Episode 31! Conversation with Jennifer Ziegler
Welcome to episode nine 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, Susan Van Metre discusses her essay "Rewriting the Stories that Shape you" (which can be heard in episode 8) with Alvina Ling. We hear more about Susan's
On today's podcast you will hear:
Jennifer Ziegler is the author of of more than 20 books in a variety of markets, including YA/middle grade novels, romance series, TV tie-ins, thrillers, and sci-fi/dystopian novels. A former classroom teacher, Jennifer has led writing workshops and served on expert panels at a number of trade conferences, book festivals, and universities. Her stories, articles and essays have appeared in three YA anthologies, the Austin American-Statesman, Lector, Austin Family, and the Hunger Mountain Literary Magazine. Jennifer earned journalism and English degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and is a graduate of the New Jersey Writing Program. Her latest book is “Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets” a Brewster Triplet novel where the three sister want to fight for justice & kindness -- even if it requires a little mayhem. Follow Jennifer on twitter at @zieglerjennifer
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. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Venus.
Alvina: Hi. I'm Alvina [inaudible 00:00:00] talking with Jennifer Ziegler about her essay: It's the Grownups with the Hangups, not the Readers, which addresses the idea that society believes that boys won't read books with girl protagonists.
Alvina: Jennifer, thank you for joining me today.
Jennifer: Oh, thank you.
Alvina: First, I want to tell you that, as a former bookseller, your essay really struck a cord with me because I remember when I worked at the bookstore and a customer would come in and they would say, "Looking for a gift for my child."
Alvina: One of the first questions I would ask is: "Is your child a boy or girl?"
Alvina: I think in hindsight, I feel a little bit guilty about that and I'm sure it still happens today.
Jennifer: I know I've done that too, when I was a teacher as well. I think it was just ingrained in us.
Alvina: That leads me to the first question: Why did you write your essay?
Jennifer: I wasn't going to. I was not going to write any essay. Right before [inaudible 00:01:03] women, that whole movement, that wonderful movement started, I had made a deal with myself. I had so many stops and starts with this project I'm working on that I said, "Okay Jen, no more reading headlines. Get off social media. You're just going to be one of those people that puts up an 'on hiatus' sign on your social media and you're just going go, you're going to be the ostrich with your head in the end."
Jennifer: Then I right about [inaudible 00:01:33] women and I thought, "I love this. This is so needed."
Jennifer: Then, I tried to make a deal with myself of, "Okay, I'll promote. I'll read the posts."
Jennifer: I would read the posts and then it just, I couldn't think of anything else. It got me so fired up. They were so wonderful and well-researched and it was so validating and so eye-opening. I couldn't stop thinking about it even as I continued to write other things.
Jennifer: Then, two things happened. First, I had this encounter with someone who is very near and dear to me. She's a really good friend and she basically said, "I'd love to buy your book for my son, but he's a boy."
Jennifer: I'd heard this so many times before in the past, but having read all those [inaudible 00:02:32] women posts, I was kind of fired up. Instead of doing my usual smile wearing I'm gritting my teeth and nodding and letting the person off the hook, I said, "What do you mean by that?"
Jennifer: She said, "You know, he's a boy. He won't read books about girls."
Jennifer: I said, "Oh. That's too bad. What are you doing about that?"
Alvina: That's such a good answer.
Jennifer: I think it put her a little bit on the defensive, but I could tell that it made her start to question something that she had never thought to question before.
Alvina: That's so important.
Jennifer: Then, soon after that, I got a letter. I got a letter and it just made me sob because the first line said, "Dear Jennifer Ziegler, Even though I am a boy, I quite enjoyed your book."
Jennifer: It just broke my heart that he would think he was not supposed to read my book. Then, I sat down and the essay just poured out of me. I just felt so driven to write down my thoughts and [crosstalk 00:03:52]
Alvina: I'm sorry that you had those two experiences, but I'm glad that you wrote that essay because I thought it was spot on and addressed a lot of things that I think we think a lot about in publishing.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Alvina: I don't know if you saw this actually just two days ago, I saw, I think it was a bookseller tweet that a young boy had picked up the book, it's a James Patterson book called "Jackie Ha-Ha" and picked the book of the shelf for himself and at the register, his father looked at him and said, "You know this is about a girl right?"
