Episode 25! Conversation with Corey Ann Haydu
Welcome to episode twenty-five 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).
On today's podcast you will hear:
Corey Ann Haydu is the author of YA novels, OCD LOVE STORY, LIFE BY COMMITTEE, MAKING PRETTY, and THE CAREFUL UNDRESSING OF LOVE, as well as the middle-grade novels RULES FOR STEALING STARS and THE SOMEDAY SUITCASE.
In 2013, Corey was chosen as one of Publisher Weekly’s Flying Starts. She is a graduate of the New School Writing for Children Program and is a creative writing teacher for adults and children. Her upcoming books include EVENTOWN, coming in Winter 2019 and the YA novel HER STILLNESS, coming out in 2020.
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 (here & here), 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: Hi Corey!
Grace: So, your essay talked about an experience you had after a virtual author visit you had with a sixth grade class. Could you just sum up what happened there in case people need refreshing from Monday's reading of your essay?
Corey: Yeah, absolutely. So about a year and a half ago, I was doing a day of Skype visits with schools all over the country, and I ended my day doing a Skype visit with a sixth grade class in Texas, and everything pretty much went as usual aside from some technical glitches that meant we switched from Skype to FaceTime. And, the day went as normal. We had a good series of questions and sharing books we loved and all kinds of things like that.
Corey: And I hung up, and was kind of working on recouping myself after the long day. About half an hour or so after the Skype visit ended, I started getting a bunch of phone calls from numbers I didn't recognize and when I looked them up, I realized they were Texas numbers. And, I picked up a few, but mostly it was voicemails that were coming through. At first, they were sort of hard to hear, and I wasn't quite sure what I was hearing, but after a few of these calls, I realized these were sexually graphic calls from young boys.
Corey: And, I sort of pieced together with the teacher, that when we switched to FaceTime, my phone number had ended up on the screen they were projecting me onto during our visit, and I guess this group of boys had written it down, and as soon as school ended, began calling me and leaving really pretty explicit messages on my voicemail. And, it gave me like a very visceral response. I had a bit of a panic attack and really got thrust back into that mindset of what it was to be in sixth grade, and feel vulnerable, and was in so much shock that boys as young as 11 and 12 years old were feeling entitled to sexually harass someone, you know, at the time I was 34 years old.
Corey: I couldn't really get my head around that. And then, later, a month or so later, I was, the teacher was really wonderful, really understanding about what had happened and they sent me a combination of thank you cards and apology cards, and I was sort of then re-disturbed when I got these notes to see that, it wasn't just the boys that sent me apology notes, but the girls also had clearly been instructed to apologize on behalf of the boys who had done this to me.
Grace: That's a-
Corey: Oh my gosh-
Grace: -there's a big thing there.
Corey: -it was awful.
Grace: But let's, we're definitely gonna talk about that, but let's back up a little. So, this happened. And you decided that you needed to, instead of just letting it slide, instead of just letting it go and thinking, "I guess those are juts sixth grade boys", you decided that you need to address this with the teacher. How did that conversation go?
Corey: You know, it was ... I would say it was a positive conversation. The teacher was really disturbed, which was helpful, because I think often when we report something, if we don't get that immediate feedback of someone understanding why we're so upset, it can sort of derail us from reporting again. I'm a very non-confrontational person, so my initial, initial impulse was to let it go and then, you know, I sat with it for just a few minutes and realized, no way, there's 12 year old girls in this class. I have to say something. I'm finally at a time in my life where I feel empowered to do so.
Corey: So the teacher was really receptive, really upset. From what I understand, a policeman, I think they have a policeman in their school. He came and spoke to the class about sexual harassment and about that type of thing. I know the boys were, they tracked the phone number. I was able to give them phone numbers 'cause they hadn't blocked the numbers or anything. I was able to pass along those numbers and I know those individual boys were spoken to. I certainly got a lot of apology from the teacher, you know, partly just for letting my personal information out and partly for, you know, what she understood to be incredibly shocking.
Corey: So I will say, I was very grateful that it wasn't brushed under the rug and that it was taken as a really unusual and upsetting affront.
