Episode 17! Conversation with Louise Hawes
Welcome to episode eleven of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Louise Hawes discusses her essay "How Do I look? Ageism and Women's author Photos" (which can be heard HERE) with Grace Lin. We hear more about Louise's experiences after letting her hair turn white.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Louise Hawes is the author of two short fiction collections and over a dozen novels. Her work, for readers of all ages, has won awards from Banks Street College, the NJ Council on the Arts, the New York City Public Library, the Children’s Book Council, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the International Reading Association, among others. Most recently, in 2016, a multi-format novel (prose, poetry, and playscripts), The Language of Stars, was published by Simon & Schuster’s Margaret K. McElderry Books (Paperback, 2017).
Louise helped found and teaches at, the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She has served as a John Grisham Visiting Author at the University of Mississippi, a Read in Common Author at the Mississippi University for Women, and a Writer in Residence at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She has also guest lectured at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, Duke University, Meredith College, Staten Island University, and the University of Southern Florida. For more information on Louise’s books or to read some of her lectures on writing, please visit: www.louisehawes.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. 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 out now.
Grace: Hello, I'm here talking with Louise Hawes. Hello Louise.
Louise: Hi Grace, how are you?
Grace: Good. I'm so glad to talk to you. Your essay on ageism was a very, I guess, hot topic on KidlitWomen. I think a lot of people are really interested in the topic. Let's talk about your essay for a moment.
Grace: Your essay was spurred by the fact that you were not asked for an author photo for the first time in 10 books. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Louise: Yes. I guess the start of my interest in this ageism that seems pretty pervasive in our field and in others, the start happened when I stopped dying my hair. That happened because I loved the color that I saw happening. I didn't give a thought to what any repercussions might be. Then, when I published my ... it must be, actually it was more like my 12th book, I wasn't asked for an author photo.
Louise: Now, I didn't know if that was because of my beautiful gray locks, which I adored, but I was very surprised. Now, I decided to check that out, so I went snooping among the new titles, the new YA titles, since that's what I write primarily, in my librarian friend's shelves, and I found that it's perfectly normal for about half of YA titles to not have author photos. That seems to be a trend lately, but I discovered that of the other half, most women had no photos if they were over 40 years old, and that stunned me, so I did a little statistical hunting, and that's when the essay happened.
Grace: Which I found absolutely fascinating. You know, one of the things that was brought up many times amongst our conversations in KidlitWomen* was that many older women talked about feeling invisible because of their age, and you talk about becoming invisible on the cover of your books. Tell me about that. Was it a gradual process or a slap in the face when you realized it?
Louise: Well, at first I was mollified, because what Simon & Schuster did was put a poem on the back of the book, and I loved that, so I didn't mind missing the author photograph since my book was part poetry, part prose. I thought that was delightful. It was only after I asked other authors and librarians, and teachers, what was happening in school libraries and public libraries. I saw that women by and large, women over 40 that is, don't have photos on their books. Women under 40 do. That surprised me, hurt me, and left me with a lot of questions, so I did a lot of emailing, and I did some of my own investigation by going directly to libraries and literally counting the author photos on the shelves.
Grace: When you brought this question to librarians and the people that you talked to, you even talked to your local indie, and brought up this idea that ... or your findings that older women are not found, the author photos are not found in their books. What was the response?
Louise: Well Grace, sad to say they weren't surprised at all. They said this was par for the course. In fact, one of my first emails went out to the manager of Tattered Cover, which is the biggest indie chain in Colorado, probably in the country. She said, "Duh, this is just the way it is," and that this kind of ageism applies not only to author photos, but to promotion and marketing all the efforts in those fields are devoted to books by men. I don't mean all, but the majority. Panels and conference invitations go to men before they go to women, school visits. Even yes, sad to say, I've heard book advances.
Louise: There's a prejudice against women in those fields and a double prejudice against older women, because we're not only women, but we're aging.
