Episode 33! Conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler
Welcome to episode 33 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, Christine Taylor-Butler discusses her essays "Gender Inequity: Caldecott by the Numbers & the CSK Illustrator Award " (which can be heard HERE) with Jacqueline Davies. Christine and Jacqueline discuss the the eye-opening statistics.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Christine Taylor-Butler is the award-winning author of more than 75 children’s books, many in the well-loved Scholastic True Book and New Nonfiction Readers series. A graduate of MIT, Christine holds dual degrees in Civil Engineering and Art & Design. She is a trained civil engineer and an educational council chairperson. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Horn Book and Scholastic's Read and Rise magazine. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
You can find out more about her at http://www.christinetaylorbutler.com
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 talking with Christine Taylor-Butler. Hi Christine. How are you?
Christine: Hi. I'm fine. How are you?
Jacqueline: I'm very good. So, nice to finally get a chance to talk with you. We've been trying to get this together for a while. So, we're here today to talk about two of your essays that appeared with [Kidlit Women 00:00:44] back in March, and the first one is Gender Inequity: Caldecott by the Numbers, and the second one is Gender Inequity Part Two: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards.
Jacqueline: So, we're going to start with the first one but kind of flow right into the second one because of course, the topics have a lot in common, and also they have some ways in which they diverge. So, could I just start with one of the things in your first essay where you said that you're a math nerd?
Christine: I am.
Jacqueline: Tell us a little bit about that. I bet I'm not as nerdy as you, but I too love to look at the numbers. It's something I like to do. So, tell me about being a math nerd.
Christine: There is something magical about patterns. You can make a number do whatever you want it to, but the real truth is, sometimes you have to combine quantitative and qualitative information and for me, math is that moment of silence where you can kind of calm your mind while you're working on a puzzle. So, I grew up odd and it just so happened that became an asset when I was older.
Jacqueline: That's a wonderful thing. It really is. I have to say, when Kidlit Women* started back in March of 2018, so many different types of essays were put up on the board. Many of them were heartfelt, many of them were anecdotal, many of them were thought-provoking, provocative, but your essay, which I think landed on the very first day, didn't it?
Christine: It did.
Jacqueline: Your essay in a way split the topic wide open for viewing because you gave the numbers. So while there was all that other sort of wonderful background about women's experiences and how they feel, including the essays that I wrote, you gave us the numbers, and the numbers were so shocking but so illuminating. I thought it was just a wonderful ... The two things went together, the way you provided the data and in some cases other women provided more of the stories behind the data.
Christine: Right. I think it's really easy for people to say women are just complaining or they are just emotional, and I knew there was a problem, but I didn't know how bad it was until I literally went year by year, set up a spreadsheet, started trying to kind of craft a narrative about what do these numbers mean, and when I posted it, I think I got 24000 hits in the first hour.
Jacqueline: The response was astounding. I mean, people were just shocked when they saw the numbers, in a way that I think nothing else could've shocked them out of their kind of quiet, I won't say complacency, but kind of their quiet bubble of what was going on.
Christine: Well, sure. The numbers don't lie. They're pretty egregious.
Jacqueline: They are, they are. So, let's get to them.
Jacqueline: You pointed out that one set of data points was the dearth of awards for women illustrators, that it was just particularly glaring, and that awards committees favor male illustrators over females. 67% of the medals for the Caldecott, which for those listening who might not know, it's the top award for illustrators. Would you say that, Christine?
Christine: Yeah, that's correct.
Jacqueline: It's the best recognized. It's the one that I think the most people know. Over the years that the Caldecott has been given, which has been since 1938, let's just stick with percentages. 67% of the medals have gone to men and only 26% have gone to women.
Christine: That's correct.
Jacqueline: What were your thoughts when you first saw that enormous gap? It's almost three times. What were your first thoughts when you saw it?
Christine: Well, it mirrors what happens in a lot if industries, which is you start out with an industry where women are very strong game players, and then men see the profit in it and they come into the market and the market shifts. So, what was shocking for me is when I started looking at the numbers, starting in 1930, the number of men peaked about 1950 and then started to come down, but starting in 1970, the number of male winners was climbing while the number of female winners was dropping. So, the gender inequity has always been there, but it became more problematic starting in the 1970s.
