Episode 21! Conversation with Betsy Bird!
Welcome to episode twenty of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). This week’s episodes are slightly different.
In this episode, librarian Betsy Bird and Grace Lin discuss the essay “Owning Our Words: Gatekeepers and Gender in Children’s Books” by Kate Messner (which can be heard HERE). We discuss the publisher courtship of librarians, the fallacy of harmless male objectification and much, much more.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She is the creator of the children's literature blog A Fuse #8 Production, hosted by School Library Journal. Betsy reviews for Kirkus and has written the picture book GIANT DANCE PARTY, illustrated by Brandon Dorman, co-written WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE with Peter Sieruta and Julie Danielson, and edited the middle grade anthology FUNNY GIRL. She currently podcasts with her sister on the show Fuse 8 n' Kate. You can follow Betsy on Twitter @FuseEight.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour, as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. Grace's new picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available.
Grace: Hello, this is Grace Lin, children's book author and illustrator of many books including a new picture called A Big Mooncake for Little Star. Today I have the honor of speaking with librarian extraordinaire, Betsy Bird, who is the librarian at the Evanston Public Library. Hi Betsy.
Grace: Thank you so much for coming on today. When I talk to guests, I usually say how happy I am to talk to them, but not only am I really happy to talk to you, I'm really grateful to talk to you because what we're talking about today is something that I think not a lot of people would be willing to come on air for, so I really appreciate this.
Betsy: That's quite all right, I'm paying my dues.
Grace: So today, to start us off, we're going to start our conversation by talking about the essay by Kate Messner, her essay, Owning our Words, Gatekeepers and Gender in Children's Books. So, what did you think about Kate's essay?
Betsy: Well, I'd like to tell you that I found it surprising, but I've been a librarian since oh gosh, since 2004, so it was very familiar to me the situation that she was talking about. This was, in case people have not read the article, this is a situation in which there were authors on a panel and the male author was getting an undue amount of attention over his female counterparts with people saying how hot he was, how cute he was, taking their pictures with him, and then as they were exiting saying, "I heard he was hot, I wonder if he goes to schools," and it was a lot of Kate's thoughts about that. Yes, that happens all the freaking time. That is very, very common. Yeah.
Grace: Yeah, I feel like I've seen that throughout my entire career. Kate's essay is actually kinda old. I think it's all the way from maybe 2014.
Betsy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Grace: Yeah, I think that it's still pretty relevant today. So, when you have seen behavior like that, did it ever bother you? Has is bothered you now? Did it bother you when you saw it before?
Betsy: I would love to tell you that I was a forward thinking person and that it totally bothered me and I spoke out against it at the time, but this is not true. I probably engaged in a fair amount of that behavior myself. Certainly in my younger days and I can't even say, but I didn't know there was anything wrong with it. Of course, of course I knew there was something wrong with it. If you just think about it, would we do that to a female author? Would we want male librarians to be doing that to a female author? Of course not. We would find that disgusting. So there's a double standard at work there. I mean that's just really basic. Aside and entirely apart from the fact that you are not paying attention to the really good female authors who are also on the panel, but yeah, no, absolutely I would. I remember talking to people and be like, "Oh, do you want to go to this panel or that panel? Well I hear the guy on this panel is really cute." Oh, that happens constantly. Oh yeah.
Grace: So why do you think that happens?
Betsy: It's an excellent question and I don't even think it's a single answer. When you are a librarian and you're being courted, that's the only term there can be for it. You're being courted by publishers. They are offering you the chance to see authors that have written your favorite books or maybe even books that may someday become the kids that you work with favorite books. There's an exchange going on. The idea is that then you will promote these books, you will talk up these books, you will build the base for these books. In a conference situation of any sort if we're going to just talk about conferences, you're making choices. What are you going to see? What are you not going to see? There is this understanding that one of the things that they're offering you is, "Hey, cute guys."
Betsy: Now, there's also cute girls if you're into girls, but they're not really marketing it like that. It's very strategic in some ways. How they put the panels together, who is on the panel, who the audience is going to be. I do feel like this, and we'll get into this a little bit, I do feel like this is changing to a certain extent, but certainly I think this behavior is just sort of accepted as the norm. We talk about the culture that is not challenged in any way. This is seen as harmless. It's like the guys like it. Come on. They like being think they're cute. The guys are into it. The librarians are into it. They both get something out of the deal. It's seen as harmless I think is the best word I can use for it. I'm not saying it harmless, I'm just saying that's how it's perceived.
