lots of agency, do many different things, and no one is saying in their head, no reviewer, or editor, or reader, or librarian, we are not saying as women, where is that dad? We're just saying oh gosh, well it's just a good thing he's there at all. Congratulations pal just for being there.
jennifer: We don't question why that child is allowed to run about. I'm just going to talk about, before I said I wouldn't talk about that one book, and I don't feel like this is calling anyone out, first of all I'm about to talk about one of favorite books of all time, and it's one of the best books of all time. That's Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie, and I just would love us all to think about what happens if the preacher in that was female? Instead of being Opal's dad, she's Opal's mom. That preacher's really into his job, and is really not that focused on Opal, so Opal is really allowed to go out and have all these adventures, and I really do think that that book works. I mean that works because she's a magical writer, but I also think that one of the reasons why that book works is because we allow that single father to be very focused on his job, and that his career is important to him, and so he is not really paying as much attention to Opal as maybe he should've been.
jennifer: Opal garners complete agency because of that.
alvina: That's all so interesting.
jennifer: I think it happens in middle grade and it happens in YA, and when I'm hanging out with writer and friends and they're beginning to plot their books, and one of the things, when they're talking and one of the things when they begin to build their relationship, and they're making decisions, I always say to them if you can, put in the single dad, don't put in the single mom, because your chances of getting a good review are much better.
alvina: Wait, wow, so you actually advise people to ... but don't you think it should be [crosstalk 00:17:24] we should try to change it?
jennifer: I mean that's in a joking way. I'm just [crosstalk 00:17:28] in a joking way. I'm saying that if you play the game, you will see it happening, and so if you put in a single mom, I do believe that because we have these biases within ourselves and most within women, and our industry if filled with women, that our immediate reaction to the single father is one of love and sympathy. Our immediate reaction to the single mother is not. But you're absolutely right Alvina, I want this to change, absolutely. This is why I want to talk about it, because [crosstalk 00:18:01] I want to lose my game. I want to lose my game. I'm dying to lose my game.
alvina: Have you thought about writing another post to talk specifically about middle grade and young adult, because I do think that would be valuable.
jennifer: It's a great idea, it's a fantastic idea, and so maybe I would.
alvina: Maybe next month, next year. Or I don't know when this is going to be airing, but ... Is your thesis available to be read?
jennifer: It is, it on VCFA, Vermont College and Fine Arts, it's there. I think anybody can go in. I know within the community it's free for us, for us all to go in and read, I believe the college makes other people pay money, but I would hope it is. Of course in there I do mention all the books, I do mention the year, I have to give because you have to give your data. Of course all the information is in there. I do go into more depth. I go into anthropomorphism which is a whole nother topic. Our stereotypes and our biases when it comes to anthropomorphized animals, it actually accelerates. It just becomes on steroids. What we will allow as soon as we turn our characters into animals, is pretty incredible. I forget, I think it was the ... I'm trying to think who put out those statistics. The Cooperative Children's Book Center, they actually did a blog in 2016 saying, or 2017, saying that over 40% of all picture books published in 2016 were anthropomorphized animals.
jennifer: If we look at talking about stereotypes and bias and gender roles, stiff gender roles, they are actually happening more inside anthropomorphized books. We should totally be aware of that as well.
alvina: Yes. I know that whenever we talk about race in a children's book, we sometimes I think picture book creators get around that by anthropomorphizing, but I think there are pros and cons. I feel like it's very common for a panda bear to represent an asian person.
jennifer: Right, it can still be there, yeah. Yes.
alvina: All right. I think we're going to wrap up pretty soon, but ...
alvina: I wanted to call out one quote that of course I found very true, but also very powerful in your essay where you said I believe we women are unintentionally complicit in the propagation of a gender cultural bias in children's literature. I believe that misogyny is deeply embedded in our culture, embedded in us. I believe this as well, I also believe this when it comes to racism. Is there anything more you want to talk about and is there ... that's a big question, how can we end misogyny, and sexism, but do you have any thoughts on how we can all work together to end this?
jennifer: I guess doing things like this. Having this podcast, talking about the issues, because I think whether it's race or gender, it's the same problem. We have such trouble admitting, we don't want to be bad people, so we don't want to say I have these thoughts, I have these bad thoughts about race, or I have these bad thoughts about women. We don't want to admit this, but we are growing up in a culture like there is no way out of it. The only way out if it is to acknowledge that we are surrounded by these ideas. Until we admit that we are actually sucking these ideas in, because it's inevitable that we do, we can't change this. It can't be changed. I think that's something important that we all have to realize is that stop making it that I'm good and you're bad. Or you're bad and I'm good. Just saying we have grown up with racism and sexism surrounding us, so we need to examine inside of ourselves and admit to these things that are going on inside of our hearts. When we do that, I think we'll begin to see change.