Jacqueline: What do you think that was about? Because I was noticing that, as well. You're saying that women received so low medals, 10 times in the first 31 years, from '38 up to '69, but then it took an extra 48 years from 1970 to 2018 for the 11 extra medals to be given to women. What happened in 1970? You hinted at it before in terms of men entering the market. I wonder if you had other thoughts.
Christine: I think men enter the market. I will say this, because I saw the same trend happening at my old employer, Hallmark. Sorry to mention them, which is there has always been this historical assumption that even though women may be primary purchasers of a product, that men creating content are breadwinners and need the money and women, it's a hobby. I really do think we treat women, and I think we still do treat women as if writing is a hobby. What really concerns me is I have not had enough time to look at who these gatekeepers are, but my sense is going to ALA and going to NCTE and a lot of other conventions is there's an awful lot of women who are making decisions in which the men are their favorite target for awards.
Jacqueline: So, well, thinking about that theory that you just put forth, let's go back to 1938 to 1969. So, in what way, when women, they were dominant, right, but they were having a fair share in terms of the awards. It was better than it was, better than it is now.
Christine: I look in the 1940s and during that year, I'm looking at maybe five men and two to three women. As the awards are climbing, you start to see the number of men drop down to six and the number of women climb to four or five, until you get to about the 1970s and all of a sudden, I saw this peak in the year 2000 where there were nine men and one woman.
Jacqueline: Which is astounding.
Christine: Or actually, that's the decade. In the decade of the 1990s, I think there were eight men and two women, and then in the 2000, in that century, there were nine men and one woman. Now, it isn't that there aren't women in the system creating illustrations, so the question became, "What is it that causes committees to favor men over women?" One of the other things I took a look at is in some cases, there are repeat winners of men.
Jacqueline: I'm particularly interested in this 1970 break point, what seems like a real shift. You think that it was at that point that more male creators were entering the field because there had been women achieving some success in it, or do you think that there was a shift in terms of how the award committees were looking at men versus women?
Christine: I think it's really complex. I think it's who's getting hired. I think it's who's choosing. If you are popular, what I'm starting to see in 1970 is if you are popular, publishers want more of your work.
Christine: So if you have gotten an award as a male, you're going to get more work. I'm not necessarily seeing that happen the same for women, and the reason why it piqued my interest is my daughter is entering film at a time when women are marginalized in that field, too. She had done this study of filmmaking and seen the same shift, which is there was a certain point in time that happened earlier than the 1970s where men came in and saw the commercial value of making film and suddenly women who were filmmakers were getting kind of shoved to the background.
Christine: So, I don't know because I haven't had enough time to really look at what's behind the numbers, so that's why sometimes numbers can be tricky because we can make them say things they're not meant to say, but you can't escape that for those people who are reading the essay, there is a significant sharp climb in award winners who are male, and an extremely sharp decrease in the number of women getting any kind of award.
Jacqueline: Yeah. It's one of the most interesting things in your essay because I would've just assumed that things were even worse before. They're still bad now, but they were even worse before, but this idea that it was actually better at one point and now that it's getting worse I find particularly both intriguing, but also disturbing.
Christine: It's worse than it was in the 1950s.
Jacqueline: It's hard to believe.
Christine: That's what's so sad about it.
Jacqueline: As you point out, it's a bit of a ... Not a bit. It's quite a bit of a vicious cycle in terms of publishers want to publish those who are successful and those who are successful win awards, and winning awards makes you more successful. I think that's when we get caught up in this ... There are some numbers you've got here where just a very few number of men are completely dominating the awards scene where they've won so many. We're going to get to that more in a minute because I think that comes under the Coretta Scott King-
Christine: But I also want to bring up one point, which is, because I'm seeing this also happen on the author side. Publishers choose who they want to market. They choose who they want to support, and so I don't think librarians and awards committees understand that when you are going out and seeing the exact same people as a keynote speaker at NCTE and ALA, that's by design. A lot of those people are getting support in terms of their transportation support and in terms of their lodging and their entrance fees, but a lot of those other authors and illustrators giving those under-attended workshops that are also on the program are paying their own way out of the advances that they got from the publishers. So, when you see the big posters and you see the print ads, Publishers Weekly years ago said bestsellers are designed at acquisition and everybody else is sink or swim, and I think that's what's happening with women is I think we work in an industry that does not, on the illustrator side, respect the work product of the women they give contracts to.
