Don’t get me wrong. White guys working in children’s books have it good. In fact, it would be fair to say we have it pretty much made. But in the wake of host Daniel Handler’s remarks at Wednesday’s National Book Awards, I find myself thinking about the privileged but peculiar position white guys have in this field. (Some of what I have to say applies to the non-white guys, too, but I am not going to generalize that far.)
I wasn’t at the event and can’t bring myself to watch the video because I know it would have me writhing in empathetic embarrassment. So all of my information is from the transcript and subsequent internet outrage. And what I’m left with—even more than my happiness at Jackie Woodson’s win—is how sorry I feel for Handler, and how easily I could have fallen into the same trap. (I confess to some impatience with all the talk of him stealing Her Moment because Woodson is getting a way longer moment than any children’s National Book Award winner has ever gotten before. Quickly, who won last year?)
The main thing about being a white guy in children’s books is that you get a lot more attention—not to mention Caldecott Medals!—than you would otherwise, and than is really good for you. Award committees want you as a member. Conferences want you to speak. People look to you for a “male point of view”—especially when they are seeking to solve the perennial problem of The Boy Reader, attention to whose needs getting far more ink than the needs of his sister. If you’re good-looking—and here I speak from observation—you are really set. Molly Ivins would have said that you were born on third base, and, professionally speaking, she would have been right.
It’s a nice life that’s easy to get used to. But as Handler learned, it can bite you in the ass. There he was in the spotlight, doing what he’s been amply rewarded for doing for years, and he overreached. He was trying to show us that he was as cool as we’ve long been saying he was: I am so cool I can get away with a racist-not-racist watermelon joke. He couldn’t, and I’m sorry there was no one to tell him he wouldn’t. Or maybe he didn’t think to ask? It’s the least a guy can do.
[Edited 11/26/14 to add: I see this is still making the rounds on Twitter, so I just wanted to make clear that I have since realized how stupid it was (as I posted in the comments on Monday). See also yesterday’s entry, “Some People Smarter than I.]