Episode ONE: the origins of the KIDLITwomen* project
Welcome to episode one of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community and a discussion about the essay. To have as many voices heard as possible, we'll have different hosts and as many authors reading their work as possible. However, for our first episode, instead of starting with an essay we are starting with a conversation between kidlitwomen* founders Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal. In this episode, Karen and Grace talk about the origins of kidlitwomen*, the facebook page, what the project became and hopes for the future.
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 will be out in August 2018. 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. 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 comes out in August 2018.
Grace Lin: Hi everyone. This is Grace Lin, children's book author and illustrator, and I'm here talking with my cofounder, Karen Blumenthal, the cofounder of Kid Lit Women. Now, you might not know what Kid Lit Women is or was, so that's why I have Karen here to help me tell you all about this, and the whole reason why this podcast is beginning. Hi Karen.
Karen B.: Hey Grace.
Grace Lin: Let's start at the very beginning because, like I said, some people might not even know what Kid Lit Women is or was, and why we are even doing this podcast. So let's start with how Kid Lit Women began. And I'll let you begin it.
Karen B.: Well, we should do it together. But we were both at a writer's retreat and we were talking about issues. You and I got into a conversation about what I call "male adoration", which is a feeling that even though children's literature is very heavily women, that there's a lot of attention paid to male writers and men in the industry ahead of women. And, interestingly, that's kind of how we met. We hadn't actually met before that moment.
Grace Lin: Yeah. Exactly. Yes. I think we were just walking down the hall and we were talking about it. I remember you saying to me, "What do you wear to a school visit?" And I said, "Oh, well, I usually wear, like, a dress with tights," and then you said, "You never wear jeans?" And I said, "No, no. Never." And you said, "Exactly."
Karen B.: Right.
Grace Lin: The idea that almost every visit that you had seen or had witnessed with a male author, they were always wearing jeans, they're very casually dressed, and how the standards were really different for a male versus a woman in children's books.
Karen B.: Right. And it was across the board. At conferences, sometimes there was huge crowds around the male authors. Not to mean they're not talented and gifted. They are. But there aren't huge crowds around some of the women who are talented and gifted.
Grace Lin: And it wasn't just the crowds, it was the way that the crowds were. Like, there's a lot of swooning and a lot of, "Oh, he's so cute," and, like, "Oh, he's so dreamy and yummy." And I was like, "Ooh, that's kind of strange." And I remember feeling very disconcerted after witnessing some of these types of crowds around certain male authors. And I feel like, yeah, we have a problem, because it's not just demeaning to the women who are doing it, it's demeaning to the men, and it's kind of demeaning to our whole industry.
Karen B.: Right. It is. So from there, we had the opportunity to have a conversation. But you pushed it in absolutely the right direction. You said, "Let's not whine. Let's not complain. Let's talk about what we can do about it. How can we make change?" And so we had this group discussion, and I'll let you pick up.
Grace Lin: Yeah. So that was what was really important to me, because I feel like, even when I was having this conversation with you, I was like, "Wait, I've had this conversation before." And I realized I have had this conversation many, many, many times over the years. Over the years with other women, like, in my writer's groups, in my meetings at conferences with other women. This is a conversation that has gone on for quite a while. And I was like, "I don't think we should just be talking about this anymore. We really ... If we want to stop complaining, we should make something happen." So I was really hoping that at our meeting we could say, "Let's not just sit here and whine and complain. Let's try to think of something where we can actually make a difference and think of a solution, or some solutions to this problem."
Karen B.: Right. And from that, you recall that someone else recommended that we maybe try and address Women's History Month and talk about the issues. But I remember you suggesting that.
Grace Lin: I thought it was Meg Medina who said, "Hey, it's going to be Women's History Month in March. Why don't we try to do something with that? We could have everybody who feels they have an issue to talk about, we could do a post a day and we could talk about these issues, we can uplift women, and we can do it all in the theme of Women's History Month." And everybody seemed to be really excited about that. I'm pretty sure it was Meg. I don't think it was me.