Jacqueline: It turns up as an economic issue.
Christine: It does.
Jacqueline: It becomes an economic issue in terms of who has the resources to put themselves forward, who's getting the larger advances, which then leads to having the resources to put yourself more forward, and who's being given, allotted, the resources from the publishing houses. So, it all becomes in some ways not just a gender issue, but an economic issue as well.
Christine: Very much so, and when you figure out that a lot of these authors are like me. They're self-supporting. This is their full-time job. I have backup plan at home. So I have health insurance, but I am still responsible for half of the household income. But I have a lot of peers who are like their male peers, supporting families on their income. So you're right. This is an economic issue, and the question I continue to raise is, "Why we have so many female gatekeepers in the system who don't value the work from people of their own gender."
Jacqueline: It is the question that I feel like [inaudible 00:13:38] women was just like trying so hard to get out. I felt like in so many different ways people who are submitting the essays were raising this same question, "How is it that in an industry where women are the ones doing the choosing, the selecting, the discerning that it seems to be that the men kind of are having a [inaudible 00:14:01]."
Christine: Well, and I think that the whole conversation came out of a discussion that was branded, "The Adoration of Men." Of course, men showed up thinking we were going to adore them. It was kind of funny. And then we kind of [inaudible 00:14:17]. But honestly I see this all the time when I see a librarian or a teacher or a gatekeeper talking about men with a certain ... What's the word I'm looking for? There's kind of a certain level of exuberance that they don't show when they are talking about women. When I see women doing a book signing, but people are rushing past their booth to get to the guy, it's a little disheartening.
Christine: I am not quite sure what the solution is. I do think that the value of [inaudible 00:14:59] women is we are now having these conversations out in the open. And a lot of us are trying to put hard numbers. I know Janette Larson was looking at, "Do men make more money for school visits?" We're trying to figure out where some of the stumbling blocks are, because we can't solve them if we don't know. But I do know that having done these statistics, I knew that people were going to be bothered. I didn't know how much it was going to leave people shook up. And I think that's a good thing.
Jacqueline: It is a good thing, absolutely. You end that first book, and I think of it as a two-part essay, you end that first part with some really piercing questions and some questions that really do need to be answered. You ask, "Is this an issue of lack of visibility to committee from publishers? Do publishers cherry pick the [inaudible 00:15:49] based on trends? Are committees swayed by marketing and favor those with buzz? Or is this a matter of not hiring enough talented female artists to work on books that might be awards contenders?" And you end this after these questions, which are unanswered at this point. We have the data to support that something is going on here.
Jacqueline: We can see that. We're not entirely sure why, and you raise these very thought-provoking questions. But you end that part of the blog with, "The statistic that made me cry and kept me up at night," which leads into the next part that we're gonna talk about. And what I responded to so much with that was, "It's personal, isn't it?" I mean, it feels so personal. We can talk about numbers. we can talk about percentages. We can look at it in that way, which is true and valid. But at the core, it ends up feeling so personal, and I think that's something that ... I think that's why there was such a response to the hard numbers that you gave.
Christine: Yeah. And you know what? Coretta Scott King, I had to edit that a little bit, because when I ran those numbers I was so angry at the results, so angry, I had to put it aside. My husband was watching me pace, and I said, "This is worse than the Caldecotts." This is the one where if I had to pick two committees where I'd say, "It's time to disband you or you need to get your act together," it is the Coretta Scott King Awards. It was, you know, on the illustrators side. And I stopped running the numbers for the author's side, because they're not that much better, but before I comment I want to run them. But I had to unpack the anger over the illustrator awards.
