Episode 100! Reflecting on Season 1 of kidlitwomen*
Welcome to episode 100 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Today we have an interview with Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal, the co-creators of the kidlitwomen* project as well as a personal message from Grace:
Yes, there has been 100 episodes! I’m so proud of all that has been discussed and shared in these 100 episodes.
But it’s also been a lot of work. So, I wanted to let you know that kidlitwomen* is going on public hiatus. We’re going to take the summer off from broadcasting, but I’m still going to be hard at work. I’m hoping to record a bunch of interviews and essays this summer to have ready to go in the fall. If you want to have something you want to discuss, if you wrote or read an essay about something you want to talk about—get in touch with me ASAP—we’ll record this summer. Just send me a message her on this website—www.kidlitwomen.com.
If for some reason you miss hearing me, don’t worry! My other podcast Book Friends Forever will still be airing fresh episodes. My good friend and editor Alvina Ling and I will still be sharing weekly about how our lives in the children’s book industry, so please keep listening there!
Or you can just listen or relisten to the 100 episodes we have here. To that end, I’d like to share with you these thoughts which are a modified version of the letter I wrote right before the kidlitwomen* project went public in 2018.
In January 2018, I sat with a group of women colleagues and listened to their conversation. It was a conversation fueled by passion, anger, and heartbreak, but most of all by injustice. Our children’s literature community, a community that preaches to children about kindness and fairness, is egregiously not fair.
It has been this way for a long time, for this is a conversation I have heard repeatedly over the years. It is a conversation I have participated in repeatedly over the years.
And, it is a conversation we having again and again on this podcast. But instead of having it in secret, with our close friends around a kitchen table, we are now here out in the open, here and with as many of us as possible. It is here for us to share in the outrage, brainstorm solutions, and, hopefully, work together for a change towards gender equality.
Which brings me to this: none of us, consciously or unconsciously, is blameless for the inequality that troubles our children’s literature world. We cannot cast blame only on organizations or demand that publishers shoulder all of the responsibility. By being a part of this community, we are all also part of the problem. But with that, we are all also part of the solution. Everyone of us, has the power to effect change—in ourselves, in others and the institutions we are a part of.
After listening to these kidlitwomen* episodes, after you have heard the conversations, I ask of you to reflect. It is possible to be an awesome, strong, incredible, smart, accomplished person who has blind spots. See if you can find yours.
Have you treated a male author as a “rock star”? Have you declined a “girl” book for your son or ignored an older woman? Have you minimized the concerns of a woman of color? What have you done or encouraged or defended that you feel uncomfortable about?
Can you sit with those feelings for a moment? Can you realize that so much of what will be discussed is not a judgement of you as a person, but the problems of our community? Because to move forward, to really remedy our problems, we will need to put our egos aside.
So, while kidlitwomen is on hiatus, let’s think and reflect and try to make changes with the power we have. I can’t wait to talk to you again in the fall!
On today's podcast you will hear:
Karen Blumenthal, a long-time journalist, writes nonfiction for young people with the belief that nonfiction brings context to a complicated world. She is particularly fascinated by social change, how it happens and why. Her books include the Siebert Honor Book Six Days in October: The Stock Crash of 1929 and Let me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. Her new book Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is out now Learn more about Karen at her website: www.karenblumenthal.com.
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 and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. 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.
KAREN: Okay, So, Grace, congratulations on the 100th podcast. That is amazing.
KAREN: When you started this, I thought, "Wow, how is she going to do this?? And it's so much work, but you have really done something special by offering up all these essays and all these amazing interviews. And so today, I want to ask you some questions about what you've learned. So starting off, you've done dozens of interviews, what do you think are some of the biggest takeaways?
GRACE: I think some of the biggest takeaways that I felt right from the beginning was that I feel like there's no bad, bad people. I think when you think about ... Some people have this idea about social justice and some people are evil and some people are not evil. They have this idea about racists are people that are part of the Ku Klux Klan.
