Episode 19! Conversation with Ellen Wittlinger
Welcome to episode nineteen 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, Ellen Wittlinger discusses her essay "Questioning the Len Though Which We See" (which can be heard HERE) with Jacqueline Davies. Ellen and Jacqueline discuss the double standard that affects women writers.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Ellen Wittlinger is the author of fifteen YA and middle-grade novels. Her novel Hard Love won both a Printz Honor Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Her books have been on numerous ALA Best Books lists, Bank Street College of Education lists and state award lists. Ellen has won state awards in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Her work has been translated into many other languages including Turkish, Croatian and Korean. She has taught at Emerson College in Boston and in the Simmons College Writing for Children MFA program. Her newest book, the mg novel Someone Else's Shoes chronicles a road trip across the Northeast that unites three young people in search of family and acceptance and it just came out yesterday!
Jacqueline Davies is the talented author of YA and middle grade novels as well as picture books. Her beloved The Lemonade War series, tells the story of a brother and sister who make a bet to see who can sell the most lemonade in five days. The second book in the series is The Lemonade Crime; the third book is The Bell Bandit; the fourth is The Candy Smash; and the fifth and final book in the series in The Magic Trap. Her newest book Nothing But Trouble (HarperCollins, 2016) tells the story of two smart girls in a small town who can't help but get into trouble by pulling pranks. See more about Jacqueline at her website.
JACQUELINE: Hi, this is Jacqueline Davies and I'm here today with Ellen Wittlinger, and we are going to be talking about her essay, Questioning The Lens Through Which We see.
JACQUELINE: Hi Ellen.
ELLEN: Hi Jacqueline.
JACQUELINE: How are you?
ELLEN: Good. Nice to see you.
JACQUELINE: It's very nice to see you too. So, I'm gonna start of sort of with a broad view of the essay and just start with the fact that this is a personal story. This is something that happened to you-
JACQUELINE: And this is something that you shared with a wide audience.
JACQUELINE: Was there anything about telling a personal story in this broader space that was difficult for you?
ELLEN: I thought twice about how much I wanted to reveal about what I felt was happening at, in the Writer's Workshop at Iowa. There are a lot of people who graduated from that workshop and it was a little daunting to think that, "Oh, maybe somebody else didn't have this experience and they wouldn't feel this way about it." But, in the end, I decided it made the story really work if I, you know, really said what happened to me and how I felt about being in the workshop. And I know I was not the only woman who felt that way.
JACQUELINE: Right. So, there was an element of risk and it's interesting, I had a long conversation with author/illustrator Tom Feelings from many years ago. And, he's the very first one who said to me, "If you're not risking something in your writing, you're just wasting everybody's time."
ELLEN: Yeah, I like that.
JACQUELINE: And so, I like that too. And that's why in looking at all of the essays, with the women of KidLit that we saw over the month of March, so many of the ones that I felt were the most gripping were the personal stories, the ones where-
ELLEN: I agree.
JACQUELINE: Women said, "This happened to me."
ELLEN: I agree.
JACQUELINE: Yeah. So, this is a personal story that you tell from 40 years ago.
JACQUELINE: But it is so current feeling. I mean I read it and I thought, "This is so relevant to exactly how many of us feel today." Can you talk a little bit about why you think that is?
ELLEN: Well, I think I said in the essay that I was kind of shocked when people started really talking about these things again, because I did think that we had made some headway 40 years ago and that things had changed in a lot of ways. But, reading what women were saying, I realized if we had, it didn't last very long, it didn't hold and things had certainly slipped backwards.
JACQUELINE: Yeah. In what ways do you think things have slipped backwards?
ELLEN: You know, the first thing I saw had to do mostly with things like ... I have two grandchildren now, so I would go out to buy clothing for my grandchildren, and I was amazed that, went into a children's clothing store and it was really all pink on one side and all blue on the other side.
ELLEN: And, I thought that had ended. I thought that had ended when I had children. And it seemed like it was worse than ever, the way we were dividing them up and, you know, you have to know from the first minute what you've got so you can put them in the right colors. And, that always seemed nuts to me. And, that it had come back so strongly I thought, "I thought we ended this. I thought it was gone, and it's not."
JACQUELINE: There has, there's been a resurgence I think in certain things that we tend to think of as being gendered and from another era. The return of big weddings-
JACQUELINE: Big weddings-
ELLEN: That is definitely-
JACQUELINE: Like, become huge again.
ELLEN: Another thing. Yeah. No.
JACQUELINE: And playing again on that fantasy of the bride as this sort of fantasy object.
JACQUELINE: It's peculiar isn't it?
ELLEN: Yeah, it is very strange, [crosstalk 00:03:46]
JACQUELINE: You would think that we would just kind of keep moving in a certain direction, but I guess that's just not how it is.
JACQUELINE: Now, the word that came up in terms of this editor at the Iowa Review, is that right?
ELLEN: Yes. Iowa Review.
JACQUELINE: [crosstalk 00:04:03] the word that came up that he used was sentimental.