Jacqueline: Yeah. Yeah. I can imagine. Well, this is the perfect segue into talking about the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards. And I just want to start with, again, what is so heartbreaking about this is, you write in your essay, "The Coretta Scott King Award is much newer and was considered a blessing for African American content creators who struggled to gain the attention of major awards committees." And then I'm gonna jump ahead and say, "but for African American women, the dream is deferred." And this idea that there was this great potential, that there was this wonderful idea that would have supported African American men and women and that it didn't work out that way.
Christine: It did not. And it broke my heart, because I know some of the people who started the committee years ago. And I was in a closed session. I was relatively new to writing. And I made a comment about Coretta Scott King. And one of the men stopped the meeting and said, "Wait a minute. You're telling me we did this good thing, and it didn't make things better?" I said, "No. You made things worse." I said, "You made things worse for us." And it has-
Jacqueline: And when was this? When was this?
Christine: This was when I was at NYU for the [inaudible 00:19:04] Conference.
Christine: And so we were talking about the climate for people of color. And it was very clear we were not welcome. With very few exceptions, we were not welcome in the major awards categories. And I will tell you that I sat in on every single day of the 2009 notables. It was the notables that after, so it might have been January of 2010. Because my Everest book was on the list to be discussed, and I thought this would be a learning opportunity. What really rocked me more than watching librarians and committee members mock people of color openly in a meeting for several days was when it came time to decide who would be on the notables, the chair, Eliza, made the point that the Caldecott and the Newbery and the Sibert would be grandfathered in.
Christine: And someone said, "What about the Coretta Scott King Awards?" And one of the librarians said, "That's not a major award. We have to vote on that separately." And then committee members began to complain that that would then cut the yield of books that deserved to be a notable by having to include them. I was sitting there with a librarian who had been on a Caldecott committee and a Sibert committee, and she had been recording the session, because my book was being discussed. And she put the microphone away, and she said, "That was the most demoralizing thing I've ever heard."
Christine: We were sharing a room, and I had flown in special for that. And I just said, "But it confirms everything that you have told me for years and other librarians have told me for years, which is major committees have always said, "We don't have to vote on this book because those people have their own awards. So if that's the climate that African Americans are working in ... And then what you see is the committee is recreating the same problem by saying that from inception 78% of the winners and 80% of the honors are gonna go to guys. And in many cases, it's the same men.
Christine: So what happens is we had a group of African American authors who would meet quietly online to talk about the difference between what is happening to us in publishing and what is really happening behind the scenes, what publishers say. And almost universally the comments we were getting from authors all commercially published is that the responses they were getting to new manuscripts is, "We already have one on the list." And we were saying, "But you don't say 'We already have a white person on the list.'"
Jacqueline: No. That's nuts. There is no comparable.
Christine: You know? [crosstalk 00:22:09]. Wait, we already have an Asian person on the list. We already have a black person on the list. So it then further creates the climate in which you have no opportunities to get awards if you can't get a contract. And for those few who do get a contract, they become the go-to for every other publisher. So yay for them. It doesn't take away from their talent at all.
Jacqueline: Right. Exactly. But it tightens and narrows the field for everybody else, because it just focuses on these very few.
Christine: Yeah. Yeah. And the fact that the committee has not noticed is a problem.
Jacqueline: Do you think they're starting to notice now?
Christine: I don't know. You know what? I do know that I've gotten really reactions about the Caldecott, but I will say the response from members of the Coretta Scott King committee has been definitely silent. I know one librarian reached out to me and said, "Wow, the numbers don't lie." But there has been no reachout from that community to say, "What were your observations?" I guess you can look at the numbers, because I even go over how many men win not only over and over again, but I then point to Kyra Hicks who ran her own statistics for years to show that the Coretta Scott King committee was awarding book awards to the same people, not only over and over again, but sometimes multiple awards in the same year.
Jacqueline: Yeah. The numbers are astonishing. Let's jump into that. It's especially ironic. I felt like was with these two pieces that you wrote, there was heartbreak and irony. Those were the two things I kept going back and forth between. It was so discouraging to see the numbers, but also some things were so ironic. You point out that an award named for a woman, the Coretta Scott King Award, honors mostly men.
Christine: That's correct.