GRACE: And I think what has really come about here, hopefully, through these essays is that we're kind of all a part of this community and some of us are more aware than others. But most of us, not all, of course, but most of us, at least, I think all the listeners and participants of this podcast, we're all different kind of shades of gray. And I think that's what's been really interesting to me.
KAREN: Are there some issues that have jumped to the forefront for you? You've done so many different kinds of things. Women speaking out, people [inaudible 00:02:00] notice, not notice, you know, so many different approaches.
GRACE: I think that it just goes to show ... I think what's been really interesting is that so much of what we talk about is multilayered. We can't really talk about how women's opportunities are not equal without talking about how people of colors' opportunities are not equal. And then even going further than that. So, I think it just illustrates how interwoven we all are. And I think that each one of our essays and interviews, we just talk about one little thread, but I'm hoping that people listen to all a 100 episodes and they realize all these threads are part of our whole community. There's so much of it, it's all connected and we can't really just fix one without fixing the other.
GRACE: And in some ways that's a good thing and a bad thing because once we start fixing one, we help start fixing the other thing, you know? But the bad thing is it's almost like we'll never be finished.
KAREN: That's probably true. Do you have any sense of whether this has had an impact, this Kidlit women experience on the podcast?
GRACE: You know, I really don't know. What's really funny about this podcast is in the beginning, my husband is the one who produces the podcast. And in the beginning he said, "I'm not gonna show you. I'm not gonna let you see the stats. I'm not gonna let you see how many downloads it is, because I know that you will just start thinking of it as almost like a business. And you're going to be like 'How can I get the listenership bigger and bigger?'"
GRACE: And he was right, to an extent. I think that if I had seen it early on, I would have been like, "Oh no, I need to get more people listening." But as time went on, I realized this podcast was just gonna find the people who wanted to hear. And I think that's been my goal. It's like the people who want to come to the table, come, sit at this table and let's talk.
GRACE: And I don't know if that changes the world that fast, but at least the hope is that it's a drop, it helps to fill the bucket. The people who come to listen, they help. It's a tool for them to help change their world. I mean, for me the big thing has been like just talking and listening to all these interviews and talking to people, it helps give me language so that when I go out and need to have these kind of conversations, I can be like, "Oh, well, you know, in this podcast I listened to, this person said this."
GRACE: And I have real things to say that make sense. Because I've heard it hashed out on this podcast and I guess that's what I'm hoping that it does. I don't think, maybe early on I was hoping that this podcast would have a huge effect, but as time has gone on, I realized that is the effect it will probably will have and that's fine.
KAREN: Well, you know, I do think as a just a sit back and watch kind of observer in a lot of this, I do think that people are more sensitive and more aware of some of these issues around women and children's literature. I see more people thinking about pay, I see more people thinking about promotion of women and women's books. It was super gratifying with AOA to see ... Congratulations on the Caldecott Medal.
GRACE: Aw, thank you.
KAREN: It's so great. But also the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Medal [inaudible 00:06:02] who is involved in the beginnings of Kidlit Women. The way that women were recognized this past year makes me hopeful that people are more sensitive to both issues of women and issues of barriers where women intersect, women of color, women from different kinds of backgrounds, women with disabilities. I know I have had my sensitivities heightened a great deal by following all this. But are there any other areas where you see that or is this your experience too?
GRACE: Yes, definitely. I feel like this has been really good because there's so many blind spots and I think that's what this podcast and hopefully listeners listen, too ... We think that we're fairly open minded and then we listen and listen and listen. We realize, "Oh, I have that blind spot. Oh, I need to open up there. Oh, that made me uncomfortable. Why?" You know? And I think that's been really good for me, realizing, "Oh, I have this blind spot when it comes to transgender. I don't think about it enough." And I don't have it as part of my life or friends circle. And that's a problem. And so it's been really good for me to realize my own problems.