Grace: So, you're pretty satisfied with the way that the school and the teacher dealt with the situation then?
Corey: Yes, especially at first before these notes came in. I did feel that it was taken seriously. I can't say that I know everything that went on afterwards. I don't, I was given sort of an overview as opposed to a really specific breakdown, and I think with some time, I'm like, gosh maybe I should've asked for more information on exactly how they talked to the class about it and exactly how these boys were spoken to and disciplined and stuff like that, but at the time, I certainly felt heard and that my complaint had been taken seriously and that she was alarmed.
Corey: And it was clear from the notes that the entire class did know what had happened, which, I think I feel is a good thing. It's so hard to say, right? I don't know what the right response is, to be honest, still, even a year and a half later, but I do think it was good that it was addressed individually with those boys and also, I'm hoping that there was a larger conversation about gender and respect and things of that nature.
Grace: Yeah, I think what is so shocking to me is that these boys contacted you, somebody who's obviously much older. I guess I would have thought that they would only kind of do that to people of their own age range, so that's pretty interesting that they - I guess, to me, it's like, wow, they have a lot of gall to be able to do that to somebody older and somebody who obviously was respected by their teacher.
Corey: Yeah, that was certainly the shock for me, and certainly what unearthed a lot of emotions that, even now, I can't get respect from a twelve year old boy. I mean, that's sort of what really propelled me into a state of panic, was like, you know, I ... it's been 20 years and I'm still not able to get just basic human, non-objectifying respect from a sixth grader.
Grace: And it's also kind of very disillusioning because, here you are, you're doing this Skype visit, and I'm sure you're smiling at them and they're smiling back at you. And then to get off the phone and then to have this happen, it's kind of like this very disillusioning situation that happens.
Corey: Yeah, you know, you're ... those visits are often such a moment of joy, you know, to connect with kids about books and about storytelling and I often get pretty personal in my conversations about what my life was like growing up and things like that. And yeah, we had a great back and forth, and lots of questions from boys and girls in the class, and it felt one way, and then to sort of have the veil pulled back a little, yeah, and see this underside, was unsettling. Deeply unsettling. I'd heard something I didn't want to hear, and I'd walked in on something I didn't want to walk in on.
Grace: Or maybe something that we all kind of think is not there. Like we all kind of think, these are just kids and they don't have that within them, but obviously they do.
Corey: And I think we all have to hope ... I mean, I don't know how we can walk around the world as women and girls and as people ... I think we ... I don't know. We have to believe on some level that that's not there sometimes. It's too scary to walk around feeling like anyone of any age is objectifying you and any situation you're in could turn into harassment, even something as so innocent as an online school visit. Yeah, it becomes harder to interact with the world if you have to really engage with the idea that those safe spaces are more and more limited.
Grace: So what would you say to those who read your essay and just say, "I don't understand what the big deal is? Those are just kids. They're just boys being ... you know, boys being boys."
Corey: Oh man. Like even you saying that gives me a feeling of heartbreak. I mean, I'm fine, so my biggest concern is for the girls in those classes and in classes everywhere because if boys are somehow being given a message and I ... you know, I think from a variety of sources and in, really not grow in micro ways, that women are there for objectification ... then how are they treating the girls? I mean, that was sort of my first feeling was like, "Well, I can handle this." But, if they're so emboldened to treat me this way, I can't imagine what they feel-
Corey: -so emboldened to treat me this way, I can't imagine what they feel entitled to say to girls their own age. And it speaks to a larger culture of teaching boys it's okay to act in a way that we would never accept from a girl, and in a way that's hurtful to women and girls everywhere. I mean, yeah, I would be so upset to hear someone say "Who cares," or "Boys will be boys," or "It's no big deal." To me, it was like ... Yeah. I'm at a loss for words, because I just can't stop thinking about girls that are in that class, and what it must be like.
Grace: I think what really strikes home to me is not just the danger it does for boys, thinking that they can objectify girls at such a young age, but what this does to the girls in their classroom.