Jacqueline: It goes overwhelmingly to men. And the numbers are astonishing, 78% of the winners have been for men and only 20% for women, which is almost hard to even wrap your head around that it's a basically a one-to-four kind of a ratio. And then in terms of honors [inaudible 00:24:38] the same virtually. 80% of the medals have gone to men and only 13% to women.
Christine: Right. And here's what's shocking. If you look at the early years of the award, there's some back and forth between women and men. But you get to 2000 [crosstalk 00:24:58].
Jacqueline: We're starting in 1974 [crosstalk 00:25:03].
Jacqueline: Right. Okay.
Christine: And there are a couple of years there it was relatively new where there were no winners of any gender. And then you get to 1978 where there was a winner who was female and no honor awards. And then the next year there was a winner who was male and there were no honor awards. And then you have a woman, no honor awards. So it went back and forth. And it really has a lot to do with the fact that black content creators have a very hard time getting any kind of attention from book buyers. And part of that is there was a very well-known stereotype that people who are not black will not buy a book with a black character, and people who are black don't buy books at all, which clearly is not true. But what is worse is when you think about what that says, you don't see the race of an illustrator when they're doing an illustration. So if you have ...
Christine: ... an illustrator when they're doing an illustration. So if you have white illustrators doing black characters, could you not have the same classically trained black illustrators doing white characters? But they're pigeonholed and they're slotted in, and Coretta Scott King made things worse because it had to be a black content creator who was also creating black content.
Speaker 1: Right.
Christine: So, you have further tightened the field, and I know what it was meant to do, but when I started looking at the numbers, and you know, we have this phrase that says, as we get past the civil rights era was supposed to be a little more attuned to what's going on. But there were several years in the '09s where all of the winners, both the honors and the main category were men, or there was a woman who won and then all the honors, quite a few of other more men.
Christine: You get to the year 2000, from 2000 until 2017, so we're talking about 18 year span, every single winner was a man. With one exception in that 17, 18 years, there was only one honor book given to a woman. All of the awards, all of the honor books went to men.
Speaker 1: It's astonishing.
Christine: So I looked at that and I told my publisher, because I have to do the author numbers, I said, "What reason, would any woman ever agree to submit her book to that committee ever?" So what would be, it's a waste of a book that a kid could read, if they are going to come back and award to the same guy.
Christine: I sat in what was a notables meeting, locally, or excuse me, I'm sorry. What do we call it? The meeting where the librarians get together and try to predict what the awards are going to be.
Jacqueline: The mock, the mock the Caldecott mock, mockingbird? Yeah.
Christine: At one point they had all the books up, and they asked a couple of questions. One was, "Why are all the books about civil rights?" I made a joke, because I was the only author who was attending at the time. I said, "That's all we're allowed to write." At one point, I said, "I want you to look at the color palette." I said, "Look at color pallet of books coming in to CSK versus books going in to Caldecott. They're browns and they're oranges. You don't see the bright vibrant colors. You see the same kind of dreary color palette, and I mentioned that also on the CCBC listserv, and someone said, "You know, until you mentioned that, we had not noticed." I said, "So now combine that with all of the men." Let me say this again. All of the men who are getting awards are talented.
Christine: But having said that, there is also a John Steptoe Award for new talent, and there were several years in which the committee couldn't find a single person to give that award to. So I'm looking at a committee that may actually have more bias than the committee they were trying to react to.
Jacqueline: Bias against women.
Christine: I think it is. I don't know how else you say this, because I know women who are black illustrators producing beautiful work. They are classically trained in more than one illustration style, and you look at these numbers, and it is a sea of men, the sea of the same men.
Jacqueline: You point out an essay, you say "No woman of color has ever won a Caldecott medal," which is shocking, right? In and of itself. And then so you point out, "So the Coretta Scott King award is an African American woman's only remaining chance at recognition, and yet it's not happening."
Christine: It's not.
Jacqueline: We've been talking about how the committee awards medals and honors to the same illustrators over and over again.
Jacqueline: That's just a little bit more about what that reflects. Again, is it the same vicious cycle, that once names are recognized that the committee members feel comfortable and familiar, kind of with their style, with recognizing them?