KAREN: Yeah. I'm definitely guilty of that and it has definitely helped me see things from other's perspectives. So I'm personally grateful for it, but I also think that other people who are [inaudible 00:07:48] I've gotten some feedback from some friends in the business who, I think, too, or are seeing some of this. I'm a little envious of some of the younger people who come to this more naturally and have already had these conversations. But, for me, some of these as an older writer, some of these things we're new, so I'm grateful for them. And by the way, a shout out to Alex for all the work that he's done. I can't imagine.
GRACE: Yes. Thank you. My husband.
KAREN: What is the production process, how long does it take you to do a podcast? I know just on my end, the recording and then I got to prepare it and send it in, but I can't imagine what it takes to go through it.
GRACE: So, it depends on the essay and it depends on the interview. Sometimes with interviews that are maybe a little more in depth, the guests might be a little bit more tentative about, we'll take the recording. Alex will clean it up, make sure the sound sounds good. That's a production in itself because we're always recording with so many different people, with so many different equipment. Somebody has this kind of setup and then somebody has this kind of setup. So that's always a challenge for him.
KAREN: And some of us forget to plug things in.
GRACE: And some of us, our microphones don't work. So it's always a challenge for those things because our idea was to originally have as many interviewers and hosts as possible, but that's kind of petered out if only because we had so many audio challenges with that.
GRACE: And I usually just go and publish it from there. But once in awhile, I'll go through it and make sure that there's not anything that would make me uncomfortable if I was a guest because the whole point of this podcast was like we we were never trying to be like a Gotcha, like a Gotcha kind of thing. We're trying to just have these conversations that hopefully help people and that is hard because to have these conversations, we all have to lean in and be uncomfortable.
GRACE: And I wanted the guests to feel like they could be uncomfortable yet also not make them targets, not make their vulnerability targets for a greater audience. That wasn't the point of the podcast.
KAREN: Now I know the few that I did, everybody was nervous.
KAREN: You mentioned the genderization, if you will, of books. And boy, that is an area where I see tons more discussion now and as much as we discuss it, then you turn around and you go to the bookstore. You hear people talk about girl books and boy books again.
GRACE: I know.
KAREN: I don't know how we crack that nut. How do we get people to let that go?
GRACE: I don't know.
KAREN: Gender is more and more and more just being seen as ... Fluid is not the right word, but seen as an assignment as opposed to something else and something that's really necessarily there.
GRACE: I know and it's so interesting because we've had multiple essays and multiple interviews about it. And in some ways, I remember I put up the third essay about the topic. And I remember Alex said, "Oh, another one." And I was like, "We need it." This topic is still there. And I almost feel like we just gotta keep hammering and hammering and hammering that in, over and over again. There's no such thing as a boy book. There's no such thing as a girl book.
GRACE: And if anything, I need to hammer it in, if only for myself, just to remind myself because it's so easy to fall into that trap. I mean, my daughter who's seven just had a birthday party and she chose it to be Captain Underpants, a Captain Underpants theme party. And I remember my mother in law came and she's like, "Oh, this seems so strange for a little girl. I wouldn't think that a little girl would want this. It seems very odd, you know?" And I was like, "No, no, no, don't say that."
KAREN: Right, right. I'll be princesses and unicorns.
GRACE: Yeah. And the thing is that she can have both. She can love princesses and Unicorns and love Captain Underpants.
GRACE: And kids to be able to feel like they can do both. And when we start saying like, "Oh, this isn't really great for a little girl," I think that's when it gets a little dicey and where we don't want to go. And that's where it all starts, right?
KAREN: Right. And even more the stereotypes we hang on boys where it's not a ... I think even more, they're pushed away from things that are perceived as girly, which is where we end up with lots of the issues we have as adults.
KAREN: Even more.
GRACE: As I've listened to more and more of these essays, maybe that's what my biggest reveal has been to myself, is that I realized that one of our biggest problems is the shaming of things we consider feminine. And so for a boy to like sparkles and for a boy to like unicorns, they feel ashamed of that. And instead of elevating the things that are quote unquote "girly", we've allowed them to be something shameful. I guess that's been my thought recently has been like, "Oh, it's great." And I'm still all for girls embracing Captain Underpants, girls embracing these quote unquote "boy" books and girls with this girl power that we put in quotes as well.