Grace: You were very honest in your essay, and you talked about the first time that you were sexually harassed in sixth grade. It made me think of my own experiences, and I remember when I was in high school, and I came across these notes that some boys had written about me, completely saying all these terrible, sexual things. And I got really upset, and I went to the bathroom. I was crying, and then these girls were in there, like, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" And I showed them, and I remember the reaction was like, "What's the big deal?" Almost like "You should be flattered" kind of thing.
Grace: And it was such a strange feeling at that moment, realizing, thinking, oh, I'm the weird one. I shouldn't be upset about this. And I kind of feel like when I read your essay, I'm like, that's probably what's going through a lot of the girls in that class ... The minds of those girls.
Corey: Yeah. I think that normalization is exactly what's maybe the most upsetting, is like the message becoming that this is normal and what you should expect, and how much do you change when that becomes behavior that you expect to get out in the world? What is that shift inside you, and how does that shift the way you interact with the world, and the things you want for yourself, and how empowered you feel to go after things? I think the implications are so big when we're told this is an acceptable way for people to treat you. This is normal, and not a big deal, and yeah, maybe even flattering.
Corey: I think a lot of us have been in a situation where there is a part of us that's like, "Oh, maybe it's nice that this person thinks I'm attractive." There's such a push/pull there that's really complicated, but I do think it comes down to the message of what we're being taught about how to respond to it, like how you were in high school. Being told, "What's the big deal? What's the big deal?"
Grace: Yeah. So this essay, you published it in 2017 on Book Riot. Did you get a lot of feedback from this essay?
Corey: I did. I would say I got a day of conversation around it. A lot of shock, I think. I think with how big the age spread is, how young the boys were and how not young I am, there was a lot of shock that maybe wouldn't be there if I was 20 and the boys were 15, or something like that. So there was a lot of focus on how crazy it was that they would feel empowered, even at the level of someone that's such an adult. Yeah, I would say the overwhelming response I got was a sense of shock, and I think as time has gone on, I'm like ... Maybe part of me is like, is it so shocking? What examples are we setting? Because I don't think it was shocking to the boys. I don't even think it was that big a deal to the boys. It was so immediate, so soon after my visit that I don't even think it was some big, sneaky, crazy idea they came up with. I think it felt very natural for them to call me up.
Grace: Like this is something they could have done before, or had thought ... Maybe they had done this to so many other girls in the class, it was just like, what's the big deal to do one more step to you?
Corey: Absolutely. I could tell from the recordings they were still either in school or on the bus. There was a lot of chatter, background noise, like lots of kids in the background. So it was clearly not even something that they snuck into their closet to do. They felt empowered to do it either at the school or on the bus, surrounded by peers.
Grace: So did you find that women had a different reaction to your essay than men?
Corey: I didn't. I would say I didn't get as much feedback from men. I can recall a couple of men, often fathers of sons. I heard some from them. I was prepared for some really nasty, negative feedback, and I would say I didn't get that. I don't know why that is. Possibly from my own state of privilege, like a white woman, and presenting in a particular way online. But I didn't get a lot of hate from anyone, but I heard more from women. But the men I heard from were also wondering what they could do, and did seem concerned as fathers of sons with the situation. But I would say it was ten percent men and 90% women that I heard from.
Grace: So what did you say to them, when fathers of sons, or obviously mothers of daughters, mothers of sons ... What advice do you give to them?
Corey: I mean, I said they should share the essay with their sons, and open up a dialogue about it. That's sort of the best advice I can give. It's hard, when something like this happens to us, I think we're put in a position sometimes to try to solve it. It's like I wish I knew why exactly something like this could happen, and how to fix it. The only solution I know is open dialogue, and honesty, and conversation. To me, that's the solution.
Corey: When you have a kid ... Things are more complicated when you're an adult, but when you're dealing with a ten, and 11, and 12 year old kid ... Yeah, I think an 11 year old boy should read the essay I wrote, and should be asked to talk to their parent about if it seems normal to them, if it's something they understand, and I would hope that moms and fathers both open up about things that happened in their past, that you're sharing what happened to you in high school. And I try to share what happened to me at different stages. I hope that that happens in families as well, where maybe fathers can talk about things that they did when they were young, and mothers can talk about things that they did or that happened to them when they were young. And that that level of openness is maybe one of the big solutions.