alvina: Very true.
alvina: The last question I guess is related, how do you hope the world of children's publishing will change in the future?
jennifer: I think first I hope that when it comes to parents and adults being represented in picture books, I hope that we just celebrate more. We look at who is caring for children today, who is loving and raising children today? Those people look like all different kinds of people. They're not just mom and dad, and they're not just male, female. We need to have more of that representation of our parents in picture books. I will say that I do think that middle grade and YA actually does a better job at this representation. Giving us a wider view of what care givers look like today than picture books do. Second, I think I just really would like to see female care givers, or specifically mothers have more fun with their kids in books.
jennifer: It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it would have a huge impact on life, and maybe this is a big leap, but I think that if children are raised reading books where a female parent's role is that quirky or absentminded or fun mother, then girls will grow up knowing that they're allowed to be these things, because they actually are these things. But they would actually know that they could be these things. They could embrace that part of themselves, because children they may see themselves in the main characters of picture books, but they see their future selves in the parents in picture books.
alvina: I know that this, your essay and talking to you today will definitely change how I read picture books [crosstalk 00:24:22].
jennifer: Thanks Alvina.
alvina: Okay. Two final questions that we ask all of our guests, the first is what we call the self promo closing. Can you give me the elevator pitch of what you're working on now or your newest book?
jennifer: Sure. In February, What Every Girl Should Know will be coming out from Simon and Schuster F and AM and it's a biographical historical fiction I wrote about the childhood of Margaret Sanger and if some of our listeners don't know who she is, or she was, she was a social activist for women's reproductive rights and birth control. She's a particular hero of mine. I think her life is so incredibly interesting, her childhood actually is so incredibly interesting, and that's what I focused on, because what happens to her growing up, the very, very difficult things in her childhood, are actually what make her turn around and fight this amazing fight in her adulthood. I think it will really speak to teens who are going through just really hard times, or just not really living the most wonderful teen life. That they'll be able to see that sometimes the hard things that we're going through as kids actually turn us into amazing fighters in our life.
jennifer: I hope that when they read that book that they see that, that life can be hard, and life can really stink sometimes, but sometimes we can use those things to change ourselves, and change other people.
alvina: That sounds amazing.
alvina: So that's coming out in February 2019.
jennifer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
alvina: Last question, what is your biggest publishing dream? Think big and goofy.
jennifer: Okay Alvina. I've been waiting for this question, whenever the blog comes to mind, and I'm sure everyone out there is doing the same thing. Okay, what would be my biggest publishing dream? Mine of course was immediate, and when I tell it to you, I know there's going to be people out there that are like that's not such a big dream, but there are going to be other people out there who are like that's a huge dream. Anyway, my biggest publishing dream is to publish a picture book. I write picture books, and write young adult and middle grade and I have published in young adult and middle grade, and I love it. I love writing middle grade and young adult and I love words, I love lots of words as you can tell from this podcast. I like to say lots of words and write lots of words.
jennifer: But that's the thing, with picture books, you have to choose only two hundred or three hundred very, very special words. It's such a difficult, difficult art form and I've been reading it all my life before I could even read, and I just ... my biggest heroes in life are picture writers and illustrators. I want to join their ranks. That is my biggest publishing dream.
alvina: Well, I'm going to upgrade your dream a little bit [crosstalk 00:27:25] and say that it is to write a number one near [tranvestiling 00:27:30] picture book, how about that?
jennifer: Well, that just even blows my mind. I would be pretty stinking happy with just a ... I would be pretty happy with just getting one published.
alvina: Yeah, but I think [crosstalk 00:27:44]. But that's an attainable one. We're talking about pie in the sky.
jennifer: Okay, okay.
alvina: Anyway, I think number one is also attainable.
jennifer: I'll take it.
alvina: Start high, aim high. Thank you so much for joining me today.
jennifer: Thank you so much for having me and thanks to Kid Lit Women* and Grace Lin for doing this, it's been fantastic.
alvina: All right. This has been Alvina Lang talking to Jennifer Mann AKA J. Albert Mann.