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In Defense of Gentle Men

frazee_farmer and the clownAlthough I found much to celebrate in the aftermath of the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards announcements, I admit that I sat licking my wounds over one favorite picture book that didn’t make the Caldecott cut: Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown. I’d given a copy to my eight-year-old daughter Caroline, and my liking of the book deepened into outright adoration through our shared reading.

“Look how the farmer teaches the clown-kid farm things, and the clown teaches the farmer clown things. But the farmer messes up the juggling, and that’s funny,” she noted. Later, she expanded her analysis of Frazee’s complex and complementary characterizations: “How this book works is, it’s like he’s happy but then really sad,” she said pointing to the clown, “and like he’s sad but then is really happy,” she concluded with respect to the farmer.

Appearances are deceptive, in other words, and a happy face can mask inner pain, as surely as a gruff exterior can obscure a heart of gold.

I’ve long admired Frazee’s work, and I had high hopes that this picture book might be the one that would propel her from two-time Caldecott Honor bridesmaid status to Caldecott Medal bride. To me, it’s the whole package — a remarkable feat of wordless storytelling, a rich visual experience, an emotionally powerful and satisfyingly rich narrative.

Clearly, behind their closed doors in Chicago, the committee wasn’t in agreement with me.

Having served on the 2011 Caldecott committee, I can attest to the integrity of the process. It’s a collaborative effort in which many voices and perspectives weigh in to come to agreement, and I know from experience that one’s favorite books don’t always rise to the top. Due to the confidentiality of deliberations, we’ll never know why Frazee’s (brilliant!) wordless book didn’t make the cut for the Medal or for one of the six (six!) Honor citations; but rumblings outside of the committee room, on the internet, and in a mock Caldecott session that I oversaw suggest a very sorry reason that some people (please note — I am not pointing any fingers at those on the 2015 committee) weren’t feeling the love for this particular title.

And I’m not even talking about coulrophobia here. Reactions based on how “creepy” clowns are don’t stick in my craw the same way other comments do: those about the perceived “creepy” dynamic between the elder farmer (described by Caroline as “kind and nice”) and the small clown. The mock Caldecott I oversaw last December was the first place I encountered this perception. A participant suggested that others (not necessarily she) might take issue with the scenes of an older, solitary man sitting by the bedside of a young, vulnerable child.

Whaaaat? I wanted to say.

I just couldn’t see how the farmer could be read as predatory. Gruff (at first), sure…but a threat to this little clown-kid?

No. Way.

What I saw instead in this reception of the book was cause for an indictment of a contemporary culture that persists in viewing older, solitary, and I would add, gentle men as threats. It’s a pernicious viewpoint that smacks of rigid gender roles (real men aren’t nurturers, so there must be some sinister motivation behind his caring demeanor) and homophobia (Why is this guy alone? Where’s the lady, the angel of the house, to keep him in check?), and it makes me want to look for the nearest soapbox. Don’t get me wrong — I know that some children do suffer terrible abuse at the hands of men. I don’t deny or minimize this awful truth. It’s the automatic equation of the older, solitary, gentle man with predator that troubles me.

I heard similar rumblings after my Caldecott committee named A Sick Day for Amos McGee as the 2011 Medalist. In several subsequent conversations with students, Amos was deemed “creepy.” To my bafflement, he was likened to Mister Rogers — in a bad way. Now, I admit that I have a real soft spot for Fred Rogers. I grew up loving his show (go ahead and watch this clip of his Lifetime Achievement speech from the Daytime Emmys; it’s worth it). I naively hadn’t realized the vitriol, or at least mistrust, with which some regard him — saying he comes across as a pedophile.

Whaaat? I wanted to say (again).

But a teacher doesn’t say such things if she wants her students to think through assumptions and such. So instead I asked, “Tell me more. Why do you think Mister Rogers is creepy?” Or Amos? Or Frazee’s farmer?