Karen B.: I don't know. I remember ... But it was such a great idea to say, "Let's put it out there. Let's let people share their perspectives on all these issues: school visits, pay, marketing, genderizing of books, even some of the swooning." Right? But we had no idea whether anybody would join or how it would happen. What I remember is, you know, we said, "Well, let's do it on Facebook." Then, there were, like, 15 or 20 people in the room and then you said, "And who wants to do it?" And somehow, Grace, because we suggested it, we said we would.
Grace Lin: I don't think we even said we would. I think it's because we were leading the stream. Like, we were the default. And I remember after that meeting we were sitting there and I was like, "I don't know how to make a Facebook group. Do you know how to make a Facebook group?"
Karen B.: Right. "Google it: "How to start a Facebook group."."
Grace Lin: I'm like, "Why am I in charge of this? I'm, like, next to [inaudible 00:05:41]." But we did it.
Karen B.: [crosstalk 00:05:44]. But then we sat there and we created a Facebook group and we started inviting people. This was, like, a Sunday. Right? And by Tuesday, Wednesday, we had 500 people. It was unbelievable.
Grace Lin: And when we started the group we're like, "Okay, what we'll do is we'll just start this little, private Facebook group where we'll see ... Everybody who's on this Facebook group will write an essay, or a blog post, or a Twitter threat for the month of March." And this group is just so we can schedule, make sure that every day is covered. And we're like, "It'll be great if we get 30 people. And, in our wildest dreams, maybe 60 people, so that way we could have, like, two posts a day." But, yeah, it just loomed out into like 500 people. It was crazy.
Karen B.: Right. I mean, I had the job of finding a public calendar, which was another new technology experience. Then, we got the calendar up that week and people started to sign up. All of a sudden, within, I don't know, a week, not only were the slots full, but there were multiple people agreeing to post every day in March. And this is like the first or second, maybe the second week in February at this point.
Grace Lin: And that was great. I mean, we ended up having at least three posts a day, I think.
Karen B.: Yeah, sometimes as many as six.
Grace Lin: Yeah. It's pretty amazing. And it's hard, because we weren't paying anybody to do this. It was all volunteer and it was all ... but with the sole idea that we were going to take these issues that we had been complaining about, and stop complaining and bringing them out into the open and saying, "Look, I really think this is a problem. What do you think?" I thought it was pretty amazing how there was so much reaction and so much empathy and so much compassion to a lot of the posts.
Karen B.: Right. And what could we do about it? We asked people, "Try and offer a solution."
Grace Lin: Yeah. That was a big deal.
Karen B.: That made it different and more civil.
Grace Lin: Yes. And that was the one rule, I remember. That was the one rule that I felt was really important, was that, "Please write whatever you want. You can write whatever you want. You can write the same topic as somebody else." But the biggest thing is that we didn't want anyone just to kind of complain. We wanted them to offer a solution. Or, if they didn't have a solution, they could ask for a solution. But the whole thing was that we were not just going to sit up there in the internet and say, "This is a problem, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." It was like, "This is a problem. What can we do to change it?"
Karen B.: And then you had the great idea to invite Shannon Hale to write the lead off column, which was amazing.
Grace Lin: I don't think that was my idea.
Karen B.: Well, you contacted her.
Grace Lin: Yes, I did contact Shannon. Yes.
Karen B.: I think you asked.
Grace Lin: Yes. And I contacted Laurie Halse Anderson for the closer.
Karen B.: Right. And Shannon Hale's post, first of all, it was amazing, really thoughtful, about girl books and boy books, and got shared ... I think was seen more than 100,000 times, which is incredible to me.
Grace Lin: It was a great kickoff for us.
Karen B.: It was. And people were talking about it, buzzing about it, tweeting about it. It was a great way to bring attention to the subject and get people going. But I'm curious, what surprised you most from our month experience?
Grace Lin: I was just about to ask you a pretty similar question. I think there was many things that surprised me. It was a lot of work, which actually was not a surprise. I knew that for how much work that I thought it was going to be, it was always going to be more. So that wasn't a surprise. I guess what was surprising to me was that we opened this private group to, we called it the Women of Kid Lit, because that was the original hashtag that we were going to go with. We had all these people join in.