JACQUELINE: And, this is one of those words, and I talked about this in one my essays, how when you take words and you apply them in different ways to different genders, it comes out differently.
JACQUELINE: And so, talk a little bit about that word, sentimental.
ELLEN: Well, I mean I just, you know, he really had gotten me right in the gut. And I'd immediately remembered what it was like to sit in classes and listen to men read these poems which I thought were sentimental. And, they would get praised up and down for, you know, how risky, you are so brave to write about your emotions in this way, I thought, "Well," it just made no sense to me, 'cause I knew that women were not allowed to do that.
ELLEN: We had to step very cautiously when we were writing about anything that had any kind of emotional content. And really we stayed away from emotion.
ELLEN: Because that was like a scary place for a woman to approach.
JACQUELINE: Because of how she would be perceived and judged.
ELLEN: That's right. That's right. True.
JACQUELINE: Not because of the job she would do with that work-
ELLEN: No, no, no. Just because-
JACQUELINE: Just because of how it would be seen.
ELLEN: Yeah. A woman writing about her emotions is immediately seen as sentimental or kinda sappy.
JACQUELINE: Which is lesser-
JACQUELINE: There's a hierarchy.
ELLEN: That's right.
JACQUELINE: It is not as good as somebody who is more-
ELLEN: That's right.
JACQUELINE: Perhaps rational or academic or something like that. Now, you wrote in your essay, I'm gonna read it, "Reading the letter from the editor put me right back into those humiliating workshop days and I was furious."
JACQUELINE: Why at this moment, why do you think at that moment you became furious? Because all those years, were you furious all those years at Iowa Workshop?
ELLEN: I think was furious all those years I was there.
JACQUELINE: But you weren't acting on it.
ELLEN: But I couldn't, I didn't know how to act on it, I was so nervous and I was so sure that I really was not as good as particularly the men. There weren't very many women. I always felt like we were a lesser category there and that I had kinda slipped in there by accident, I shouldn't really be there. And so, even though it aggravated me, I really would never have even let that kind of come all the way to consciousness. You know, I just kind of, it was too risky-
ELLEN: To dare to say anything to anybody. I may have, you know, mentioned to one of the other women at one point, but I doubt it. I don't think we talked about that. I think ... We were all just too holding on with our teeth to stay there.
JACQUELINE: I think it's that feeling of thinking that you're going to be exposed as the fraud, as the one who was wrong-
JACQUELINE: And then get thrown out.
JACQUELINE: So to speak up, opens you up to more risk in that-
ELLEN: That's right.
JACQUELINE: Boy, the word risk keeps coming up in out conversation.
ELLEN: It does. Doesn't it, it does come up.
JACQUELINE: It is risky to be an angry or furious woman.
ELLEN: Yeah, yeah.
JACQUELINE: So, you talked about your heated response, and then amazingly he wrote back with an apology and he had reviewed the poems and he took three. So, this is a story of triumph, this is a triumphant story.
ELLEN: It is.
JACQUELINE: And we don't have many of those to tell, so it's good to remember that-
ELLEN: That's right.
JACQUELINE: That you took a risk, that you felt humiliated, you felt diminished, you took a risk, you were angry, you spoke up and it led to a good outcome.
ELLEN: Yes. It was a very good outcome. Yeah.
JACQUELINE: That's an amazing thing. Can you have any ... And, I know it's just a guess, what might have been going on in the editor's mind or psyche that caused what is a rather unusual outcome?
ELLEN: Right. I mean I think because he did like them to begin with, and he had apparently shown them to his wife who also liked them. There was probably, at the moment that he sent those back to me, I think he probably felt a little conflicted about it. And, although my take on it is, he probably didn't wanna think, you know, "Why am I sending these back? I like them, why am I sending them back?" Because that's not how he would have thought. You know, "No, they're sentimental, I'm gonna send them back."
ELLEN: And, it wasn't until I questioned what that meant, his saying that they were sentimental, that he kind of thought again, it's like, "Well, yeah. That's exactly how I thought of it. And, if I thought a man had written these poems, I would think wow they're brave and risky."
JACQUELINE: So, here's an example of exactly what you're talking about. Questioning The Lens Through Which We See. You were lucky enough, well you took great action on your own part, so there's no luck in that-
JACQUELINE: But the person who was receiving it-
ELLEN: Could listen. Yeah.
JACQUELINE: Was able to take a moment and readjust his lens-
ELLEN: That's right.
JACQUELINE: And see it in a different way.
JACQUELINE: And that's a real challenge. And at the end of your essay, you really challenge all of us to do that. Before I get to that, I just wanna mention one other part, you wrote this: "When men run the world, women tend to believe the lie that they aren't good enough."
JACQUELINE: How do you think women ... Let's just talk about today, how do you think women today can counteract that? Because, men are still running the world. So, we've got two choices: we can either work so that more women are running the world, which I think many of us do-
JACQUELINE: Strive for, hope for, take action to make that happen. But, in the meantime, until we have more parity-
JACQUELINE: In terms of who's running the world, what do you think women can do to counteract that lie?