Grace: I think it's kind of seen as in good fun.
Betsy: Oh absolutely. It's seen in good fun. Then if you're the one who brings it up like, "You know there might be kind of a problem with this," then you're like, "Oh, what a party pooper." Yeah. She's just trying to rain on our parade. We're just here to have fun.
Grace: So, this ties me into one of the reasons why I asked you to participate in this conversation is because you've had your own experience with this issue when over 12 years ago, you created the now retired Hot Men Of Children's Literature segment on your blog many years ago. Why don't you tell our audience a little bit about that? What was the Hot Men Of Children's Literature?
Betsy: How men of children's listeners would have been [crosstalk 00:06:09]
Grace: I know.
Betsy: Yeah. So, this was basically the bedrock of my blog today. It is not something I can get away with. It is actually probably what made my name in blogging at the start. I began a blog around 2004. This was in the early days of blogging. There weren't a lot of bloggers. What bloggers there were were just doing sort of I like this book, I like that book. I started to do that. Then I brought in news and that was a little different. I was talking about children's books. I brought in reviews. I liked doing extra long reviews of children's books. That was a little different. Then I had this idea. I was like, "Oh." This was at the time when people were making those calendars of look it's an entire calendar of hot firefighters. I was like, "Oh, you know what would be super ironic?" Because I was in my 20s and a jerk. I could make a series called hot men of children's literature. It struck me as very funny. Very much in the same vein as good clean fun.
Betsy: I was like, "Oh, this would be really fun." There actually are some hot men of children's literature out there. As I see new ones, I can add them and I'll just highlight them and people will think it's funny and it'll go over like gang busters. Lord howdy, it did. To a degree that I had not expected and made my blog far more popular than it would have been otherwise.
Grace: So, instead of receiving any criticism back then, in fact, it kind of made you even more popular.
Betsy: Oh absolutely. Yeah. Criticism. If I got criticism, I feel like maybe once in a very rare while I did but it would be more like how come you're not doing hot women of children's literature? My reaction would be at the time, it was, "Well, but that would be gross. Then you're just looking at women for their looks and that's disgusting. We don't want that. With men it's funny, but with women that'd be gross."
Grace: Well, that's kind of interesting because as women, we're always talking about how we don't want to be objectified. Yet, in some way you doing this hot men of children's literature-
Betsy: The whole point was-
Grace: Objectifying men.
Betsy: Oh, yeah. No, no. That was conscious. That was the entire point. I probably saw it as some sort of feminist version of upsetting the norms and being like, "How you like it dudes?" Turns out, some of the dudes liked it just fine and some of the dudes did not like it one little bit.
Grace: So, you mentioned that some dudes not liking it. Did you hear from anybody that didn't like it?
Betsy: One. So there was one. I won't name him just because the whole reason he didn't like it was he was a shy guy. Because I didn't do just authors. I did illustrators. I did people in marketing. I did editors. Children's literature was a wide ... I did librarians. I did a wide swath of men. There was one guy and he was a shy guy and he perceived it as being made fun of. Due to the fact that the whole thing had been done in this tongue in cheek snarky way, there was no way for me to actually tell him, "No, I do think you're hot." Because the whole point was supposed to be the irony of the series. So, I just took him off at the request. But I'm sure he was not the only one. I'm sure there were other guys who were kind of like, "Oh. That."
Grace: Interesting. Oh, so that's really interesting. You said that the only objections you got from women were mainly why don't you do hot women of children's literature.
Betsy: Yeah. I've since been told by someone at the time, but I just didn't mention it. So, there were women who had problems with it, but they didn't say a word.
Grace: Interesting. So, even though you didn't get any criticism about men, you still retired the series in 2006.
Betsy: I did.
Grace: Why did you do that?
Betsy: Not for the good reasons. I retired the series because guys were using it actively as marketing techniques. I was getting more submissions than you would believe. There's no good way to tell a guy he's not hot. I was getting wives sending pictures of their author husband saying, "Why don't you feature him next?" You can't tell a woman that her husband is not hot. I was getting editors submitting their authors and their illustrators to me. It was weird. At some point, I finally realized that's a little weird. This is actually uncomfortable. I don't think I should do this. So, I just quit it cold turkey. So, at some level on some degree, I was kind of like maybe I shouldn't be doing this. But it was sort of a little juggernaut at that point.