Grace: What I liked about what you said, what happened with how the teacher handled it. You said they had a policeman come in. It seemed like they tried to make it more of a community solution as well as an individual solution.
Grace: And I thought that sounded really good. In one of my recent interviews with [Betsy Byrd 00:17:56] about how librarians treat male authors versus female authors, she thought one of the ways to change it was to have something to educate librarians in library school. She's like, we should have a course on it. This is what you should do. And it makes me realize that maybe we have to start way earlier than library school.
Corey: Yeah, absolutely.
Grace: I feel like it should be a fundamental part of maybe sex ed, which is actually unfortunately getting phased out. But I feel like it should be a part of our education system now.
Corey: Absolutely. It's funny you say that. I happen to be ... My background is as someone who went to one of those fancy, entitled private schools in New England, and I've been thinking a lot about reaching out to my old school to talk about what I can maybe do in that world, opening up dialogue. Because I do think, like you said, I'd love for there to be a class or a workshop on what gender means, and how we engage with it at much younger ages than we're doing it now. On college campuses, hopefully sometimes, and in masters' programs, hopefully sometimes, and on Twitter ... But maybe it is more of a conversation that has to start at much younger ages so that it's always part of the dialogue, and always part of the world view.
Grace: Yeah. I think what really struck me about your essay was how young the boys were. Sixth grade. My daughter is six years old, and it made me realize, oh, we should start this talk now. I felt like it was really necessary to do it sooner rather than later.
Corey: Yeah. I think the earlier it can be a part of the conversation at the level that's appropriate for that kid, but it's coming for everyone, and at ages that are much younger-
Corey: It's coming, right? For everyone and at ages that are much younger than I think especially we as parents anticipate or want. I think that's our impulse as a parent is to put it off or at least as a very new parent, that's, I think where I'm gonna, what I'm gonna feel. But if we take in the reality, it's like no, we should start 'em before we think it's gonna happen rather than after.
Grace: Yeah and I think that's ... it's a lot to do with even our culture. There's so much sexualization of even kid stuff. I look at the My Little Pony's that my daughter has versus the My Little Pony's I had and I'm like, why is My Little Pony sexy now? So I feel like you're right, we have to have these conversations before we think. Before we were used to or before we think we have to have them because it's coming at them in every way, shape and form.
Corey: Absolutely, I mean I have a seven month old and even before she was born, there was talk of if people had a little boy. If I knew someone who was pregnant with a little boy. It was like, oh maybe they'll get married or just that automatic sort of placing a girl in relationship to a boy, just from birth or focus on looks or all kinds of things like that. I think it starts in utero sometimes.
Grace: Yeah so I wanna get back to what I think was probably one of the most important parts of your essay when you said that you received the thank you notes and everyone apologized for what happened, even the girls and I'll just quote what you wrote. You said, "I was troubled most of all that the girls notes included apologies on behalf of the boys. Saying they were sorry for the boys behavior, saying they hoped I would forgive them." So I think there's a lot to be said about this.
Grace: Why don't you talk about that for a little bit?
Corey: Oh man, I mean so I got this packet of letters and open it up and they were like so charming and cute and colorful and fun and it's always fun to get that sort of mail and when I started reading them and notice that girl after girl was taking responsibility for these boys actions. Man, I even talk about it now, brings up a lot of feelings for me. I just felt heartbroken for them. It's getting hit twice, you know? They're having to live in this system, in our world that has this problem around gender and then somehow they have to apologize for it, too? Felt so unfair and I think oh man, I mean the weight of that feels really big and what message is that teaching as they go forward? What else are they gonna apologize for?
Corey: I think a lot of us have been in relationships that we end up apologizing for the behavior of our partners or apologizing for the behavior of our family members or friends or women apologizing for men or explaining away their behavior or feeling responsible in some way, has a long history. And again, seeing it start so young and these young girls ... I was like, I want you to be apologized to that you had to ... it's not me that had to go through it, it's also you that has to go through this and you should be getting apologized to as much as I am.