ELLEN: You know, I think there are plenty of men who will listen and they may not get it yet, but, you know, certainly this guy 40 years ago was willing to listen to me. And I think you just have to keep talking about it and in ways that make people understand what you're talking about and kind of not back down on it. This is the truth. And, the whole #MeToo movement now, it does feel like more people are listening. Finally people are kind of getting things that they-
JACQUELINE: It's remarkable.
ELLEN: Didn't get before, and I'm not quite sure if it's the whole Trump effect or what exactly has made this moment one where people are willing to open up a little more and listen. But, I think we have to take, this is our shot, you know?
ELLEN: We kinda have to go for it now.
JACQUELINE: It's an important moment. It really is an important moment.
ELLEN: Yeah. I think it is too.
JACQUELINE: And I think that there have been other important moments in the past and so, the hope is that this one will have some staying power and keep going, so that some real change can happen.
ELLEN: I agree.
JACQUELINE: So, getting toward the end of your essay, you write: "Men are perceived to be the rock stars, but do women inherently write or illustrate in a lesser manner than men, or are they just seen as lesser because we're looking through the prejudiced lens of gender and also race, and seeing what we expect to see."
JACQUELINE: And then you raise the question is, "How can we move beyond those filters?" And, you encourage us all to question our own biases.
JACQUELINE: Yeah. Are there biases of your own that you feel like you can identify and that you-
ELLEN: Oh, absolutely.
JACQUELINE: And could you share some of those?
ELLEN: I mean I think in terms of almost any, you know, I'm one of those people, many of us are who have said for years, "Well, I'm not prejudiced, I'm not a racist, I'm not, you know, I'm fine with everybody, I just look at the person." But, that really is a way-
JACQUELINE: That's just not-
ELLEN: Of not looking at it.
JACQUELINE: It's not possible. It's just not possible.
ELLEN: It's a way of not looking it and I think what you have to do is really, you know, concentrate on what am I thinking, you know, why am I not sitting with these people of color rather than going back to my same safe little table of people-
ELLEN: That I know. Why am I making all these decisions and choices? And, I think it's something we just all have to do. We all have to face that, that we do have prejudices, whether we want to have them or not, we do have them and we have to just look at them as thoroughly as we can.
JACQUELINE: Going back to the talk that I had with Tom Feelings years ago, and this was subject he'd given so much thought to and he was such a thoughtful man, and I remember him saying, "It's not possible to have been born and lived in America and to not be racist. Black and white,"-
ELLEN: I agree.
JACQUELINE: "Everybody is soaked in the racist system that's set up in America, and you can't avoid it, so you might as well face up to it."
JACQUELINE: But it's hard and uncomfortable work.
ELLEN: It is uncomfortable, it's very uncomfortable.
JACQUELINE: Yeah, yeah. Well, essays like your I think are very important in moving the discussion forward. I do hope everybody will take a moment, I know I did, take a moment and think, "Huh, I'm gonna think about the biases that I know, but also the biases that maybe I'm not quite as aware of. And, I'm gonna try to keep pushing myself."
JACQUELINE: So, before we go, I wanted to ask you quickly, could you tell us a little bit about something that you are working on now, that you've been working on recently?
ELLEN: Sure. Well, I have a book coming out in September and it's a middle grade novel. What is it ... It's hard to ...I always have so many characters in my books, that it's hard to kinda give an elevator pitch. I'm so terrible at the elevator pitch.
JACQUELINE: I will agree-
ELLEN: I am.
JACQUELINE: That Ellen's work defies the elevator pitch, because it is very complicated and nuanced and brilliant.
ELLEN: Well, thanks. Not, I know I wouldn't go that far, but it does have a lot of characters and it kind of is about, I would say it's about finding your own family when perhaps the family you were born into is problematic and you need to look outside of that.
JACQUELINE: Did you give us the title?
ELLEN: No I did not.
JACQUELINE: Okay. Ellen, give us the title.
ELLEN: The title is, Someone Else's Shoes.
JACQUELINE: Oh, what a great title, I love that. And then our final question is, shoot for the moon, if you could have anything right now at this point in your career, what's the thing that you are ... Oh, perhaps a little, it sounds like asking for too much, we're encouraging women to ask for too much.
ELLEN: That's right, okay.
JACQUELINE: So, what do you want? Ask for what you want.
ELLEN: Well, I have recently made a little bit of a jog in my career and I have started, or I've gone back to something that I did when I was younger, and I'm writing plays. And, I'm sending them around and hoping that I can get some of them done here or there, or some little theater. But if I was really to reach-
JACQUELINE: Go for it Ellen-
ELLEN: And to ask for the moon-
JACQUELINE: Go for it!
ELLEN: I would say I want a play in New York and maybe even on Broadway.
JACQUELINE: Absolutely. I would go and see it in a heartbeat.
JACQUELINE: So, thank you so much for speaking today.
ELLEN: Absolutely. It's fun.
JACQUELINE: And, yeah, let's shoot for the moon.
JACQUELINE: Okay. Take care, bye.
ELLEN: You too, bye.