Episode 20! Owning Our Words: Gatekeepers and Gender in Children's Books by Kate Messner
Welcome to episode twenty of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). This week’s episodes will be slightly different.
In this episode, author/illustrator Grace Lin will be reading an essay by author Kate Messner. “Owning Our Words: Gatekeepers and Gender in Children’s Books” was not an essay written during the month of March, however the content is so poignant to the goals of this podcast, we wanted to share it. Next week, instead of speaking to Kate about her essay, Grace will discuss it with librarian Betsy Bird. Don’t miss it!
Since the Kate’s essay was not a part of the kidlitwomen*’s March essays, we are posting a transcript of it below.
About Kate Messner
Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. Kate also spent fifteen years teaching middle school and earned National Board Certification in 2006. She lives on Lake Champlain with her family and loves spending time outside, whether it’s kayaking in the summer or skating on the frozen lake when the temperatures drop.
Owning Our Words, Gatekeepers and Gender in Children's Books by Kate Messner.
When I was teaching seventh grade English, one of the most important things I ever taught my students was this: words are powerful. We own the words that come out of our mouths and we own the impact those words have upon the world and the people around us. So use your words well. Use them carefully. Use them for good.
Today, I want to talk about some words I've heard coming out of grown up mouths lately. Words spoken by great people. Words that were meant as harmless, friendly fun I'm certain. Words that are having an impact that their speakers probably didn't intent.
I was honored to be a part of a magnificent panel at the Texas Library Association Convention, which featured six authors of science based novels and chapter books for young readers. Two men and four women. It was one of the most enjoyable panels I've ever been on because the conversations felt rich, smart, organic and fun. I so appreciated that the organizers made it a point to include both men and women, something TLA and ALA have been working hard to do.
But at the same time, somebody about the panel troubled me. I sat between a woman author and a male author. Both were talented writers, kind human beings and brilliant thinkers who share a passion for science and getting kids excited about it. Both inspired me with their words and their genuine excitement for their work. And I think most of the people in our nearly all female audience would agree on that.
But the two authors saw different reactions from the crowd. The female author from what I saw received some lovely complements on her books and her presentation. The male author did too. He was also asked for photographs. Someone came up to him and said, “Oh, you are hot. I heard you were hot.” Other comments were easy to pick up as people filed out of the room. “He is so cute.” “I wonder if he does school visits.” “ He's just adorable.”
Now, I'd never fault anyone for thinking those things. The male author was, by all accounts, a perfectly good looking guy. But is that really what we want to focus on in the words we speak aloud? On a panel about science and books for young readers? I'd argue that doing so produces a couple of results that the good hearted people that spoke them probably didn't intend.
One, it devalues the male author's work. He's an accomplished engineer who owns his own company, has devoted much of his life to doing cool science things and now devotes even more of it to helping kids discover science. He's also someone's son, someone's husband and someone's dad. As teachers and librarians, we tell our students that the things that matter are character and kindness, curiosity, passion and hard work. These would be the things to praise aloud, whether the writer/speaker is male or female.
Number two, it sends a strong message to the people who put together panels for teachers and librarians. Teachers and librarians like panels with men, cute young men are good. Bonus points if they are also funny and charming. And while many cute, young, charming funny men are also darn good writers, the end result of filling panels with these men is that publishers are leaving out women who might be just as talented, smart and funny.
Words matter. When we gush over writers because they are men, when we say he's just adorable, what publishers hear is send us your men. We will buy their books. And publishing is a business. So that is what happens. It is happening more and more often.
Today's Publisher Weekly headline shouts Four Children's Luminary Headline Book Con Panel at BEA. In a world where statistically women write more of the books, our luminaries are men. Why? Maybe because that's what we've been asking for with our words and words are powerful.
I've been that teacher in the audience before, the one who turns to a friend and says he's adorable. I didn't think anything of it. I didn't think I was helping to perpetuate sexism in an industry where even though women write more books and hold more editorial positions, men hold a disproportionate number of spots on best seller and award lists. Conversations like this one mostly had with my colleagues have changed the way I think about that kind of comment. It's not harmless, no matter how I intended it. It affects the male colleagues whose work I respect. The female colleagues who should be getting the same kind of attention but aren't. And perhaps most importantly the kids.
When we send out an all male panel, we are sending a strong message to our girl writers. This business of making funny, popular books, it does not belong to you. We all speak some words that we wish we could take back. We all carry biases of one sort or another, as readers, as writers, as teachers, as librarians, as humans. And the very best thing about being a person with powerful words is this. We get to think about the impact of our words. We get to choose every day which ones we speak aloud.