Episode 27! Conversation with Roger Sutton: PART 2
Welcome to episode twenty-seven 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 different than our regular podcast. Today, we are featuring Part 2 of the interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton. We advise you to listen to Part 1 of this interview (episode 26) before listening to this one or else you will be missing some valuable context!
On today's podcast you will hear:
Roger Sutton has been the Editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., since 1996. He has advanced The Horn Book Magazine‘s superb reputation for book reviewing while expanding its coverage of the cultural and social significance of children’s and young adult literature. Under Sutton’s direction, most notably in special issues published annually, the magazine has joined lively debates on such topics as religion and politics, the value of identity-based awards, and the boundary-blurring phenomenon of crossover titles for children and adults.
A librarian by training, Mr. Sutton is widely recognized as being among the country’s leading experts on children’s literature. Appearances on television and interviews on radio and for newspapers confirm his quick wit and his assured mastery of the field. He has taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and has served on virtually every major American children’s book award committee (the Newbery, Caldecott, Batchelder, National Book, and New York Times Best Illustrated) and chaired the 2007 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal committee. He has chaired the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction committee since 2010.
Mr. Sutton is the seventh editor of The Horn Book Magazine, which began in 1924 and is considered the foremost journal on children’s and young adult literature. He is the second editor of its sister publication,The Horn Book Guide, a semiannual review journal. He blogs regularly at Read Roger and can be found on Twitter at @RogerReads.
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: I know that you might not know the answer, but I'd like to hear your opinion about the publishers side of all this. I looked up this and in the past issues of The Horn Book show that this Publishers' Preview feature that we're all worked up about, it has been better balanced in the past, The Horn Book archives shows that out of the 83 authors 46 were female, 37 male and 21 were visibly people of color. Well I think we might be able to say that having seven out of eight authors be white male for this fall issue could be a coincidence given those statistics, it's a pointed coincidence given how much talk has focused on diversity and gender in these last few years, what is your take on this industry-wise?
Roger: I've seen, I've been doing this for what? Like almost 40 years and I've seen gender, cut male authors they sort of come and go in waves, not the authors themselves but the attention being paid to them. I remember back in the 80s at an ALA convention there was this breakfast of champions with all the men, all the male writers of the time. Like Julian Thompson, Richard Peck, Chris Crutchen people like that, Walter Dean Myers and that happens for a while, everyone talks about why aren't boys reading more, they pay more attention to the male authors because they figure male authors will get a better audience among young men. Then people start saying, but wait a minute it's mostly young women who are reading our YA books why are we chasing after this audience of boys and at the same time neglecting this audience of young women? I think this has happened three or four times in my career, these waves come and go.
I don't think it's completely a coincidence that all eight of those were men, it's a coincidence in the fact that each of these publishers made her, and they're all women as far as I know, all of these advertising people, each of them made her decision alone. Right? They don't talk amongst themselves and decide as a group who these eight are going to be. I do think that there is a tendency, it is less now, which is why I think it stuck out more this time than it used to be. But yeah, I think that men do get more attention than women for doing the same thing. Which is a throw on our society, isn't it?
Grace: Yes, which is what this whole podcast is about.
Roger: You know, I started this feature accidentally on the Read Roger blog, called What else do you do? Because I was talking to my friend Tom Barron, TA Barron he's a fantasy writer, who in his spare time, runs this award named in memory of his mother, Gloria Barron that goes to kids making a difference in the world. It's like kids with ecological projects, kids who come up with some new plan to fight poverty in their community, kids who invent a new water filtration system, it's all over the place, but it's really neat. They get recognition, they get a small cash prize and this is something he does. I was interested in it and thought, oh I should interview him about this prize. And it would be a neat thing to do to look at children's book people what else they do? Do you know what I mean?
So I called the feature, What else do you do? I interviewed Tom and then trying to come up with more names of people, of writers that people would be interested in I wrote to all the publicists I know saying, I've got this new feature do you have any authors who have an interesting hobby or second career or something that might be good prospects for it? This is all free, this has nothing to do with advertising, it's strictly editorial. All right so I probably get 10 responses from publishers and about eight of the 10 people they suggest are men.
