Episode 85! , “Branding or Gendering," conversation with Sarah Darer Littman
Welcome to episode 85 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 Sarah Darer Littman discuss Sarah’s essay, “Branding or Gendering.” You can hear and/or read Sarah’s essay in episode 84.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of Young Adult novels, Anything But Okay, In Case You Missed It, Backlash, (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award) Want to Go Private?; Life, After and Purge; and middle grade novels, Taming of the Shoe, Fairest of Them All, Charmed, I’m Sure and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, at the Yale Summer Writers' Conference, and she is an award-winning opinion columnist. She lives in Connecticut with her family and two dogs, in a house that never seems to have enough bookshelves.
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 Ling, and I identify as she/her. I'm talking today with author Sarah Dare Littman. Sarah, would you like to self identify?
sarah: Yes, I identify as she/her.
alvina: Great. Today we're talking about Sarah's essay, Branding or Gendering, in which Sarah focuses on book covers with female protagonists of books written by women, versus those written by men, and discuss the gendering going on in the marketing of books for a specific audience, including school visits. Sarah, thanks for joining me today.
sarah: It's my pleasure.
alvina: I'll admit you had so many great examples and anecdotes included in your essay, and they just really made me angry. I think it's because, of course I've heard of this happening, but I guess I wasn't super aware of how common it is. I guess specifically going to a school visit where if you're a female author, they only have you talk to the girls in this school. So thank you for drawing attention to that. There's actually an excerpt from your essay that I wanted to ask you more about, just to start us off. You said, "I asked the media specialist what message she was sending to both boys and girls, if the girls were required to listen to male authors, but boys weren't required to listen to female authors. Her reply, I never thought of that." I just want to know what happened after that?
sarah: Well, it was interesting because I had three presentations at this school, and this was after my first one, which had been for both boys and girls. Full cafeteria. Everyone was very engaged, and she seemed almost surprised by that. That's why we ended up having this conversation. When she said, "I never thought of that.", I was like, I hope you will because it makes, and I explained to her how it makes a big impact on the ability of female authors to get school visits, which then affects our income, because school visits can be a very big portion of an author income. But it just ends up being, as Jen Barnes said, a cascading effect.
alvina: Do you know if she changed your policy after that? We can hope.
sarah: I don't know. Because the fact that she did have me, I did end up speaking to both boys and girls, but it was the fact that she thought that she'd only have me speak to girls. It's just this whole idea of boy books and girl books that really drives me mad, because I don't feel that I write boy books or girl books. I think I write human being books.
alvina: Well, I think that's true. Is that anger what fueled you to write your essay? Why did you write your essay?
sarah: I think that was the anger. There are so many reasons that I felt angry at the time we were talking about this, bringing up the whole kid lit women thing. But I've just heard so many times at so many book signings or conferences or school visits that, your book sounds so interesting, but I only have sons, or your book sounds so interesting, I only have grandsons. Or we'd like to have you come, but we're not sure whether you'll appeal to both boys and girls. We want someone who will appeal to everyone. I questioned why the default is that male authors will appeal to both, but women authors only appeal to young girls. That's really what gets me crazy. But I do think some of it is the marketing.
alvina: I've talked about this on previous episodes before, but it's true. I think within publishing, the rule of thumb is, girls will read books with boy protagonists, but boys will rarely read books with female protagonists, which I think has been proven to be wrong. Look at Hunger Games and Divergent. Those were both books written by women with female protagonists, but they had quote unquote gender neutral covers. Being on the publishing side, I know there are many different conversations that go on. So definitely I think there are issues on the publishing side. But I've been thinking about this. I just wish we lived in a society where yes, you can put a girl in a pretty dress on the cover and boys would still read it. I think we're really far off from that, but that's something that, it's like pink can be for boys too. All of that. I think boys are raised with a certain message of what is for them versus what is for girls.
sarah: I totally agree with that, and I think the work that Brandon Kylie's doing, going to schools and talking about toxic masculinity is just a start. I love what he's doing, but I think that's just a start, and we really need to have more men in the kid lit world talking about that. Also looking at their behavior at conferences as well. For example, I was at a conference in the Midwest, and they had us all sitting down a long corridor to sign books, and two very well known male authors came with a bottle of Scotch and offered a drink to both of the male authors sitting on either side of me, like I didn't exist.
sarah: Or women don't drink scotch. That just really pissed me off. It's not like I even like Scotch that much, but the fact that ...
alvina: It's like mad men style.