Christine: I'll give you an example. When I was in the mocks, I'm a Leo and Diane Dillon had a book up for consideration. I had been collecting their works since before I got into children's publishing because I really liked their artwork. So librarians were gushing over the Dillons.
Christine: I said, "Let me ask you a question. They have won multiple awards as a duo. What about their work?" You know, I have an art degree, on top of the engineering degree. I said, "What about their work has substantially changed?" I said, "Because what you're doing is, if you are constantly giving awards to the same illustration style, then what you are telling or broadcasting to publishers, this is the style we prefer. So someone coming in with a different style may have less of a chance, while everyone's competing to get to the Dillons."
Christine: I said, "So at what point is the award looking for stretching the range of art that we are producing as content creators, rather than saying, 'You know what? I really love what they do and they're really talented.'"
Christine: I said, "This is not the Olympics. At a certain point in time, maybe they get a lifetime achievement award, but please recognize, at every publisher that may have 10 to 12 slots per a book, per a season, you are literally creating a climate in which no one else can get in the game."
Jacqueline: Right. So ...
Christine: Oh, go ahead.
Jacqueline: I'm just saying, it's just amazing how we kind of keep coming back to this self-fulfilling prophecy of award committees awarding a certain type of book. The publisher saying, "Oh, well we want to publish more of those types of books." So there are more of those. Then the award committees have those books to choose from, so they end up choosing more of those types of books.
Christine: Let's make this more stark. Two men, two took 25% of all the medals. Five men took 50%%.
Jacqueline: I have that highlighted right here. I'm looking at it.
Christine: Five men took 50% of the metals and two men took 25%, and five men accounted for 19 of the 66 honor award, which is 30%. When you look at the way this is framed, I had to add this note. I was not trying to take the knife a little deeper, but I said "White illustrators are not eligible for the CSK award, but there's one exception, which is the Dillons. And as a result, a white female earned more CSK awards, a total of six, than any other female African American illustrator, by virtue of being paired with her African American husband."
Christine: So the highest number of awards earned by an individual African American female was four, and that was before we saw that shift to men. So if you were entering this game before, say 1992 as a woman, you had a shot at a medal. If you came in after 1992, good luck. You were shut out mostly every year.
Jacqueline: But a white female did manage to earn the CSK award six times? It's staggering. Again, you just can't wrap your mind around it. It's too astonishing. I have to ask as we wrap this up, this has been so very interesting, do you have a sense of hope and if so, where does that come from? Looking ahead to the future?
Christine: Yes and no. I was very heartened this year to see Gordon James and Derek Barnes, who are both Hallmark homeboys from Kansas City, take in a lot of awards, and the color palette is brighter. What it showed to me is, we have Nancy [Debard 00:34:53], who is also a former Hallmarker, and Kathy Johnson, who does beautiful expressive artwork, now coming in and doing things for the same publisher.
Christine: So, what I'm hoping is that black publishers, like Denene Millner and Eileen Robinson who is coming on the scene to do middle grade stuff, I'm hopeful that there are people who actually understand the problem a little bit better and are saying, "We are not going to wait for mainstream publishers to fix this. We're going to put out the content that people have been clamoring for, and that what we can do is revisit this blog right around the time the committee is meeting."
Christine: I'm going to be very blunt with them. They have to do better. They have to do better, if I have to publish this graph every single day while ... They have to do better, because these books are going into the hands of children, and we have to get over this idea that only men can provide the visual images for our children.
Jacqueline: Right. It's critical. Well, it's a strong message you have, and I sure hope it gets heard. Hopefully, this podcast will help it get heard, because it's critical, absolutely critical. It's been a delight, an absolute delight. I am so appreciative of you taking your time to share the numbers with us, because we have to look at the numbers.
Christine: Well, you are welcome, and we will be doing more research, but there's that pesky little problem about I'm a full-time author. I have bills to pay, but I want to make sure the numbers are done with care. I will be going back and looking at the CSK author numbers to see where we stand with those.
Jacqueline: Fantastic. We will be looking forward to those. Thank you so much Christine Taylor-Butler. Maybe we'll be having you back for when you have those new numbers for us.
Christine: I would really enjoy that.
Jacqueline: Thank you very much. Take care.