Episode 53! Conversation with Emma Walton Hamilton
Welcome to episode 53 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, Emma Walton Hamilton discusses her essay "Where the Women Are: Tough Questions About the Gender Disparities in Children’s Publishing" (which can be heard in episode 52) with Alvina Ling.
On today's podcast you will hear:
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor, producer and arts educator. With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over thirty children’s books, eight of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 Bestseller), Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Simeon’s Gift, The Great American Mousical, and Thanks to You – Wisdom from Mother and Child. She serves as the Editorial Director for The Julie Andrews Collection publishing program, dedicated to quality books for young readers that nurture the imagination and celebrate a sense of wonder. See more about Emma at her website www.emmawaltonhamilton.com
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: I am, too. Hi, I'm Alvina Ling, talking with Emma Walton Hamilton about her essay, Where the Women Are: Tough Questions About the Gender Disparities in Children's Publishing, which shared statistics about the female dominated gender breakdowns in publishing, offers some theories as to why male creators are allegedly celebrated more than female creators and offers some possible steps forward. Emma, thank you for joining me, today.
Emma: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Alvina: First, I wanted to tell you that, of course, I am a woman, and I work at a publishing house, so your essay really struck a chord with me. Right now, we have about 18 editors, here, from assistant all the way up to publisher. We currently only have two male editors and one is part-time. I think the most we've ever had, in my 19 years here, have been three, and we've often, for many years, been all women. When I also look at numbers of our acquisitions meetings, currently the only two men in the room are creative director and our finance manager, so, in essence, all of the major decision makers, in our division, are women and, as shown by all the statistics in your essay, this is the case across the board, in all the publishing houses.
Emma: Little, Brown is definitely the poster child for some of the theories I put forward in this essay.
Alvina: Well, that leads me to the question, which I think is obvious, but why did you write your essay?
Emma: Well, I genuinely was curious about the seeming disconnect in these statistics, as are so many people, women in particular, in the industry. I have a weekly meeting with a group of children's book colleagues, through the Picture Book Summit, that I co-founded, and we're all women. Quite often, our meetings dissolve into conversations about the industry, and we've spent a lot of time talking about this topic and brainstorming. When women of Kidlit proposed our contributions through blog posts and so forth, this was the first subject that lept to mind. I thought it would give me an opportunity to really do some hardcore research and not just be speaking anecdotally and, also, to hopefully, perhaps brainstorms some possible ways forward.
Alvina: Is there anything that you're afraid people have or will misunderstand about your essay?
Emma: Well, part of my essay, of course, asks us to examine our own complicity, as women, in the disconnect in the patriarchy and in the problem. I knew that by doing that, I would definitely raise some blood pressures and perhaps get some pushback. I really didn't want to suggest that by examining our own complicity, there was no patriarchy or there is no patriarchy. I also didn't want to suggest that all the reasons that I, that we brained stormed about to possible reasons why these problems may exist are things that I believe in or things that I agree with. I think some people did misunderstand that, in the fact that I actually suggested a few crazy, outlandish, sexist generalizations about, maybe, men being more in touch with their inner child, men being more willing to be aggressive at the negotiating table or whatever. Those are not necessarily things that I believe, they're just theories that this group of women and I threw out, as possible contributing factors to this problem of the patriarchy.
Emma: I think it's so interesting to explore it from the point of view of children's literature, which is so ... children's publishing, which is so heavily dominated by women, you know? It's such a unique industry in that way. It's really givings us a kind of a zoom-lens view of this disconnect and perhaps is kind of the perfect Petri dish for us to explore where we might be contributing to the problem and what we can do about it.
Alvina: I think your essay was really balanced, and it's hard to not make generalizations, when we're talking about gender disparities, like this.
Emma: It's true.
Alvina: I thought you did a good job of making it clear that you didn't necessarily believe in all of these theories, but, I think, we should all feel open to being honest and just speaking what we think could be.
Emma: I'm a big believer in really taking a look at ourselves, first, before we can accuse anybody else of anything, you know?
Emma: I think it's so ... I just don't really believe in the blame game. I really think that everybody needs to clean up their own side of the street, before they can look at somebody else's side of the street. That was a big part of what I was trying to achieve, and I knew that some people might misunderstand it or that it might touch a nerve, more specifically, which I think it did a little bit, but, hopefully, we continue to find a way forward.
Alvina: Definitely. One thing it made me ... I mean, I've thought about this for a while, now, but, when I first got into publishing, I had my favorite dream illustrators that I wanted to work with and they happened to all be men. [crosstalk 00:05:26].
Alvina: My dream illustrators where Jon Muth, [Peter Seiff 00:05:28] and Lane Smith. I mean, I absolutely love their art, but it did make me wonder, "Okay, why is that?"
Alvina: There was a article someone, blog post someone posted, recently, about, I think, a course that they took at an art school, where the lecturer kept naming artists, the people who influenced him and were instrumental in development of children's publishing; and I think every single person named was a man, except for one. I think we all need to pay attention to that and think about our own biases, for sure.