sarah: Exactly. First of all, it was the day of this conference when teenagers were going to be there, so I'm like, why are we even drinking scotch, while there are teenagers around? That's one issue, but the second issue was, you're going to go down the line of authors sitting here, and only offer a drink of scotch to the male authors. What is that supposed to mean?
alvina: I think that that's what angered me so much reading your essay, is because I feel like there's so many things that you think are outdated but are still happening today, and that we really have to do a lot of work to change. Well, was there anything in your essay that you are afraid that people have or will misunderstand about your essay?
sarah: I think I was worried that people would read my essay as being sour grapes. I am basically a mid list author, and I was afraid that some people reading it might interpret it as, Well, she's just pissed off because her career hasn't gone as well as the men whose book she looked at.
alvina: Did you get any feedback?
sarah: I didn't, but that was one of the concerns I had, and that really was not my intention.
alvina: What was the main thing you wanted people to take away?
sarah: I wanted people to really think. There are various different aspects of what I wanted people to take away. I wanted people on the publishing side to think about [inaudible 00:08:40] how we really don't, and as authors we can comment on, but we don't have the final say. But I wanted them to think about how the gender decisions they make have an economic impact on us that is really substantial. From the media specialist, and teacher and parent side, I really wanted people to think about the choices they make when they say, Oh, your books sound interesting but, and then follow it with something about how they don't have girls. I can give you an example. I was asked to give a talk at my local chapter of alumni of my college sorority.
sarah: This is a women's organization, and they received my talk very well. Afterwards I had women coming up to me, more than one, saying exactly that, oh, your book sounds so interesting, but I only have sons or I only have grandsons. It got to the point where I actually asked to speak to the group again while I was there and say, please, we're a women's organization. I don't write books for boys or for girls. I write books for thinking human beings. I explained that I don't have much control over the cover, and please, I know people do judge books by the cover, but I would hope that as women they would not fall into that trap too. Unfortunately too many women are perpetuating that stereotype instead of fighting it.
alvina: Yeah. There was another line in your essay that resonated to me, which was, "Boys shouldn't grow up with a message that women's voices are unimportant and can be ignored." I think that a lot of women who consider themselves to be feminists perhaps are not raising their sons to be feminists, or are limiting their own children.
sarah: Oh, definitely.
alvina: We live in a misogynist, sexist culture. This has been discussed and [inaudible 00:11:01] women a lot, but I think women do, we're doing our part in furthering these stereotypes and these issues. I think we all have to take responsibility. I've said this before, but I used to work at a bookstore, and when people would ask for recommendations for their children, the first question I would ask, are they boys or girls?
alvina: Which I shouldn't ask. Now when I'm giving books as gifts to my friends or nieces and nephews, I really try to make sure that I'm giving books with female protagonists to male children, to encourage that. Because they might be nervous to choose it themselves. But if it's a gift, I hope they'll read it.
sarah: Yes, yes. In my essay I talk about Maureen Johnson's cover flip, which was inspired by male readers who liked her books saying, please, can you put a non girly cover on? So guys are asking for this.
alvina: I know. But then we have to take it a step further and get the guys to be okay with reading books with quote unquote girly covers, which is a challenge. I want to live in a society where girls feel okay reading a book that has a more male directed cover and vice versa, because books are for everybody.
sarah: Exactly. The story Linda Sue Park told about the paper back baseball book where they ended up putting a dog on the cover so that boys would read it. Like they wouldn't read it if a girl was on the cover but it would with a dog. What does that say? [crosstalk 00:13:00]
alvina: I think what's telling is that the original cover, even though there was a girl, it wasn't necessarily quote unquote girly cover. The colors were fairly gender neutral.
sarah: Yeah. That story made my head explode.
alvina: I know, because on the publishing side, we do sometimes talk about, should we not put any people on the cover? But then, if we lived in a world where covers were only type driven, or I don't know. I'm not sure if that would work. One thing I wanted to address, you mentioned, which is true, of course, that authors don't have the final say on their covers for the most part. I know every publisher is different, but at Little Brown, we do ask the author for their thoughts about the cover before we start coming up with cover comps and that is an opportunity. So even if you're working with a publisher that doesn't do that, I do think as an author, if you emailed the editor well before the cover process is starting and said, I just want to let you know that I feel very strongly that I don't want X on my cover.
alvina: That is something that I think the publisher should and will take into account. I think where sometimes you can run into trouble is when you're sent the cover and by then it might be too late, because maybe so much time and resources have already been spent into this cover and it's harder to pivot at that point.
sarah: That make sense.