Grace: What I thought was really interesting about your essay, what I thought about was how author photos in some ways kind of play into this celebrity culture that social media thrives on, where the person almost counts more than the book, and we know Hollywood dislikes women with wrinkles. Do you think the idea of an author as a brand, or as a celebrity plays into ageism and is that more prevalent now do you think?
Louise: I don't know, because I didn't do any studies prior to the point where it directly affected me. I wish I had, but I can say that right now, the only gray haired photos I've seen or heard of, primarily come from celebrity authors, so if you already are a rockstar, your photo with gray hair is okay. Other than that, try it yourself, walk into any library and look at all the titles, the new YA titles, and you'll see [inaudible 00:06:19] of gray hair.
Louise: In fact, when I looked at 150 titles in the largest regional library in my area, I found one picture of a gray haired woman. One. As I said in the essay, I kind of shrieked out loud when I saw that photo. I was so delighted to see this brave woman, so I'm sure all the YA readers in the library turned around and thought, "Wow, that lady's a kook."
Grace: Well, you know, some publishing houses just decide not to have author photos, but in your essay you actually say that opting out of having an author photo actually panders to the worst sort of ageism, so do you think all authors should insist on author photos regardless of their age?
Louise: Grace, I love that question and I wish I had an answer, a one fits all response, but I don't, because you know, when I wrote this essay and talked about gray hair, I can't tell you how many women responded, both authors and not, saying, "I love what you said, but I'm going to dye my hair until I drop dead." I understood how they felt, and I don't mean to judge them, but yes, I think the response that could help combat ageism is to say, "Yes, I insist on my picture," and I intend to do that from now on, just as I intend not to dye my hair.
Louise: There's a wonderful book by a woman called ... her name is Ashton Applewhite, and the book is called, This Chair Rocks. This woman is 65 now. She has naturally lovely dark hair inherited from her mother, and probably will until she dies, but she has dyed her hair white. What she says is that there is no sure way for all of us to disappear older women than to keep dying our hair. I think we keep asking for auto photos too. Author photos.
Grace: You know, I really relate to that a lot. I mean, one of the reasons why I like having my author photos in my books is because when I was a child, I never saw any Asian authors, and we talk about this in diversity all the time, about how you can't be what you can't see. For me to have me as an Asian person, my author photo in a book, I always feel like, oh, maybe some Asian child's looking at this and saying, "I can be an author someday when I grow up too." I think that also talks into what we talk about for older women too.
Grace: I mean, maybe a child doesn't think it right away, but it plants a seed that when they look at a photo, an author that is older, that, "Oh, I can be creative and vibrant when I'm older too." I think, I do, I like the idea of everybody just showing their age in their author photo.
Louise: Yeah, I love what you said and I think it leads into the fact that ageism is the oneism that affects absolutely everyone on the planet. We are all aging from the day we're born, and it's very strange to establish some cutoff point and each culture's cutoff point is different, but some point at which we say, "Oh, this person is too old, this person has aged too much." There are cultural responses to aging that vary from kind of a veneration in some Eastern cultures to our sweeping older people under the rug in western societies.
Louise: I think what you said is so wonderful. If there are more older author photos on the covers of books, there will be more in the next generation who say, "Yes, aging can be empowering, we can do things when we age." We can do things at who knows what the cutoff point is. Maybe it's limitless, we don't know.
Grace: Along those lines, who are some of ... Well, talking about being who you can see, who are some of the people that you admire that you feel are, I guess, your age role models?
Louise: Well, you know I had an English teacher in high school, and he was a relatively young man those many years ago. I recently reconnected with him mercifully before he died, which he died last month. I reconnected with him and found that he was still writing poetry, and we exchanged poetry back and forth. He was a very active man until the end, and I am so grateful for his example. I think of him almost every day, so I guess that's my first inspiration.