Alvina: The boy luckily was able to say "yes" and the father still bought it for him, but just ... It's a little heartbreaking that, I think boys and girls, we get all of these, yeah, these notions from the adults in our lives and their lives. I think that it's important for us to all think about it and try to change all of those habits.
Jennifer: I agree.
Jennifer: I think we need to take a lead from the young readers because I have never, at least not in the past several, several years heard a child say something like that, but I have heard many educators, parents, booksellers, I've heard lots of other people say things like that.
Alvina: Then, I think if you think about it in terms of say, cultural background or race, it's even more insidious where someone implies that a white child wouldn't read a book about a black child, for example.
Alvina: That happens as well.
Alvina: I think that answers the question that I was going to ask you next, which is: What do you want people to take away from your essay? But, is there anything else you want to add about that?
Jennifer: Oh, no, I think you're right. Yeah, just to question their mindset. I think we need to step back. In order to see these biases at work, we have to just stop and think and really question ourselves. Hopefully, people will at least start that process, even if they don't come up with the results that I would like.
Alvina: What was the hardest part for you personally in writing the essay?
Jennifer: I guess I was very driven as I wrote it, but then this timidity settled in that I had to wrestle with, and I think that just I'm a little conflict-averse. I don't like to wag my finger in anyone's faces virtually or literally and say, "Listen here."
Jennifer: Part of that is my own personality, but also I think part of that is learned. I think I'm not the only woman who somehow absorbed that to be good, to be polite is to just go with the flow and not rock the boat.
Jennifer: I have come to realize recently there is a big difference between being polite and being good. Being polite and being kind are not the same things, and that we are pointing out something that is harmful and therefore, it's a kindness, even if it makes people uncomfortable. I had to get over my discomfort in order to do that. I guess I had to get over this feeling, not just that people might have a negative reaction to me doing that, but I think sometimes we are afraid of being seen as complaining, as being ungrateful, that we're just looking to blame others for our failures, that sort of thing. I had to really sit with that.
Jennifer: Then, finally I just, I got over myself and I contacted Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal and said, "I wrote a thing." At that point, I thought maybe it was too late to even post, but just before I could question myself further, I had to just send it out there. I figured if these are wonderful brilliant women and if they found anything wrong with what I was saying, that they would say something, they would question me on it. I trusted them to know what to do.
Alvina: Along those lines, was there anything that you had considered adding to your piece, but then chose to leave out?
Jennifer: Yeah. I went on a tangent at one point where, I don't know if I just felt emboldened or what, where I was thinking, "And another thing", and I started to go into all these other biases because there's definitely this bias that only girls will want to read about girl characters, but there's also, like you mentioned, there's racial bias. There's even regional bias, which I have come across in the industry. So much of publishing takes place in the northeast coast, that I think sometimes they, people have a hard time really understanding or seeing that there are real differences in storytelling and dialect and characters and that kind of thing, but there's also the whole bias of funny books. I think funny stories are sometimes seen as lesser and lighter and even though I think writing funny is just as hard, maybe sometimes harder than writing drama, I think we think that for a book to be serious, it has to have a serious tone, but I think that funny books are just more subtle with their themes and they can be just as effective and I think they're just as worthy. They can be as esteemed as more serious fare.
Jennifer: I went on this big tangent [inaudible 00:10:18] all these biases. Then, I thought, "Okay, focus."
Alvina: [crosstalk 00:10:22] focus. Yeah.
Alvina: Going back to what you said about whether, if girls will only read girl books, I think the philosophy, at least in publishers, is that boys won't read books about girls, but girls will read books about boys and that's just, I guess that's just because we live in a patriarchy.
Jennifer: Yes. Right. Right.
Jennifer: Yeah, I hear that so many, I hear that from educators, from publishers and then, but to me, if that's the case that boys won't read, why are we limiting their choices even further?
Jennifer: I don't find that they are reluctant to pick up stories about girls. I almost think it's like, "Oh, obviously they'll want these adventure tales and the more rambunctious", or maybe when they're older the more body it is ... Our choices for them get more skewed in one direction. Certainly, not all boys are that way. It also sends this message that they're not interested in hopping into the heads of girls and that girls must have completely different experiences in life, which we don't. We have very similar fears and goals.
Jennifer: Then, I think it sends this message, it's implied that they shouldn't value what real women go through. It's not too much of a hop to make that connection.
Jennifer: [inaudible 00:12:10] I just think everybody needs to do a big rethink in this society.
Alvina: [crosstalk 00:12:13] No. I agree.