The gentle, nurturing, and perhaps sometimes effeminate attributes of these solitary older male characters quickly came to the forefront of our discussion. While steering the class into a consideration of gender norms and their limiting power, I was nevertheless heartbroken. Not just on behalf of Amos, or Mister Rogers, or now for Frazee’s farmer, but also the many wonderfully gentle, older, solitary men in the real world — and the children they nurture.

I find myself determined to rise up in defense of them. I want to highlight others like them in children’s literature to assert their rightful, and I would argue crucial, place in children’s (reading) lives. I’m particularly invested in this as the mother of sons who need and deserve diverse models of masculinity, and as the mother of children with not one but two stepfathers, along with their two devoted moms.

My ex-wife’s current partner is a loving, playful, energetic sort who evokes the type of fatherly spirit found in Bob Shea’s Oh, Daddy! He tussles with the kids and delights in roughhouse play and open physical affection. Meanwhile, my husband, Sean, makes me think of all those thoughtful, patient, gentle mouse dads in Kevin Henkes’s picture books, letting the kids come to him and greeting them with open arms. “I always wanted a dad,” my son Stevie whispered when Sean tucked him into bed on the night we announced our engagement.

Peers for Frazee’s gruff farmer, too, abound in other examples of children’s literature. Perhaps my favorite is found not on a farm, but in the middle of a city during the Great Depression in Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Gardener. Little Lydia Grace melts the heart of her crotchety bachelor uncle Jim in this picture book, and I have a hard time getting through it without tearing up at the sight of his goodbye to her at book’s end. Might others regard his hug as…too much? Or his earlier gestures of kindness as somehow problematic?

Other men in children’s books needn’t be transformed to display remarkable generosity and kindness to children, because these are their defining attributes. Two nameless characters come immediately to mind: the man who tosses Max drumsticks at the end of Brian Pinkney’s Max Found Two Sticks and the one who gives Ben a trumpet at the conclusion of Rachel Isadora’s Ben’s Trumpet. These are quick, resolved interactions between characters, the men appearing to instigate wish-fulfillment and to conclude, satisfyingly, the boys’ stories. But in light of the responses to Amos, the farmer, and Mister Rogers that I’ve detailed, might some regard these acts as incidents of stranger danger?

Far more dangerous, it seems to me, is a lack of interrogation of the cultural forces that could lead readers to perceive such men as threats. Men’s nurturing roles in children’s lives are not only potentially beneficial to children, they are liberating for women, long expected to be the primary (if not sole) nurturers in families. So, from my perch up here on the soapbox, I’ll cheer on diverse examples of masculinity in books for young readers and continue to rail against the limited and limiting lenses that would deem the farmer or Amos or Mister Rogers “creepy.” I’m not saying that all of these books deserve medals for the ways they push against gender norms, but surely such themes should not be cited as the reason not to recommend or reward a book.

Megan Dowd Lambert About Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons College’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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  1. Thank you for this post. As a self-proclaimed “Gentle Man” myself, I can’t help but consider the reality that I am entering into a female-dominated profession, and, thus, that I am entering into library spaces where my very presence might make parents and caregivers uncomfortable. It is not just for me but for everyone that we need books that display complex masculinities (and, moreover, complex gender identities across the spectrum). That’s part of why I loved GASTON so much. Yet, when I read GASTON to a class of second graders, I was dismayed that they couldn’t get past gender binaries. To them, Gaston was behaving “like a girl” and one student even assumed Gaston and Antoinette were in a same-sex relationship at the book’s end. I tried to mediate the shared reading as best I could but, as I am only a volunteer librarian on Fridays, I have admittedly little influence on these kids’ lives. It’s a tired question (maybe because an answer has yet to appear) but how do we get past this?

    I didn’t love this book (see instead: Ashman & Robinson’s RAIN), but I do love the conversation it is starting and am curious to read what others say here.