Grace: So, what are your thoughts about the whole thing in hindsight now, then?
Betsy: It's interesting. I'm still kind of working out my thoughts on the whole thing. I can't get away from the fact that it's how I got my start. Yay. That's the bedrock of my blog to a certain extent. But what I didn't see at the time and what I probably if I'm being honest I probably was refusing to see. Was that I was doing marketing. I can bloviate all day long about whether it was done in the spirit of irony or harmless fun. But even back then, this was at the beginning of blogging. Way before it became the machine that it is today. Even back then, this was when everyone was beginning to realize blogs could be a potential form of marketing that had not been sufficiently tapped before.
Betsy: In these cases, specifically to the librarian market. It was probably the reason that I stopped amongst other things was that I was getting publicists and editors sending me their authors and their illustrators. I realized that who I was actually doing this for. I was doing this for the publishers. I was doing it to sell the books. That was probably one of the many reasons I became so uncomfortable with it. But it took a real long time before that even occurred to me.
Grace: What I think is really interesting is because you started this such a long time ago, over 12 years ago, and I feel like that was around the time when the children's book industry and books in general had this kind of fear. It was that the internet was getting bigger and bigger, blogging was just starting and there was this fear of books being [inaudible 00:13:33] and old fashioned. The Newberry was no longer featured on The Today Show. [inaudible 00:13:38] used to always be on The Today Show. I feel I guess a community, a lot of us wanted children's books to seem glamorous. We want to bring that sex appeal to children's books and make it seem cool and Hollywood. I feel like your hot men of children's literature kind of hit that at the right time.
Betsy: Oh God. I can't even imagine a person trying to do it today. Yeah. I would agree with you. It's funny. The series was done entirely on my old blogger blog. So, this was before I was even picked up by School Library Journal. So, this if I had to estimate the years, I'd say 2004 to 2006 maybe, but I think actually it was just 2004 to 2005. So, this was very early blogging. Yeah. We were trying to make it clear that children's literature was fun and sexy and interesting and look at this. We've got this series here. Which got picked up outside of its small little thing. I think at least one of the authors was given the key to a city and it was mentioned in the presentation to him that he had been a hot man of children's literature on a blog. So, yeah. It got out there.
Grace: Well, I think it's interesting because you bring up how you were basically doing marketing and in an old blog post where you talk about retiring the hot men of children's literature, you bring up a very pointed question. I'll just read it. You said, "What if it paved the way for a new kind of marketing attitude? Think about it. Our industry is dominated by women and quite a few gay men. Heterosexual fellows exist but do not make up the majority of children's booksellers and librarians. Did publishers discover that raw sex appeal was a legitimate way to sell to a willing juvie lit public?" So, what do you think? Have your thoughts changed since you wrote that?
Betsy: I think the primary thought that I have that's changed since I wrote that is more that I'm giving myself all this credit being like I paved the way for this new kind of marketing. Me. I'm the one. Yeah. Whatever. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have. It's not just that. Yeah. I did it on a blog, but as Kate Messner's article shows, we don't know how long this has actually been going on. I was actually trying to figure out. There's no way to figure this out. You'd have to talk to some pretty old librarians, but how long have female librarians, of which children's librarians generally are mostly women, how long have they talked amongst themselves about authors and illustrators that were men that were cute?
Betsy: I mean, I would suspect it has been going on a while, but there's no way to track that sort of thing. So, I think the idea of actively marketing it in some way where there may in fact, and I have no evidence for this, but there may even be discussions in marketing and sales teams saying, "Well, if we send this author there he's super cute and we're going to be able to appeal to this demographic of librarian and this demographic of librarian." That I think is more new. It's possible that I was tapping into that. I don't know how much influence I actually had, but I think at least some parts, a little antenna I had probably picked up on that at some level.
Grace: So, in 2013, you published your first picture book, Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman. So, you actually crossed the line over to the author side. Did that change any of your thoughts?