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Grace: That ties in pretty well with what my conversation with Betsy Bird a couple of episodes ago was about, how it seems that the publicists continually parade out their men.
Roger: But why is that do you think?
Grace: Well my opinion is similar to what Betsy was talking about, how it seems like in some ways that's what the industry asks for, we kind of eat it up, because like, oh they're so cute, they're so wonderful.
Roger: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Grace: And so they think, so publishers say, hey it works, so we'll send more and that's what this podcast is trying to show hopefully the community that we have to stop asking for that if we want change.
Roger: Right, but I think, Betsy's a great example, that hot men of children's literature thing that she ran for a few years. You could never do that today, could you?
Grace: Hopefully not.
Roger: No, I mean you couldn't, you'd be stoned.
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and I think that's a great sign that things are changing. One of the things that's really interesting now is that I feel like a lot more women are willing to stand up and say, hey that's not right. And to take those risks, I think in the past a lot of women really wanted to come off as being nice, and I think a lot of us, especially in the last couple of years, are like, okay we're done being nice. I guess, what I fear is how you say it wasn't a coincidence and how I was hoping that the seven out of the eight being white men and all of them being white, was a coincidence. What I fear is that this trend, 'the diversity trend' quote unquote which to anybody who's diverse it's not a trend, it's their life. But maybe the trend is quote unquote 'ending' to publishers and now that they think it's ending they can go back to their same old, same old thing.
Roger: No, I don't think so. I think if you look at for example Angie Thomas's book 'The Hate you give' which has won Boston Globe Horn Book Award, and dominated the best seller list. I think that this idea that we as a community used to have that diverse books don't sell, is gone.
Grace: It is gone but I do think it's interesting that this is almost a separate conversation altogether. What I think is interesting about diverse books right now, the ones that are popular. I guess I'm afraid that they fit into what the white narrative is, for example my books I have 'Where the mountain meets the moon' and I have 'The year of the dog'. 'Where the mountain meets the moon' takes place in ancient China and it's a fantasy and I have 'The year of the dog' which is an Asian-American story. 'The year of the dog' does not sell as well as 'Where the mountain meets the moon', 'Where the mountain meets the moon' sells way way more, and I know there's a lot of factors into why it sells way way more, the words all those things. But there's also a part of me that wonders that, is it because white or readers like their Asian's in Asia? Do they like their Asians in Asia? Are they less comfortable with the Asian-American reading experience versus an Asian-Asian experience?
Roger: Right. Its funny though the example that you're bringing to mind is completely opposite. Do you know Lensey Namioka?
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Roger: She used to write these feudal Japan, sword fighting I don't know if there were ninja's at that point but Samurai's wandering the land and getting into fights. The she wrote 'Yang, the youngest' I think was the first one. 'Yang, the youngest and his terrible ear' which was a contemporary Chinese-American story and she said she didn't enjoy writing the contemporary stuff as much as she liked the old feudal Japan stuff but her publisher said, no it's only the contemporary stuff that sells. So, that is something that shifts.
Grace: Oh, that's very interesting.
Roger: But that's 20 years ago, and those things do shift.
Grace: So I wonder if it's just a shift now because I was having a conversation actually at a conference with a black author, who said that she was very glad to see Angie Thomas' books, very glad to see Jason Reynolds lining the best sellers, but the thing that bothered her was that she felt like they were both narratives with a gun and she was wondering if that fit into more of what I was saying about the white, what they expect the black narrative to be, what they expect the Asian narrative to be.
Roger: Right, that it's got to have this tragic dimension to it. That example is something I've certainly noticed here, the number of books about black kids and guns. They just keep coming.
Roger: But that's also trend following.
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Roger: So, that's always going to happen. If somebody has success with a particular theme, other books are going to follow at the same time it's not like we've solved the problem of cops killing black kids either. Right? So you'd expect to have more books.
Grace: That's true. You're right it is a trend, when we had 'Twilight' we had a million zillion vampire books that [crosstalk 00:25:45].