  2. Megan, as always, you’re so thoughtful. I think you make a great case for more open-mindedness re gentle men. I find this prejudice particularly heartbreaking in the case of men who want to teach young children, and get negative comments, even threats. But I also think it’s important to include people’s gut caution toward strangers into the loop, as girls in particular are often told to be polite rather than trust a lack of trust. I’m not indicting the Farmer or Mr. Rogers or anyone, just saying that when people express some hesitation re moving close to someone, I want to consider what’s behind that. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for an excellent and heartbreaking post. We humans have a l-o-n-g way to go.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thank you, Megan. Being married to a gentle man who is a teacher, I am well aware of the fear and apprehension of them. And, as I have written about this beautiful book before, I will not go on and on. But, you know how I feel about the farmer and Amos and so many wonderful men like them.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Jeannine,
    I understand that gut reaction, but…
    As a teacher, I am horrified by the raw fear that children feel toward strangers, especially when the real predators are almost never strangers. I usually unpack this feeling at the beginning of each school year–the kids are proud that they know not to talk to strangers. I then challenge–“really? How will you meet new people? Don’t you love talking to new people in line at the grocery or sitting next to you on the train or a plane? How about if you go to your gramma’s house and she has folks there? Or someone comes into your house to do work? Can you speak to them? Can you ask them about their job?” I push these literal-minded 7-8 years olds to realize that talking to strangers is fun–just don’t go anywhere with them without telling your parents.
    When I was talking at ALA with someone who had a gut reaction to the Farmer, it took me a little while to wipe the shocked expression off my face. It never occurred to me.
    I am glad Megan has made me think about it as a more global issue.
    Stay warm,
    Robin

  6. Robin, thank you for your thoughts and being such an amazing teacher. I’m not really looking to clone people, but if I were, you and your gentle husband would be at the top of my list. Every school should be so lucky to have one of each of you.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I love Marla Frazee in general and THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN in particular, but I’ve been hesitant to post this since I was on the Caldecott committee. While I cannot speak on behalf of the committee or share anything about our deliberations, I believe I can speak on my own behalf and the experiences I had in preparation for those deliberations.

    One of the things about a wordless picture book is that the author/illustrator cedes a greater degree of control over the narrative to the reader, and this adds layers of complexity to a book as various readings yield different insights. I personally do not see the Farmer as a pedophile, do not think that children will see the Farmer as a pedophile, and do not find the whole Farmer-as-pedophile argument very convincing. However, I absolutely think this is a valid way to read the text–not the only valid way to read the text, mind you–but certainly a valid one, indictments of contemporary culture notwithstanding.

    The benevolent/malevolent nature of the Farmer is not the only place where ambiguity enters into this story. In an interview with Roger on this very site, Marla Frazee said, “I was originally thinking maybe it would take a few days for the circus train to come back, so there would be more time for their relationship to deepen and change. But there were issues about that, because I wanted it to be a real child who’s lost and scared. Once the child and the farmer got too comfortable with each other, a couple days in and we’d have a different relationship, and that wouldn’t work.”

    I’d already read the book dozens of times before I read this interview, and was surprised because I had assumed that the story did, in fact, take place over several days rather than a single one–and I know from discussion with children and colleagues throughout the year that I was not necessarily alone in reading the book that way. It does change the relationship slightly (as Frazee suggests), and people may get varying mileage out of the ending because of reading it that way, but I cannot accept any one reading as definitive in a holistic evaluation.

    I mention this not to imply that this was a problem that the Caldecott committee had with this book–I’ve already told you that my comments cannot be read in that light–but rather to illustrate that the perception problem is endemic to wordless picture books, and I could go through each of the ones that were published this year, and point out the various ways one might construct meaning from the pictures. Personally, I love how wordless picture books invite multiple interpretations, and find that to be a strength of the genre, but I know that not everyone will agree with me.