Louise: In terms of people that listeners might be familiar with, I'm thinking of Jane Yolen, who is I believe 80 and she has had a wonderful career, plus she is having still a wonderful career. She recently wrote a ... She updated her Facebook post by saying that, while other people were working on cloaks of invisibility, she was working on a cloak of visibility, because she felt that too often older women are invisible. "They're not valued for their wisdom, they're made fun of for fading looks," these are her words, I don't think that necessarily has to happen as we age. "They're deemed unimportant at decision making time," and she says, "The only time they're welcomed is if they are useful as a nurse, a purse, or a free babysitter." Hope we have more roles than that.
Grace: Yes, and I think by putting author photos ... showing that on the books, that'll prove that there are many, there are at least the role of an author available for these older women as well.
Grace: Have you personally felt the effects of ageism?
Louise: Well, I have to say that in publishing, not so far. I have experienced it in my private life. When I'm with a group of younger people, for instance, my daughter and her friends are 30 somethings, 40 somethings, and I've noticed that in a gathering, a large gathering, everyone is asked what they do, I am not. I suddenly understand what Jane Yolen means by that cloak of invisibility, because questions are not addressed to me. They're addressed to everyone else in the group on the assumption that I no longer lead an active interesting life, so that when it eventually comes out that I publish books, people are very surprised and delighted I have to admit, but surprised, only because of their own prejudices about what it means to be old.
Grace: Was there anything that you were afraid people wouldn't understand about your essay?
Louise: No. What I hadn't anticipated was as I mentioned, this devotion to hair dye, to hair coloring. I can understand it. I think it does take years off, but I think that's participating in sweeping this process of aging under the rug. Again, pretending that it stops at a certain point. I think there's nothing more important than to realize that aging isn't a stereotype, we all grow old differently, it's a process that does involve every single one of us, so it behooves us all not to make judgments and stereotypes around it.
Grace: That's great. All right. Well, that seems like a really good point to end this interview, so I think I'm going to end the interview with our last two questions, which I ask everybody. The first question is of course, what are you working on? This is your ... This is what I like to call the self-promo part of the podcast.
Louise: Oh good. Well, I'm very excited about a book I'm working on, nearly finished right now. I guess the reason I'm excited about it is there are really no comps for this one, or at least I can't think of any. Big Rig is the story of a father/daughter truck driving team. Hazel who's 11 years old, her trucking handle is Hazmat and she's her dad's chief navigator and log keeper, and they've been on the road for seven years together. He home schools her in their traveling classroom and she's learned a great deal. The thing she hasn't learned is to stop time. She's very afraid that self-driving trucks, robo fleets will put an end to their life on the road.
Grace: Oh, how interesting. I had to laugh when you said her name Hazel, and hazmat, because my daughters name is Hazel and when she was in the diaper phase, we often called her Hazmat.
Grace: Okay. Oh, do you have a day when that's publishing or you're still working on it?
Louise: No, I sure don't because I haven't even shown this to my agent. I'm 30 pages away from the end of the book, and I'm so excited and I hope she loves it. She knows it's coming, but.
Grace: This is the super secret project that we're getting the scoop on.
Grace: This is exciting. All right. Then my second and last question for you is what is your biggest publishing dream, and of course, I always have to qualify this because I want authors specifically to tell me their biggest, goofiest, craziest dream, the dream you're almost afraid, ashamed to say out loud, because it's so big you're afraid people will think you're too big for your britches, but the idea being that we want authors to dream big and to grasp big, and bigger than just I want people to read my books. I want us to acknowledge our ambitions, so Louise, what is your biggest publishing dream?
Louise: Wow. Well, I think partly in terms of the ageism that I've only recently discovered is kind of driving a lot of our industry. I would like to become, and this is bigger than it sounds, kind of a standard barrier for older authors, I'd love to form a group of older authors maybe. I'd love to have authors proud of becoming older, and I think if my books could make a difference in how readers and editors feel about this adventure that we're all on, which is aging, I would be a very happy camper and big dreams, I dream of a major award like the prince, and I dream of my acceptance speech being acknowledging all the older women writers out there.
Grace: That's great. Thank you so much Louise.
Louise: Thank you very much Grace, this was fun.