Alvina: That somewhat addresses the, this next question is: How do you hope the world of children's publishing will change in future related to this topic?
Jennifer: Oh, gosh.
Jennifer: I hope that it, I don't know how this would happen, I don't have any models that I can draw up, but if they could stop drawing lines in the sand and stop making little boxes for people to fit into, I think it would just be better for readers and for authors and for everyone. It's so much messier because, let's face it, we tend to put people in boxes. Boy, girl, this race, that race, just because it seems cleaner and easier, but it also limits our thinking. If we can just stop that in some way and just think, "Book. Reader." Everything else is complex and gray and beautiful and messy. Then, it's definitely going to be harder for marketers to really some up something, but I think that we can alter how we do that. That's my dream.
Alvina: I agree.
Alvina: Just to be the optimist, but I have seen that happening already. For example, books that I think in the past might've been considered niche are called "comuniversal" now.
Jennifer: Oh, good.
Alvina: Some of it is just the positioning of the publisher. I think it's getting better. Let's just hope that it keeps getting better.
Alvina: This is just a random question, but: Is there anything ... I have been trying to battle this in small ways myself, in terms of my, going back to when I was a bookseller and I would ask, "Is it a boy or girl?" Now, I've been making a point to, when I give gifts to boys, to make sure that I'm giving them books with female protagonists. Is there anything else that you do yourself or that you would suggest that people do to, in their own little way, fight this?
Jennifer: I think what makes the most sense for me is for me to stop thinking along the lines of who, what gender does the book center on, because really that is secondary. I just focus on the tone of the book. Is it funny? Is it light-hearted? Is it very deep, dark, scary? What is the tone and what is, what's the topic?
Jennifer: I sometimes use genre words, but I find that even that is not, it's hard sometimes for some books to go into those boxes. I try to just say, "Hey, do you like funny books? Do you like books where people go on a journey and come across all these crazy things?"
Jennifer: I try to make connections that way. To me, it's also trying to not only come up with better results that don't have anything to do with gender, but I think I'm also trying to change my own thinking, if that makes sense.
Alvina: No, that's great.
Alvina: Okay. I have two more questions for you. The first is: I just want to hear an elevator pitch of what you're working on now or perhaps a recent book that just came out.
Jennifer: Oh. I do have a new book that's just out. It's the fourth and final book in my Brewster triplets series. It's, gosh, this was so bittersweet writing it because I knew it was the last and I think that tone, this is going to have a slightly different tone than the other books because of that. There's still humor. There's still mayhem, but there's also this sort of pains of growing up and in this book, sort of the pains of growing apart because the triplets are, they're starting to follow their own individual paths. I'm so proud of it though. I'm so proud of this book and I think it's a nice triplets ride off into the sunset way to end the series.
Jennifer: Then, I'm still wrestling with that project that I was trying to write back when [inaudible 00:16:58] women came onto the scene. I'm making headway, but it's still so early in the draft process that I almost can't say anything about it because absolutely everything is subject to change at this point.
Alvina: Well, at least you have a work in progress and congratulations on finishing a series. That's a big ...
Jennifer: Oh, thank you.
Alvina: Okay. Last question: What is your biggest publishing dream? I want you to think big and goofy maybe.
Jennifer: I can do goofy. That's not a [inaudible 00:17:33]. I'm always good at goofy.
Jennifer: Recently, my husband, Chris, who is also, as you know, he's a picture book author, we went on this retreat to this mountain lake. While we were there, I just thought, "Oh my gosh, I love this."
Jennifer: I started to daydream about us having this place, like a big place, like an inn where we could go off to write, where it's beautiful and quiet and we make friends with all the wildlife. It was like we make friends with the deer and the raccoon and we write all these books, but also it's big enough so that if other writers want to join us and work on their things and also that it's big enough so that we can have maybe once or twice a year a little book festival and invite all these young readers to come up and hear about the magic of making books. That's what I was daydreaming about when I was there. It's still with me, that vivid image.
Alvina: Oh, that's sounds so idyllic. I want to go there.
Jennifer: You're invited Alvina.
Alvina: Okay. I'm there. Make it happen.
Jennifer: Okay. I'll try.
Alvina: Well, thank you so much for talking to me today.
Jennifer: Oh my gosh, this was wonderful. Thank you for all that you do Alvina.
Alvina: It was really fun.
Alvina: Thank you for your essay and everything else you do as well.