Emma: I do, too. It's interesting, I think so many people don't quite realize how relatively young children's publishing is, as an industry, that it's still fairly ... it's still less than a hundred years old, in terms of its independence as an industry, more or less, you know? I mean, it really only became its own, fully established, fully recognized business and industry, in the 40s and 50s. I mean, before that, it was kind of lumped in with all the other forms of publishing, and so the mores, the values, the ethics and the things that were sort of of that time, I think, have somewhat purveyed it through, to where we are now. This is a good time to be shaking things up, as we approach children's lit's hundredth anniversary, so to speak.
Alvina: That's true. Well, that leads to the question: what do you want people to take away from your essay?
Emma: Well, as I said, I'm a firm believer that there's in value to looking at our own contribution and cleaning up our side of the street, first, as the best way to get other people to perhaps cop to whatever their stuff may be, their culpability may be.
Emma: There's a phrase, that I like, which says, "When you point at me, these four fingers are pointing back at you."
Emma: What I want people to take away is I want them to look at themselves, just as you did, when you looked your list of dream illustrators, and just say, "Well, are there ways? Wait a minute, are there ways in which maybe I've played into this? Are there ways in which I've favored, whether I'm an editor, an agent, an author or an illustrator, are there ways in which I've inadvertently, subconsciously perhaps favored men or, even more, played small, as a woman. Are there ways in which I haven't stepped up fully, and, if so, what can I do about that?" I really hope that what we ultimately can take away is that there is a way forwards, if we are all willing to be scrupulously honest and not attack each other, but just genuinely look for ways to solve the problem.
Alvina: That's great. What was the hardest part, for you, personally, in writing this essay?
Emma: Well, I had to look at my own. Just as you were describing, I had to look at my own gender issues. I mentioned in the essay that, as a kid, growing up most of my friends, I gravitated towards guy friends because I found them safer. I didn't feel innately competitive with them. They seemed somehow gentler and more straight, more direct, to me, as a kid. I had a whole ... I was a kid that moved around a lot and I ... wasn't easy for me to make friends. I was a little bit scared of the competitive girls, the popular girls, the mean girls, all of that.
Emma: Some of those tendencies are still in me, that kind of subconscious fear of other powerful women or fear or being somehow in competition with or feeling less than. I really had to look at my own stuff there, and think about ways in which I was willing to let go of that, step up and open myself up to criticism and, also, to considering ways in which I've perhaps played small, over the years, because of those old wounds.
Alvina: Well, it's interesting because I think that, as you mentioned, we do live in a patriarchy, and, I think, when women are trying to make it in a patriarchy, it makes sense that one way to do that is to ingratiate ourselves with the men or to-
Emma: Witness The Handmaid's Tale, right?
Alvina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alvina: Well, this is a little bit of a tangent, but working in publishing, which is female dominated, as we've discussed and going to writer's conferences, which are, probably 80, 90% women. I mean, I will say that I have witnessed a lot of, I guess, behavior towards men that, I think, if the genders were reversed, would be, obviously, sexual harassment or completely inappropriate. I think some of this has been discussed, but, I think, for me, your essay made me think about those moments. For example, at a conference, where someone might mention seeing a male editor at the pool. Where if that been a male speaker talking about a woman editor, that would be completely inappropriate. It still is inappropriate the other way. Or librarians hitting on male authors. It's very interesting, our industry.
Emma: It is. We're in a very interesting period in history, right now, I have to say. We do, we all have to kind of take a step back and look at ourselves. I know we've been, in our women's group that I described before ... it's not a women's group, but our Picture Book Summit team, which happens to be mostly comprised of women ... although, we do have one male member, Jon Bard, but he wasn't on the phone with us, on the day of these conversations. We've been guilty of that, too, of talking about, making comments like, "Oh, Mac Barnett is so dream," or whatever it might be. We have to really scrutinize that, and that's-
Alvina: I do think-
Emma: ... what this is about.
Alvina: I think that's gotten better. For example, I mean, I feel like articles about like the hot men in children's literature could not, would just, would not fly, today,-
Alvina: ... but it did, maybe, 5 or 10 years ago, for sure. I think things are getting better.
Alvina: You've kind of answered this question, already, but how do you hope the world of children's publishing will change in the future?
Emma: Well, I'd like to see more balance, essentially. I mean, I hope that we'll see more women writers and illustrators getting published, and more women writers and illustrators getting awards and participating in speaking engagements. Particularly women of color, I think they're even more underrepresented. I'd also like to see more women in prominent positions in literary agencies. It's interesting, that's another area where ... although, in children's publishing, there tend to be more women, as literary agents. There are very few, particularly, women of color, in prominently positions, in literacy agencies. I'd really like to see more of that and in prominent editorial positions.