Grace Lin: I guess what first surprised me was that when everybody joined in, they all started talking and having conversations and really talking and discussing things. It got kind of heated, almost right away. I wasn't expecting that. Like I said, I thought we were just having this little group. So it was like, "I'll take Monday, March 2nd." "I'll take Thursday." You know? And, "This is what I'm going to write about. What do you guys think?" I thought it was going to be a very quiet group that was just going to be about scheduling and maybe some critiquing about their ideas and their essays. But it became, at least for a while, became a very talkative group about some hot-button topics.
Karen B.: Right. Were you surprised at the sort of variation in how people wanted to approach some of these topics?
Grace Lin: Yeah. I think that's another thing that I really thought. I really thought that everybody was going to have ... which just shows my blind spot. I thought everybody was going to come with pretty close to the same ideals as I had, because I feel like, "Oh, this is going to be a very, very woman-centric, feminist kind of group and everybody is going to think similar to me." And I was surprised to see how different everybody came to the table. I think there's a lot of people who believed that they were feminists, yet, compared to some of the other members of the board, seemed very conservative. So that surprised me.
Karen B.: And the progressives, more progressive? Yeah?
Grace Lin: Yeah. so what surprised you?
Karen B.: I was surprised by the range of topics. We talk about advances, or school visits, or marketing, but there were fascinating essays on disability issues that I thought were very interesting. Agism, I realized, I told you this, I discovered that I was old. I somehow missed that memo. But it was true. And I hadn't really ... I think you don't see yourself that way, so I hadn't really factored in. Somebody wrote a great essay about author photos and it never occurred to me that, after 10 books, I had never actually had my photo in one of my books, until I read that.
Grace Lin: Oh, interesting.
Karen B.: And this, actually, my next book will have my photo in it for the first time, and now I'm worried I'm too old. So that was very eye-opening to me. The disability issues. Then, we had very serious, and I thought productive discussions about gender itself, which is very much an issue for some people. Then, for some of us, we're less exposed to that. So it was very informative. I learned a lot from those conversations.
Grace Lin: Yeah. For me, it really revealed a blind spot for me. I think that we had gone into this with Kid Lit Women, the idea of feminism, we were centering it around Women's History Month, and we received, and probably justifiably so, a lot of flack from non-binary and transgender people who felt that we were leaving them out. I think it was an eye-opening and learning time for us, I feel.
Karen B.: No, I agree, and important, to sort of figure out how to address all of the issues. We didn't have solutions for everything, but we tried. I have to say, the nicest feedback I got, which I was never sure if we actually accomplished, but the nicest feedback I got was that it was such civil conversation, that it was productive and it was thoughtful, but it was also ... people really did refrain from trolling and name-calling. We did monitor it for that, which was incredibly time-consuming. But, generally, that wasn't an issue. That was really nice. That was a pleasant surprise for me.
Grace Lin: And I think for me, I was just trying to think about ... For me, I realized I had to kind of rearrange my thoughts about what we were trying to accomplish. I mean, the two things that we were definitely trying to accomplish, I think we did with varied success. The big thing was that we just wanted to take these conversations out from behind closed doors, which we did middlingly well, because the essays were public. But what happened a lot was a lot of people wanted to have these conversations in private, in the private group. And it was really hard to nudge them all out into the public.
Grace Lin: It was making me realize how afraid we are to let our thoughts out in public. Then, the other goal, I think, was to try to affect change. I really don't know if we affected that much change, but I do know that we did at least open some people's minds, which is really great. It opened my mind.
Grace Lin: I remember having a really interesting conversation with Laurel Snyder about how I didn't know what I was accomplishing with this group. And she said, "You know, you just have to think about it as moving everybody just one seat down the table." She's like, "One side of the table is, like, a Ku Klux Klan member. The other side of the table is, like, the most enlightened being ever. Right? And everybody is kind of sitting somewhere in the middle. Your job is to try to move everybody one seat closer to the enlightened being. Including myself. Everybody's just trying to move a little bit closer to the enlightened being. We're not trying to make great leaps and run over to that side of the table. We're just trying to all move one step over, or one seat over."