Grace: It's hard because they say ... you said the letters said that they were sorry and what was so heartbreaking was that they weren't saying sorry out of empathy or compassion. They were saying sorry, they were asking for forgiveness. It's just like the blame game just starts so early for women and girls. I don't know. Why do you think we're like that? Why do you think it's like that?
Corey: I mean it's just like a tale as old as time in some ways. I think the expectation on girls is always to be nice and sweet and empathetic and to act from that space and we just don't place that expectation on boys. At least the swath of society. Of course there's individuals that do but the way society works we don't ask boys to be kind and sweet and empathetic in the way that we ask girls to. So I think certainly by sixth grade, they've learned that it's really important to be nice and to take responsibility and we've learned a lot of those lessons that yeah, I don't know. I'm reaching 'cause it's like I feel like it's the question of our lives, right? It's like, why? Why were we taught this lesson and why is this lesson still being taught and why are girls taking so much responsibility and why do boys still not have to?
Grace: Yeah I think it's the question that nobody has the answer to. Or at least there's no easy answer to. Maybe that's a better way of putting it.
Corey: Yeah, yeah, it starts young. I just think it's that lesson, it's that concept of boys will be boys and it's the impulse to have girls be nice and sweet and you benefit from it. I mean, listen, it's a hard thing to unwind because when you are a nice and sweet girl, you do benefit from that. You get rewarded by society sometimes. So it's a little bit of a cycle that's hard to break. [crosstalk 00:26:02]
Grace: That's true.
Corey: And hard to reteach.
Grace: Because we've kind of set it up this way and in some ways it's because it's familiar. We know if we act this way, then that's what we'll get. And so to break out of it is in some ways scary because you're not really sure what you'll get and a lot of times especially now, it's not really what you want that you get. [crosstalk 00:26:26]
Corey: Yeah, absolutely.
Grace: It's a very difficult time to try to change the system.
Corey: Yeah and implications are huge. I mean I think they go not just towards sexual harassment but also towards what you're gonna ask for in your career and things like that. That lesson to be nice and to be unassuming and to apologize and all of that teaches you lessons that impact you beyond your personal life and into your career and into all different spheres.
Grace: Yeah I mean that's one of the main points of this podcast and of kidlitwomen. I think from the beginning, we're taught to be nice and to make space for other people and maybe that's one of the reasons why even our female dominated industry the men seem to get more ahead.
Corey: Yeah I mean I certainly know that I was taught the lessons of being a nice and sweet girl and I certainly act from that space in my career as well as much as I know that that doesn't always benefit me.
Grace: So all right, well, I think that's a pretty good way to end it for now.
Grace: I think I'll ask you my last two questions that I ask every guest that comes on the show. The first question is, what are you working on? Is there anything you'd like to tell listeners about?
Corey: Yeah, absolutely. I have a new middle grade novel coming out in February called Even Town. And it is really ... sort of about everything I care about but particularly about the power of vulnerability and sharing your stories and the pressure to be perfect and what that does to us. And a lot of my books are about that. And then I'm also working on a YA novel that will be out in 2020. Title, forthcoming that is a sort of messed up feminist fairy tale.
Grace: Great. All right and then the second question is what I ask everybody and this kinda ties into what we were talking about is, what is your biggest publishing dream? Of course when I say publishing dream, I want you to shoot the moon with the idea that you or we, all of us do not have to be ashamed of being ambitious.
Corey: I love that.
Grace: What is your biggest publishing dream?
Corey: I mean I think like so many of us, I have ... I think it would be awesome to be able to reach those wider audiences through film and TV and hope that it circles back onto your books. Although personally for me, I'm a theater person and I'm a former actress and so, I'm gonna say my biggest publishing dream is that somehow a novel of mine got adapted to be on Broadway so I could get on Broadway that way, since I never got on as an actress.
Grace: That would be great. I love that. Well thanks so much for coming on. I know and on such short notice. I really appreciate it and I think that this is a really important episode that I hope everyone listens to.
Corey: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on.