    While the perception of the Farmer plagued Megan’s mock Caldecott, an entirely different one plagued mine. I conducted almost two dozen different mock Caldecotts over the course of the year with children and adults, and THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN was always included in the mix. Since it was such a strong year for wordless picture books, my first dozen mocks only featured wordless picture books: DRAW!, THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN, FLORA AND THE PENGUIN, HUNTERS OF THE GREAT FOREST, BOW-WOW’S NIGHTMARE NEIGHBORS, FLASHLIGHT, and THE GIRL AND THE BICYCLE. Imagine my surprise when the one book that got absolutely no starred reviews–THE GIRL AND THE BICYCLE–dominated not only THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN but all those other highly acclaimed wordless picture books; it won every single time I did it with adults. The children, on the other hand, had a different wordless favorite: BOW-WOW’S NIGHTMARE NEIGHBORS. Now I don’t have any brilliant insights why these books consistently rose to the top, and I’m not necessarily offering passionate arguments that they are, in fact, more distinguished than THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN. I’m simply going to ask you to reread Thom Barthelmess’s comments from a previous post.

    He says, “With respect to The Farmer and the Clown, I think we want to be careful when we ask why it didn’t win. That suggests that it was the presumptive winner, and was somehow knocked off of its pedestal in some nefarious, agenda-ridden way. Lots of books didn’t win. Are we to ask the same question about all of those? If the committee did their job right (and I’m betting they did), every book they looked at started on equal footing. I’d guess that there were lots of folks who liked it very much, but found three books they liked better. Let’s not forget that, even though the committee chose seven books, each individual member only voted for three. The Farmer and the Clown could have been in everyone’s top five, but with a few (different) book ahead of it.”

  8. Tere Hager says:

    I did not read “The Farmer and the Clown” until after the Caldecott announcement, so I had already read many “creepy clown” and “pedophile farmer” comments in several places. When I finally read it, I was shocked. I reread it several times trying to find where I had missed the creepiness. To me,it just wasn’t there. Instead,it was a beautiful, sweet, gentle story. Are there no longer gruff but lovable grandpas around? Stoic but sweet Midwestern farmer types ? I live in Austin so I am surrounded by hipsters, but I lament a world without these quiet , gentle men.

  9. As the daughter of a “gentle man” and the mother of three “gentle” men, thank you for this post.

  10. Georgia Beaverson says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and needed article. I would add William Steig’s wonderfully gentle male characters to your list. It’s a sad day when gentle is equated with creepy.

  11. Fran Hodgkins says:

    Megan, thank you for a thoughtful post. I, too, loved this book, and thought I’d missed something when it was not included among the honor books. Your post made me think back to a couple of years ago when an agent declined a book of mine that included one of the gentle men you describe, saying that she found him “creepy” and suggesting I change him to a woman.

  12. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    But, Jonathan, as Megan beautifully asserts, it’s not the wordlessness that makes people wary of the farmer, it’s their own prejudice. What words could Marla Frazee have written in a text to assure readers of the gentle man’s intent?

  13. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    If the little clown had tumbled into Miss Rumphius’s garden, would people have batted an eye? (perv-wise)

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But, Elissa, doesn’t reading prejudice affect all books? Don’t we filter all of our reading through our preferences and our experiences? I mean, this isn’t something new that was invented and applied to only THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN, right? Don’t you think all the books on the Caldecott table (or the Sydney Taylor table, for that matter) were subject to reading prejudices, whether silly, misguided, or otherwise? Didn’t they all have to pass through that gauntlet?

    Of course, there are a couple of things that Marla Frazee could have done, but they are all inferior to what she actually *did* do. She could have (a) removed or altered the pictures that are suggesting this interpretation for some people or (b) she could have written a text that would have accomplished the same thing.

    A normal reader can read this book any way that they want to without questioning their reading prejudices (and I applaud Megan for calling those readers to task). A committee member, on the other hand, does not have that luxury–unless everybody shares the same reading prejudices (which is unlikely). Can any one reading, therefore, be definitive? Clowns can be creepy–or not. Farmers can be gentle–or not. The book can have child appeal–or not. The artistic technique can be excellent–or not. It can be the most distinguished picture book–or not. As a committee member, my job is to try to hold all of these possibilities in my mind and weigh their competing claims in a fair, holistic process against the other books in the field. Personally, I don’t think the farmer-as-pedophile argument holds much weight and that you are all chasing a conspiracy theory up the wrong tree.