Grace Lin: When I thought of it that way, it really helped a lot and really made me realize what we're doing could be helpful. It's just a little bit slower of a progress than maybe we all hoped.
Karen B.: And it is a challenge to affect change. But I think for me some of the growth was on these questions, various questions around diversity. And I thought your essay was super helpful in that it gave me language, because you said, "Sure, you can write these things. But the question you should ask is, "Should you?"." And that's such good, meaningful advice that I have used it and put it through my little head several times. But we also addressed the all-white, male panel. And, of course, when you start looking you just start seeing a lot more of that. And you start to see conferences where they really do a great job making sure that doesn't happen, and appreciating that. And we also addressed diversity panels.
Karen B.: So I had sort of tentatively agree to a panel to a tiny little book festival in a tiny little place in Texas this fall. And I had just tentatively agreed. Then, when they wrote recently and asked to confirm, I'd gathered up my little bit of courage and I said, "It's very important to me that there's diversity. And even though I know you're a small town in Texas, will there be diversity in this group?" And she wrote back and said, "I have approached some people and been turned down, but I'm open to it." So I sent her a list of people, about six or eight possibilities. She said, "I approached two of them, but I'm going to approach the others that you've mentioned." And I thought, "Okay, I've learned something here. Will I be successful? I don't know. It's not her job to report back to me." But I feel like that was a really valuable lesson for me. And I'm grateful to know and I'm grateful to be aware and to try to do better myself.
Grace Lin: Yeah. I think it's those kind of small changes that we've been able to facilitate, maybe, with this Kid Lit Women. And I think that makes me feel proud.
Karen B.: Right. And to see the conversations continue on these issues. Where I still don't know how we make change is, I think one of the areas we had the most essays about and the most conversations were about girl books and boy books, and about boy books are for everybody and girl books are just for girls. Then, also pigeonholing writers, women writers who write about girls, as girl writers. I was dismayed at how deep those feelings are among some of our gatekeepers, librarians, parents.
Grace Lin: And the way they're marketed even, too. I remember-
Karen B.: And marketing. And how do we start to really break that open and change that? I know we heard from parents and from teachers who have taken a stand themselves. But how do we do it more broadly and just make people aware?
Grace Lin: Yeah. And those are the challenges that we are going to keep facing, where I don't know if there's any one solution. We just have to keep doing all different kinds of things, which is what we're doing, I guess.
Karen B.: Right. And opening more conversations about book covers and the marketing. Not to take things away from girls, because girls should have things that are super meaningful to them. But there's no reason to say something's a girl book, and therefore not for boys. That's troubling.
Grace Lin: Yeah. And it's also troubling because it makes it seem like ... it was like that article that was posted a while back about how girls can embrace boy things and they're fine, but if a boy embraces a girl thing, it's a real problem. So instead of making it seem like girl things are of equal stature as "boy things", they're still seen as kind of below. So that's kind of a real problem, I think.
Karen B.: Interesting. And we still haven't quite gotten to the gatekeeper problem. I now have a new name for it, Grace. I was chatting online with somebody who said, "Well, when a cute male author comes in the office, we put on our lipstick." And now I think of it as the "lipstick problem". I was like, "Why? Why do you put on your lipstick? Oh, you mean, wait, you don't put on lipstick for me?"
Grace Lin: See? That seems like it could be a whole new essay that we should put on Kid Lit Women.
Karen B.: For next year, maybe. So now what do we do, Grace? We had this big month. And I have to add one little thing that I also thought was very funny. By the end of the month, it was sort of hard to keep up, because there was so much great stuff. Then, because we're all deadline-driven writers, everybody wanted their post on the last two days.
Grace Lin: I know. We had, like, 20 posts just in the last two days. It was so crazy.
Karen B.: Right. And I don't know. I think a lot of us felt like, "Oh my gosh. I can't even keep up anymore."