GRACE: But, I also would love to find a way to elevate the princesses, to elevate the things that we consider girly so that it's not something that girly is a adjective that we're ashamed of. Does that make sense? I think that's been my biggest takeaway. How do we take the shame away from the word girly? And I don't know how we crack that nut either, but that has been what I've been thinking about lots after conducting and listening to all my own podcast.
KAREN: Right. I think there's a lot of that. And by the way, you're taking on a project where you're going to have a little bit ... Not a little challenge, but where you're going to be addressing some of these issues, right? Are you writing about Mulan.
KAREN: Isn't that a girl main character that we hope will have interest in boys and girls.
GRACE: Yes. And I am thrilled I'm doing ... It's a little bit different of a project for me because Disney is doing a live action version of their Mulan movie, the animation they did in 1998. And so they approached me and asked me if I would do a original novel to go along with the movie so it doesn't follow the movie. It's a prequel to the movie. And that was really fun because that means I could do whatever I wanted as long as it didn't contradict what was going to happen in the movie.
GRACE: So it's a really fun project and I was excited to do it because of my background. I do so much with Chinese culture and especially Chinese folk tales and fairy tales. But, it was also one of those things where the whole idea of Mulan, the reason why she is elevated to such a folk hero is because she took on these male roles.
GRACE: And I was like, "Oh, interesting." It's the same thing about how if a woman can do what a man does, she's a hero. But if a man does what a woman does, he's ashamed, right? So, I had mixed feelings about it, but I still love the project and I hope that-
KAREN: Is it done?
GRACE: It's almost done. And I hope that I addressed it well enough. I mean, I had to work within the framework of that, but it's a prequel. So none of that really is part of my book where she actually takes on the male persona. So I was like, "Oh good, I don't have to deal with that."
KAREN: But it's also somebody that we hope will be as appealing to boys as it is to girls, right?
GRACE: Yes, that's true.
KAREN: It's just a story that the boys will embrace, too, I hope.
GRACE: Yes, we hope. And I hope so, too.
KAREN: And we'll be encouraging that when it comes out, Grace.
KAREN: [inaudible 00:19:40]
GRACE: Yeah. I mean it's an idea, if anything, that boys can relate to female characters. It's so easy for my daughter to relate to all the boy characters in Captain Underpants. Why is it so hard for them to relate to Dory Fantasmagory which is also wonderful. So I think that those are the lines that we are trying to cross over or break.
KAREN: Right. Every day. So, what do you think are the things we should be focusing on now, going forward after [inaudible 00:20:24].
GRACE: Oh wow. There's so many things. What do you think?
KAREN: What do I think?
KAREN: I think this genderization is something that we need to keep on. For me, I have a much higher awareness of the issues of people who I think are underrepresented in children's literature, but especially in my area of nonfiction. So, I feel like I have both a responsibility and a desire to promote nonfiction by people who we don't often hear from, particularly women of color.
KAREN: And also to encourage more people to try nonfiction because one of the issues is, I think, that doesn't necessarily happen. People, for whatever reason, don't want to try it or they feel like there's too much rejection because nonfiction's a little tricky in children's literature, it's hard to be too obscure. In adult literature, in adult nonfiction, sometimes obscurity is a good thing, but in children's, it needs to be a little bit more mainstream and that can be [inaudible 00:21:36] sometimes.
KAREN: So, but to encourage more people to try it and more people to try the process, the more formal process instead of jumping to self-publishing. So, I just feel like I have a some things that I could be doing that would help. And I'm grateful to all the people who've written about this and talked about this, that's raised my awareness.