Betsy: Oh no. I wish it did. No. The thing was when I published a picture book was I'm coming at it as a children's librarian. I'm awful. I'm awful at marketing. I don't understand it. I don't like it. I like promoting the books that I like. I'm not very comfortable promoting my own books all that often. I'm very, very bad at paying attention to what people do around me. So, yeah it didn't really change. Because maybe if I had become some big hot author and I was on tons of panels with people, maybe I would have more of a view of it that Kate has to a certain extent, but I'm like a good swath of children's authors who you have a book out once in a while and maybe it does a little well here and a little well there or not. You know, you kind of forget about it to a certain extent. So, no. It didn't really change anything for me.
Grace: So, that's really interesting because I feel like every female children's book author I know, nothing gets them more irate than this disparity.
Betsy: Yeah. That's because I think of myself as a librarian first. I think even if I publish books and I love doing it, I'm still a librarian at heart. So, that's the camp where I come from I think.
Grace: Well, you also talk in that old blog post about how the women equivalent of being hot is actually relatability. That men are branded with their sex appeal and women are branding themselves by being the best friend, by being nice. Do you think that's problematic or just kind of par for the course?
Betsy: Oh, it's hugely problematic. So, what's so weird about all of this is that we're talking about children's authors specifically. So, none of this really to a certain extent, than can be more broadly applied to the adult book publishing world, but since we're talking about children's authors, there is a perception of what a children's author is. The boxes that a children's author needs to fit in to. A children's author isn't going to be up on that stage chain smoking, swearing, talking about all the guys she slept with. This is something that was discussed in a book that I did with Julia Danielson and Peter [Shruda 00:20:35]. It's the fluffy bunny syndrome. The fluffy bunny syndrome is you write children's book. Aw. You are supposed to be adorable. You are supposed to live this charmed life where you have to fit into a certain sort of thing.
Betsy: So, for women, to a certain extent that means relatability. You have some deep and abiding connection to children because you write for them. I'm trying to think what it is that people feel like appeals to them when they're going to see an author speak. Now, I feel like this is changing. I feel like I'm very much speaking about what it's been like in the past. I do feel like now that we are seeing women who take issue with things, who are not always nice, who don't always stay within the boundaries of what is "nice" I should say. I feel like women who challenge, who speak up, I feel like they are becoming far more of a draw for librarians to see because these are the issues that are important to them that keep coming up. So, I actually honestly feel like that's an old statement and that it is not actually applicable as much today.
Grace: Yeah. Why do you think it changed? I agree. I think it's been changing too. I think it's either the Me Too or the last election or both.
Betsy: All of that. I was going to lay it more on last election, but I think you can't talk about last election without saying that Me Too came out of that to a certain extent. Yeah. I think it's the era in which we live. It's a sign of the times. Everyone was saying with the last election, "Well, some good may come of this." God help me if there is good that has come out of this, maybe this is part of it. These kinds of changes. These kinds of challenges that we're finally seeing.
Grace: Yeah. I would agree with that. I think that before, all these types of things would happen and most of us would be like, "Oh well, that's so funny. That's so cute. That's just a lark." I feel like now we're actually kind of re-evaluating it. I listened to this podcast with Roger Sutton and Siân Gaetano before. The Horn Book Podcast. In one of those podcasts, they were talking about a book that people had issue with. I remember Roger saying something like, "Well, we had that word when I was a kid and we turned out fine, right?" I remember thinking, "Wait a minute. We didn't turn out fine. Look at us now."
Betsy: Excellent point.
Grace: So, I feel like this has been a really interesting time and a really interesting change that we're all going through. With that, I wanted to loop it back to Kate's essay where she talks about witnessing this very, very uncomfortable situation where librarians are kind of gushing in a very inappropriate way over a male author. How do you think if an author were to see that, how do you think an author should approach a situation like that?
Betsy: It's interesting. A lot of authors that I know are like myself and they're nonconfrontational in general and they'd be like, "Well, I could get into a whole thing, but oh man. It would bring down the room. They're just having fun. But I feel like now there are ways to have this discussion." I think Kate actually does a good job in the article itself of explaining the problems that she had with this. She does this thing at one point where she says there are two problems with this. One, it devalues ***’s work. He's a mechanical engineer and everyone's all like, "Oh he's so cute." Then two, it sends a strong message to the people who make these panels that they should just be filled with cute men. So, there's two different ways to approach this. A person on the panel could to a certain extent bring it up when the panel is discussing things and say, "I just want to take a quick moment and talk about something." So, they could bring it up in that way or they could call out the people right there next to him.