Grace Lin: Yeah, especially those last two days. I was just like, "I don't know what we're posting. I haven't read it yet."
Karen B.: Right.
Grace Lin: So, yeah, that's a great question. Where should we go from here? Where are you going from here? Where am I going from here? And how are we going there together?
Karen B.: Right. So you want to talk about the podcast, obviously?
Grace Lin: Sure. Well, I mean, obviously we're doing the ... I'm in charge of this Kid Lit Women Podcast, which is why we're recording this now. Which, basically, I'm just taking everybody ... not everybody's, but most of the essays from the month, we're having authors read the essay. Then, I'm having, me or somebody else, will be having a discussion, a very short, 15-minute discussion with the author about their essay, which I'm hoping keeps these issues more alive longer, and also it just furthers the conversation more.
Grace Lin: What's really interesting about this podcast is that, even though I'm, "producing it", I'm hoping that it's not just me being the host. I'm hoping this will be, like, a real, community podcast, where it won't just be me talking to the authors of the essays, but other authors talking to other authors. So we'll have a guest host. Hopefully, you'll be a guest host for a couple episodes, Karen.
Karen B.: Yes, I will. I promise.
Grace Lin: And then other women as well, or men if they'd like to, or non-binary or trans. We're welcoming anyone. So, with the idea that as many people's voices can be heard as possible, that it's not just my voice with somebody else, but many people's voices and many people's discussions and many people's conversations. Because, if anything, I've learned my viewpoint is actually quite narrow, and I need it to be broadened. So it would be great to hear what other people say to each other, too.
Karen B.: Right. Right. And on my end, we know that STBWI is not for everybody. Not everyone belongs, and that there have been some issues at STBWI conferences that have been part of the #MeToo discussion. But it's a logical place for children's book writers and illustrators to talk. So we're going to take a lunch at the summer conference in LA to talk about Kid Lit Women. My hope is that we'll talk about some of these issues and talk about ways we might do other things to address them. The question is, what? Do we want to do another month of essays next March? Do we need a forum or a conference of some kind? Is there a need for an organization? I kind of hope not. That's a lot of work. But maybe there's other ways. Maybe people want to take on individual issues and find ways to bring more attention to them. So I'm hoping we can have a conversation there that may help us address some of the issues that have been raised and move towards productive solutions.
Grace Lin: Yeah. It would be really awesome if you could somehow do some kind of symposium or something like that, that people could talk about these things in person and in public, not online, but people could actually meet and talk, which I think is more conducive to really, meaty conversation.
Karen B.: Right. And solutions, too.
Grace Lin: Exactly.
Karen B.: Yes. Yes. But then, are we going to do it again next March?
Grace Lin: That's the question. We'll see. I do not want to commit. But we'll see.
Karen B.: It sort of depends on this year's deadlines though.
Grace Lin: Yes, it does. But at least we had this last past March, and at least we'll have this podcast, which hopefully will archive these essays and these conversations even further. And who knows? The most idyllic situation, we won't even need to have these conversations next March.
Karen B.: Right. Well, we will ... the Kid Lit Women page will stay, the public page.
Grace Lin: Which is where these podcasts can be found, as well as the page I'll make for this podcast. But always new episodes will be linked there to say, "A new episode is out." So the Kid Lit Women Facebook public page will always be around.
Karen B.: Right. And that's a good forum. And I hope it'll continue to be a good forum, and we'll continue to keep an eye on it. But it is great to see people interact and discuss and suggest posts that address these issues. It does give us a place, at least, to have the discussions. So that's very rewarding.
Grace Lin: Yeah. That's true. I guess we'll just keep fighting the good fight.
Karen B.: And learning.
Grace Lin: Yes, and learning.
Karen B.: We'll keep learning.
Grace Lin: All right. So thanks so much, Karen. This was great.
Karen B.: Thank you, Grace. It's been a real pleasure to get to work with you and to get to know you.
Grace Lin: I know. Hopefully we'll work again together soon. All right. Thanks Karen.
Karen B.: Thank you.