alvina: Not that you're always going to be listened to. But I just wanted to put it out there to authors. Speak up. You can speak up and speak up before ...
sarah: Be proactive.
alvina: Yeah. Be proactive and be proactive before they actually start, before you see anything.
sarah: Yeah, that's makes a lot of sense.
alvina: Because by the time you see something, it might be too late.
sarah: Yeah, that was good advice. Thank you.
alvina: What was the hardest part for you personally in writing this essay?
sarah: I was really nervous and afraid of pissing off my publisher by writing it. The thing was, it's not that I don't like the covers I have, they're all really well designed, very eye catching. But by the time I got the cover that prompted me to write this essay and write back to my editor and explain why, even though I liked the cover, why I was disturbed by it, I had already had so much of the people saying, your book sounds so interesting, but. I was just fed up to the back teeth of it and constantly thinking about how that impacts my income as an author and potential readers, potential readers who might really enjoy my book or my books. What was interesting was the next time I was at my publisher, the person who's in charge of designing the cover art, actually came up to me and said they'd read it, she'd read it, and was taking it into consideration. It'll be interesting to see what happens with my next cover, but I was very nervous about that.
alvina: Yeah. I did think your essay was pretty measured, so I hope that they weren't angered by that.
sarah: I was trying to be measured and logical because I try to do that in business relationships, but still, you're criticizing decisions made by the people who publish your books, and it did feel like inching my way out onto a cliff a little bit. But I guess at that point my anger overcame my fear. I think that's the situation for a lot of women at this point is that we've been afraid for so long. We're brought up to be likable, and not shrill, but it's got the point where I think I'm old enough now, and have been in business long enough now, that I understand that you can't really win no matter what you do. So you might as well put your thoughts out there.
alvina: Right. I'm glad you did. It seems like you did not anger your publisher. You just made them think potentially.
sarah: Well, that's my goal with everything I write is to make people think. I don't necessarily try to give people the answers, but I at least want to try and make them think about the questions.
alvina: Great. Well, that segues to the next question, which is, specifically how do you hope the world of children's publishing will change in the future?
sarah: I hope that everyone at all areas, all aspects of the business, from publishers to fellow authors to media specialists and teachers and people who plan conferences, that they will all think about this. People who choose the one book, one town. Because I had an example of that. I hope everyone in all aspects of the book world, will think about this, and think about their own biases, and not be afraid to look in the mirror and admit, okay, in the past I might've made some decisions that were biased, but I'm going to try and do better going forward.
alvina: That is a great thing to hope. Then that's hope that that actually affects change in the future.
sarah: I really do hope so.
alvina: We're going to end with final two questions that we always end with. The first is what we call our self promo closing. So just give me the elevator pitch of what you're working on now or your newest book.
sarah: Well, I'll talk about my new book, which is coming out in August, is the third in my series of humorous fractured feminist fairy tales. It comes out in August from Aladdin. It's called The Taming Of The Shoe.
alvina: Oh my gosh. That's a great title.
sarah: I know. I love that title. All of the three books in the series are all told from the point of view of the teenage daughters of the original fairy tale characters, which I have absolutely loved doing. Because I go back to the original Grimm tales, which are very misogynist, and have a lot of really bizarre stuff if you read them. I get to look at them through a modern lens of teenage girls who were living in New York City and attending the same school. It's been a great way to look at some of the sexism issues in a humorous vein.
alvina: That sounds great. You said it's the third book, is it a trilogy or are there more to come?
sarah: I'm not sure. I hope there are more to come, but they're basically three books that can be stand alone, but they're set in the same world.
alvina: Okay. I love that.
alvina: Then the last question is what is your biggest publishing dream? I hope you thought big and goofy.
sarah: I think my biggest publishing dream is, as I say before, I self identify as a mid list author, and I would really love for once to know what it feels like to be the anointed one, which is what I call the people whose books are selected to get the publicity dollars and who gets sent to all the ... I'd like to get sent to ALA.
alvina: Okay, that's not big and goofy enough.
alvina: Upgrade it, go another step.
sarah: Okay. I'd like to get sent to all the conferences. You know what I really want? I want to see my name at BEA. My book on the stairs at BEA. Is that good enough?
alvina: Yes, that's a good one. But it's also attainable and I wish that for you. I think it can happen.
sarah: I hope so. From your lips to God's ears, as I would say.
alvina: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
sarah: It's my pleasure. Great speaking with you.
alvina: This has been Alvina Ling, talking to Sarah Dare Littman. Okay.