GRACE: I think that, for me, what I really would like is for people to think about themselves. And that was what this whole podcast, this whole thing was about. We all have good intentions. And I think that's the starting point, is that we all have really good intentions and what can we do with those good intentions. And how can we, instead of just wanting things to be fair, wanting things to be good, what can we do to make things more fair? What can we do to make things more good?
GRACE: And it's not just what can we do, but what do we sacrifice? And I think that's been a really hard thing for people to grasp. It's been one thing to think about, "Okay, I can do this. I can do that." People don't like to think about what they might have to sacrifice to make things better.
GRACE: And it's tough. I think about it all the time. It's a hard thing. But, those are the things that we have to do. And I guess that's what I would like. It goes beyond like saying I believe in diversity, it goes beyond wearing the we need diverse books, it goes beyond saying I'm a feminist and I support my wife and daughter. What are the things that we can do in our own lives to facilitate this change?
GRACE: And, especially as children's book creators, I think we are in a unique position where we can really, really open the minds of young people so that we can build a greater society in our future. One really interesting interview that took place during the podcast was how picture books show mothers versus fathers and how the fathers ... The good thing was that before, fathers were not even present in picture books and now they're present all the time. But the difference is that the fathers are almost always like the playmate or like the fun guy. And the mothers are always like the caretakers and cleaning up the mess and things like that.
GRACE: And those are the things that we're implanting in our kids, that the father is the fun guy, he's not the responsible one. And it's these rules that we keep instilling in our children without even meaning to and reinforcing. And what can we do to break that in our work?
KAREN: And that's very provocative, isn't it, that idea. We don't have a book that says my mother is a goofball.
GRACE: Yeah. Or the idea that the kids get away with a lot more stuff and it's acceptable when it's the dad watching and if it's a mom watching then it's not acceptable or less acceptable. I wouldn't say it's not.
GRACE: I love the Penderwicks and the Penderwicks is a lovely book, but the first couple of ones is because it's a lot more acceptable that these girls kind of run wild because he's like the absent-minded dad. If it was the absent-minded mom, would we be so enamored with the character? Would we think it's so quaint and charming? And it's hard to say, it's hard to know what our own biases are. And I suspect, even myself, if I read it without thinking about these terms of bias and it was the mom who was absent-minded, I'd be like, "Hmm, mom, get it together."
KAREN: With the shaming here.
GRACE: Yeah, I'd be like shaming her in my mind and that's terrible. Those are the things that I think we all need to work on, those own biases. If we feel a judgment against a woman, why is that?
GRACE: This morning I was having this very interesting conversation with one of my friends who said, "I read this article in The New York Times, it annoyed me so much. It's about this woman who said that she wanted to be rich and it was like this really annoying article. She's just came off as this really greedy, terrible person. She's wants to be rich. So rich that like her paychecks will make her husband gasp." And it was instantly interesting because I completely understood what she was saying and I couldn't understand why it comes off as annoying.
GRACE: But also, there was a part of me like, is it more annoying because she's a woman saying this? If it was a man saying this, would we just kind of laugh it off or even admire it as somebody who's so ambitious. It's those kinds of things that I hope that this podcast does is when we start feeling something we can just take a step back and think, "Okay, are some of my own biases causing this? Is this some kind of hidden racism in myself or hidden gender bias?"
GRACE: So those are things that I hope we all think about before we judge people or make decisions. And it's easier said than done, by far. I want to say the caveat because of doing this podcast and saying all these things, I always feel worried that people think that I've got it all figured out or something.
GRACE: And then, of course, I know and there's a 100% guarantee I will make a huge missteps. I've made lots of missteps in the past and if somebody wants to dig it out, I'm sure they'll find it. And I'm sure I'll make more. And they'll be like, "But you said this and you did this." I'm like, "I know. We all make mistakes." And that's what it comes down to.
KAREN: Yeah, yeah. Well, that's certainly true for me. So what's next?
GRACE: Yeah, good question. So doing this podcast was great and it was definitely a labor of love and I still love it, but it's a bit much. We're trying to balance it off. So, we're taking a break now that it's episode 100. I feel like that's a good amount of episodes for people to listen.