Betsy: Now, this gets a little tricky because if someone is signing books and then you start criticizing that person's fans who are not in your line, they are in their line, that's a little rude to the person doing the signing. It's actually up to him to a certain extent to say these things.
Grace: I guess the reason why i ask is because it really is a matter of power, right? In these situations, an author feels like the librarian has the power. So, it's very difficult for an author to point out the misuse of that power. Does that make sense?
Betsy: Yeah. No I know what you mean. Yeah. It's funny because I don't think the librarians perceive it that way at all. They're like, "Well, no this is the author. Therefore the author has the power. We all came to see this person. Therefore, they have the most power in this situation." When in many ways you're right. It's they're the ones who have the power.
Grace: Well, other than how an author should approach a librarian in this situation, how do you think we can in general kind of change the situation?
Betsy: Well, that's an excellent question. I have no idea what the answer to that is because having these types of conversations is hugely useful. You know what it is and what it should be? This comes up over and over for me. It's something that they've just gotta freaking cover in library school. That's something I say all the time. I don't know what they cover in library school these days. I graduated from library school in 2003, but I can tell you right now that if they are teaching library school the way they taught me back in the day, then serious changes have to be done. When you are doing a course on children's books and children's literature and children's programming, this should be covered. You're going to see authors.
Betsy: Here is appropriate behavior. Here is inappropriate behavior. That's just good for a start. Then within the library culture, this should also be discussed. When you have visiting authors, here is how you act around them. Here is how you don't act with them. That goes across the board. Children's, adult, teen what have you, but that's just good etiquette 101. So, yeah. To a certain extent, it's up to the librarians. [inaudible 00:28:25] librarians. School thyself.
Grace: Interesting. Well, that is something that I haven't thought of going all the way to library school.
Betsy: Nobody ever thinks about library school. It's insane. Everyone talks about these problem with collections and what libraries are buying. Go to library school and teach them how to do collection development. Nobody is talking about this. Anyway.
Grace: Well, yeah. That is fascinating. I thank you for bringing that up. That was not something I had thought of at all.
Betsy: Yeah. I'm just bringing stuff out of left field at this point.
Grace: No, it's great. All right. Well, we have been talking for almost half an hour so I think I don't want to take up any more of your time, but I really, really appreciate you coming on. I just wanted to end this conversation with the two questions that I ask everyone. The first question that I want to ask you is there anything that you're working on or doing that you'd like to share. Maybe your own podcast.
Betsy: Oh yeah. I do have a podcast. I have a podcast called Fuse Eight and Kate. Which you can find if you just go to any of your podcast places and you put in Fuse Eight and Kate where we take what is perceived as classic picture books, I know them backwards and forwards. I know every fact about them. I know what the author's mother in law wore on a Sunday. I know everything. My sister has never heard of them and so she reads them and then we talk about whether or not they should be considered a classic to this day. It's a lot of fun. So, yeah. That's probably I've got a book coming out next year but it hasn't been announced yet. So, I'll just keep mum on that one.
Grace: That one's secret, but I do love your podcast. I especially enjoy the one on The Giving Tree. So, I really recommend that anyone who listens to this to go-
Betsy: That was a very special episode.
Grace: To go take a listen to that one. That one is pretty good.
Betsy: Thank you.
Grace: All right. The second question that I ask everybody that comes on the show is what is your biggest career dream? I always have to preface this with when I want guests to answer this question, I want them to kind of shoot the moon. This is a question that I ask with the idea that we, usually I'm talking about women, but any guest on this show, I want them to feel like we shouldn't be ashamed of our own ambitions. So, [inaudible 00:30:56] what is your biggest career dream?
Betsy: Okay. I actually have one. It's a little nutty and it's not a dream I can even work towards. I can pretty much guarantee it's never going to happen, but boy it would be fun if it did. I want when I'm 55, 60, I could go to 65. I'm way open. I want to be the national ambassador for young people's literature. Some day man. Some day. That is the job that I wan to have. It is not going to happen for a real long time and it may never happen but boy if it could happen, that'd be super fun. That's what I want.
Grace: That is cool. I like that. I don't think they've chosen a librarian yet.
Betsy: They haven't and they probably never will, but if they ever do, I want to put my name in the box.
Grace: That's awesome. That is completely awesome. Well, thank you so much, Betsy. I really, really appreciate you coming on and I think that this is an episode that I hope everybody listens to.
Betsy: Me too. Thank you for having me.