Grace: But I guess it's just more pointed when it becomes an identity based book.
Roger: Justina Ireland's book about the zombies, did you read that?
Grace: No, I haven't.
Roger: That was great and that is very subversive historical fiction, zombie, fantasy story that definitely brings in African-American identity is a huge part of the story, but you wouldn't pigeon hole it as the same way that some of these books about kids and guns is happening today.
Grace: That's true, and yeah and just Tracey Baptiste's book about zombies.
Grace: Sorry not zombies, 'The Jumbies' and things like that.
Roger: 'The Jumbies'.
Grace: Yeah I think there's definitely, I guess the idea is hopefully we can even it out so that books such as 'The Jumbies' and Justina, although her book did very well, but other books also dominate the best seller list that are not just about the black kid and the gun or not just Asian fantasies from far, faraway.
Roger: Right. So you're asking say, this is hypothetical, but where is the black 'Twilight'?
Grace: Yeah I guess so, or the black Harry Potter, or the Asian Harry Potter? Things like that.
Roger: I don't know. That's certainly not a problem I can solve but I would agree with you that it's a problem.
Grace: Anyway, we got completely off, sidetracked to a different place.
Roger: Oh well.
Grace: Back to the questions that came in.
Grace: Okay, obviously we talk a lot about marketing bias here at Kidlit Women and as I mentioned earlier we had an interview with Betsy Bird talking about how publishers quirk librarians with cute guys, do you sense that the marketing bias in the magazine is that the same thing, for what is given to you to review? We talked about it a little bit, or how publishers interact with The Horn Book? Have you guys noticed that in an official capacity?
Roger: No, because it's such a machine. Books come in and books go out here at The Horn Book that there's no ... you know once in a blue moon I'll get a phone call or an email from a publisher and editor saying, I'm afraid you're going to miss this, and I want to make sure you don't because I think this is your kind of book. But usually the books just come in, two copies, two bound galleys come in and they either get assigned to a reviewer or they don't. But the publishers aren't trying to push particular books on us in the review process at The Horn Book.
Grace: Do you think that what happened with the fall Publishers' Preview then, do you think it's more of an example since we talked about how you don't think the diversity trend is going away, do you think it's more of an example of every publisher just thinking, okay well this is what I want to publish, and hopefully another publisher will take up the responsibility of being diverse?
Roger: No, because I don't think that they think that far. And I'm not sure that, that's their job, they're saying, ask Victoria or somebody in library marketing because they can give you a better answer to this than I can. I think they're saying, okay here's my fall list I want to do something in The Horn Book preview section, who's good? Who will answer Roger's questions well? What book do we want to promote? What book has a lot of money riding on it, that can be a big part of it as well, as established by the contract with the author and the agent? If there's a lot of money riding on a book they're going to want to put more marketing behind it because there's more to lose. I don't think that it's fair to ask one publisher to base her advertising on what another publisher may or may not do. I don't think that they think that way, they don't have time to do that, or really the resources.
Grace: Yeah, so you don't think they're even thinking about? So the difference is, I think perhaps between maybe with The Horn Book does, what we do maybe outside of publishing is that we're all thinking about social issues and do you think they're just not thinking that way because they've got so much more monetary concerns?
Roger: I think that they do have monetary concerns, I would really be curious to know and we'll never get this information but what connection is there between who gets selected for special advertising and what the marketing budget for his/her book is and why is the marketing budget for his/her book what it is? No one's going to give us that information so we don't know. I think that what happened in September was a combination of chance and of our, and when I say our I mean all of our, default to white men.
Grace: What do you think about, speaking of white men and boys in general, so how do you think about boy books versus girl books, and how they're marketed? And do you think it's just a myth this boy book girl book, boys will read [inaudible 00:31:16] books girls want soft fluffy bunnies, kind of thing.