GRACE: I know we didn't cover everything. Like I said, I know I have a bias when it comes to ... I don't know if bias is the right word. I have a blind spot when it comes to gender fluidity and transgender and I feel like we were not able to cover that well on this podcast yet and I'm hoping that will be something that I can attack better in the future.
GRACE: But, I do think that we do still have quite a bit of content and a lot of meat on these past 100 episodes that I'm hoping will be good for people just to listen to like repeatedly and to kind of process. And so we're taking a break after this 100th episode. Yes, enjoying the summer.
GRACE: And actually, I'm not really going to stop working there because the goal is to take a little break and then to schedule a bunch more episodes, hopefully. I'm going to schedule a bunch of interviews and record in the summer. I'm hoping to record a bunch and then in the fall come back again, but with probably a slower schedule. But come back in the fall with more episodes and probably a slower, slower, slower schedule. But hopefully with still more things for us to talk about because I don't think this conversation really ever ends.
KAREN: Right. No, that's very true. I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with next, hearing what people have to say.
GRACE: Me Too.
KAREN: But congratulations again.
GRACE: Thank you. Well, thank you for being a part of this.
GRACE: Well, let's end with your questions. So what are you working on, Karen?
KAREN: Oh dear. Well, I haven't really been talking a lot about this publicly, but I have a book coming out next year for teens, for older teens. It's a history of Roe v Wade. I say that again. I have a book coming out for older teens that's the history of Roe versus Wade and I think it might be timely.
GRACE: I think it's going to be very timely [crosstalk 00:30:55]. And your last book was pretty well received as well.
KAREN: The Bonnie and Clyde book.
KAREN: There was a review of it which I thought was really, really timely as well where it said that you didn't portray Bonnie and Clyde as heroes or you showed them for the multidimensional, problematic people that they were. And I think that's a really important thing for all of us to remember that we're all like multifaceted, problematic people. Hopefully not killers like Bonnie and Clyde by that kind of idea.
GRACE: But we live in a time where celebrity is elevated in a way that's sort of shocking and we tend to be very, very surfacey about it and make assumptions about people who we know well. We think we know well because of media and I think they were a good example of that. But also violent, terrible people in a different sort of way.
KAREN: Terrible choices. People make terrible choice.
KAREN: And you? You've got a new book coming out in the fall?
GRACE: Yes. Oh yes. I'm so used to conducting the interviews. [crosstalk 00:32:14]. I'm so used to conducting the interviews that I always forget to talk about my own things. Yes. I have a new book coming out in the fall. It's A Big Bed for Little Snow.
KAREN: It's a companion book to A Big Mooncake for Little Star. So if you know anything about A Big Mooncake for Little Star, that book all has black backgrounds where the characters kind of fade away into and in A Big Bed for Little Snow, it's got all white backgrounds that the characters kind of fade away into.
KAREN: Oh wow. Oh, I can't wait.
GRACE: So it was an artistic challenge for me.
KAREN: Wow, that's fantastic.
GRACE: All right, so do you have any new publishing dreams you want to share?
KAREN: Well, I already did that one. I still have the same sort of dreams, which is to do something that exists beyond my lifespan. I'd love to have something that lasts at least for awhile, something that lasts for years. That's what I'd like to, to just create something that's meaningful.
GRACE: And you know, I was thinking about that. I do have all these very superficial dreams, which I've talked about before in many of my other podcasts. Like having a postage stamp made of my art and all those things. And I do. And I am proudly ambitious about those dreams, but I think you're right. When it comes right down to what is the ultimate dream and why most of us, probably most of us and why I got into making books, the biggest dream is to create a book that lives on after us, right?
GRACE: That, that generations and generations will read after, to create that quote unquote "classic" book. So here's to us making classic books, Karen.
KAREN: All right, all right.
GRACE: All right. So thanks so much.
KAREN: Take care. Have a good one.
GRACE: You too.