Emma: Then, I'd really hope that we can get to a point, and I realize we're in a reactionary phase, right now, where we need to have our reactions and experience our feelings, as all of this information, just kind of the light that the Me Too movement has shown on everything, as all of this comes to the surface. Once we've processed that, I'd like to see us move into a place of a little bit less defensiveness or attacking one another.
Emma: I've always taken pride in the fact that children's publishing seems to be less cut-throat, if you will, and more of a nurturing community, than adult publishing. That it's this gentler, kinder community. The people who write and publish for children, illustrate, represent and advocate for children; seem to be more mission oriented, seem to have a more altruistic sensibility, do it for reasons beyond just self-advancement. Lately, that feels like that has gotten a little bit eclipsed, in recent months, by all the kind of arguing back and forth about this subject.
Emma: I'd like to see us return to that place of community, that sensibility of shared community and that pride, that I've always taken, in the fact that we are uniquely nurturing and supportive business, to work within. My mom and I always like to call it the most wonderful, creative sandbox, that we feel so privileged to work in. I'd like to see us really lean into that more, going forward.
Alvina: I have found that to be the case, that children's publishing is a very nurturing, supportive community, especially compared to our adult divisions. Although,-
Alvina: ... they're very nice people, who work [inaudible 00:15:02] [crosstalk 00:15:02].
Emma: Not that we don't have an auction, now and then or something like that, but it's just ... I don't know. Somehow there's more mutual respect, mutual support, and I really think it has to do with the fact that we are thinking about the children, first, first and foremost, you know? Thinking about ... not that the adult publishers aren't thinking about their readers, but somehow that extra layer of the fact that everything we do is for children kind of keeps us honest.
Alvina: One thing, I just wanted to jump off of something that you mentioned, is about wanting more women to be published. I don't know what the stats are industry wise, but I did look at my own list, and we do publish more women than men. I think that's-
Emma: Do you?
Alvina: Yes. I think, I'm pretty sure that's industry wide, especially in young adult. Maybe not as much picture ... I think picture books are, maybe, pretty even and so is middle grade, but YA is overwhelmingly, at least on our list, women. I think that where that disparity ... that just makes the fact that men are more often award winners and [crosstalk 00:16:21].
Emma: The superstars.
Alvina: That makes it a little-
Emma: I mean, it's interesting. I know, just this is purely anecdotally, but, for instance, each year, at The Picture Book Summit, which is an online, picture-book conference, that I co-run; we look for keynote speakers. We're always trying to find that superstar, keynote speaker, and it's typically always the first names that rise to the surface are white men, you know? It's like come on, guys. There's gotta be more women. There's gotta be more women and people of color at the superstar level, but it's just that's, for some reason.
Emma: That was the whole point of my essay, that here are all these women writing, illustrating, attending conferences, teaching, editing and representing, and, then, somehow, as everybody moves towards the tip of that funnel or whatever image you want to use, the men float to the top and become the superstars, the in-demand speakers, the award winners and so forth.
Alvina: I think that's-
Emma: That's where I'd like to see the balance change.
Alvina: Definitely, in picture books, I think that is the case, which is interesting. All right, two final questions. One is a little bit of a self-promo closing. I want you to just give me the elevator pitch of what you're working on, now, or your newest book.
Emma: Sure. Well, as you know, we are, my mother and I co-author our children's books, together, for Little, Brown. We're very honored to work with you and your team and with-
Alvina: [crosstalk 00:17:54].
Emma: Yeah. We're currently at work on a new picture book, with a grandparent/grandchild theme, for you guys, for Little, Brown. We're, also, deep in the trenches of my mother's second memoir, the second install of her memoirs for Little, Brown adult publishing, and we're in the home stretch of that, as we speak. Hoping that that will be published in the Fall of 2019.
Alvina: I can't wait to read it. Then, the final question: what is your biggest publishing dream? Think big and goofy.
Emma: Well, I have to say my biggest publishing dream ... we've been flirting with this, of and on, but it has yet to be realized, so it remains my biggest publishing dream, and that is we are ... one of our most beloved projects is our Very Fairy Princess picture book series, that we write with you guys, at Little, Brown. I just continue to dream of seeing our Very Fairy Princess turned into an animated series or a stage musical, a family musical. That would be such a dream.
Alvina: [crosstalk 00:19:00].
Emma: Any time that our books can be translated to other mediums, it's thrilling, and we've seen that happen with one of our middle-grade novels, with The Great American Mousical. I just dream of it happening for our Very Fairy Princess.
Alvina: Well, I hope that dream comes trues.
Emma: Thank you. Maybe, now that I've put it out there in the universe-
Alvina: For sure.
Emma: ... something will.
Alvina: Well, this has been a really great conversation. I think we could've kept going for hours, but thank you.
Alvina: Thank you for joining me, today.
Emma: It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking me, Alvina.
Alvina: This has been Alvina Ling, talking to Emma Walton Hamilton. Thank you.