Roger: I think it's more, I try not to think about boy books and girl books but having been a children's librarian before I got into this racket. It's really hard not to because you do see the difference. When I was a librarian it was the era of Sweet Dreams Romances and I'm sure there were boys reading those, boys here and there but really it was girls. And it was a publishing phenomenon marketed towards girls and those were girl books, I don't know what else to call them. But I think that the big difference that maybe we don't acknowledge so much is that among young people, and this is true for grown up people too, women are more likely to read fiction that men are. Boys like, as a group, tend to read, and men, tend to read more non-fiction than novels. Women read a lot of novels and girls read a lot of novels and we publish a lot of novels maybe because the people doing the publishing tend to be women, you know for the most part. I don't know.
Grace: One of the things that I feel concerned about in terms of social justice and everything, we talk about male, the male toxicity and how we talk about how we have made certain books are for girls, certain books are for boys and when a boy tries to cross over they're almost ridiculed.
Roger: Oh yeah.
Grace: I had this very interesting conversation with Shannon Hale as our very first episode and how she was brought in 'Princess in Black' and it was all just for the girls and then the boy who wanted to come to her presentation who got special permission, in the end didn't come because he was too embarrassed.
Roger: Right. I was that boy.
Grace: Yeah, so how do you feel about that?
Roger: I literally was that boy in that, in the fourth grade we had the Scholastic Book Club and I loved, I lived for the Scholastic book club. Every month the books would come in and the teacher would call the name of the book and then call your name to come up to her desk to get it. One of the books I had ordered was Dorothy Sterling's Mary Jane, which is a 1960s novel about a girl and her best friend who's a boy, both of them negro according to the times in the book, integrating an all-white high school. By Dorothy Sterling it's a great book, and when the teacher said, and for Roger we have Mary Jane, she laughed.
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Roger: Because it sounded like such a girl book, it was horrible.
Grace: Do you think that the way we have set up books, by saying these are boy books, saying these are girl books, we've encouraged that and we've set it up so that it's hard to cross over, cross the line, and what could we do to change that?
Roger: Do you think that we do that, as much as we used to? Because I don't think we do. I think there has been positive change on that in publishing.
Grace: The truth is I would've said about, I would say about 10 years ago. I know you've been in this a lot longer than I have-
Roger: You're getting up there Grace, come on.
Grace: About 10 years ago I would've agreed but in the last five, six years I've had my own child and I'm going back to the bookstores versus the library and just going into Target alone and seeing a wall of pink, the pink toys, the pink clothes, and then the pink books. I almost feel like it's gotten worse.
Roger: Hmm? I don't know, could that be Target?
Grace: It could be Target?
Roger: I don't know.
Grace: I do think that it's perhaps a symptom.
Roger: I just don't know the answer to that.
Grace: I guess it's asking more, what do you think parity in our field would look like?
Roger: I'm thinking about markers, why don't women win the Caldecott medal more often? I'm sure this is something that you've thought about and talked about, when women are roughly half of the number of people eligible for the Caldecott medal at least when I looked at this a few years ago. It was about 50% female illustrators, male illustrators but the numbers for actually winning it are, of course, horrendously in favor of the men. I think parity would look like we didn't know if a man or a woman was going win the Caldecott and we shouldn't be surprised either way. That's to me what parity would look like.
Grace: All right, so we have been talking for 40 minutes.
Grace: So I think that's a pretty good question to end that part of the interview with. So I'll just end it with the two questions that I ask everybody. The first question of course, is what we call the self promotion area of the podcast, is there anything that you'd like to tell our listeners about, anything that you want people to know about?
Roger: I would just invite them all to read The Horn Book and of course to visit hbook.com which is our website. You can get a sense of who we are, what we think, what we've got. I'm proud of it.
Grace: And then my second question, and this is what I ask everybody and it's a 'shoot the moon' kind of question ...
Roger: Uh oh.
Grace: What is, I guess for you, your biggest career dream or your biggest dream for The Horn Book, what is something that you'd want, you yourself, or The Horn Book to accomplish that you haven't accomplished yet that would be enormous?
Roger: Well to be completely honest, what I think about now is, I've been doing this close to 25 years and at some point I will need to stop doing this, and I feel like my job now is to make sure that The Horn Book continues to thrive when I'm no longer a part of it.
Grace: That's a good answer.
Grace: All right, well thank you very much Roger.
Roger: Thanks Grace.