    As I have suggested, I did a lot of thinking, reflecting, and research on wordless picture books this past year, and one author/illustrator said of a previous wordless book that he was surprised at how the reader responses varied so widely from his true intentions, and that is precisely the risk that one takes with a wordless picture book. Reading is already a collaboration between the author and/or illustrator and the reader, but a wordless picture book requires an even greater degree of trust on the part of the author/illustrator that the reader will receive the book in the spirit that it was intended.

    The reader of a wordless picture book has more responsibility for constructing the narrative from the pictures. Again, all of the wordless picture books had to pass through that gauntlet, not just THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN. Was the potential dual nature of the Farmer more problematic than the flaps in FLORA AND THE PENGUIN? Or the visual puzzles in BOW-WOW’S NIGHTMARE NEIGHBORS? Or the lack of textual exposition in QUEST? All of those author/illustrators took a chance that the readers would find their way.

  15. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jonathan, I don’t understand how you can find the pedophile argument unconvincing AND valid at the same time.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But I don’t think I said or implied that!

    It’s valid to read the book in such a way that the farmer’s attention to the clown makes you uncomfortable at a certain point in the book. It’s not the way that I choose to read the book, or that the children I’ve worked with choose to read the book, or the way that Marla Frazee intended to have the book read, but I do see it now that it’s been pointed out to me. I also think it’s valid to read LOVE YOU FOREVER and THE GIVING TREE in a similarly dual and polarizing fashion. I can see both sides of the arguments in relation to all of these books.

    But there’s a difference between saying that you as an individual reader are entitled to read this book however you want and saying that you as a committee member can bring your baggage into a committee meeting and foist it on all of us. You certainly have a right to bring it up in discussion, but not necessarily to expect everybody to endorse it. Even viewed in the worst possible light, there is no evidence that the Farmer is, in fact, a pedophile; there is only the vaguest suggestion that he might be, and only then in a couple of pictures. As a committee member, I cannot allow a possible subjective interpretation of one possible reading to become the objective benchmark that the entire committee must use to decide whether the book is distinguished or not. In a holistic evaluation, I do not think it can be the fatal flaw, negating all of the phenomenally good things that the book does accomplish. And I repeat this caveat: I’m speaking for myself and my general philosophy of committee work rather than specifically what happened in the Caldecott committee.

    So the reading is valid; the argument is weak. Does that make sense?

  17. Removed by request of the commenter

  18. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    The only way a pedophile reading of FARMER AND THE CLOWN works is if you say “well, there are no words to clarify that the geezer ISN’T a pedophile so he totally could be.” And that is nonsense.

  19. So true, and so hard to wrap your head around. When I worked at a children’s museum, we (and I completely include myself) definitely gave more credit and attention and love to the dads that came in with their kids, whether they were single or just alone because their wives were elsewhere (because certainly we hetero’d them, too), because it was just SO ADORABLE, and because there is definitely also a real thing about how dads doing traditionally mom jobs is a Big Deal in this society that says it’s emasculating to like hanging out with your kids. But then if a guy doesn’t look “right” (not the right kind of dorky or not under-35 enough or too white – I think there’s a weird racial privilege there that I need to do some unpacking of – or not cool and casual enough that he makes you shocked he has kids and isn’t a rockstar) and yet he’s still hanging around with children, or he’s a kindergarten teacher, or whatever the case may be, he’s a creeper. It’s strange that we privilege in some cases the same thing that we call creepy, just based on age, race, clothes, etc. If you’re alone with kids and have your hair done, you’re a Hot Dad. If you’re alone with kids and don’t dress well, you’re creepy.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks to all for an enlightening discussion. I’m going to bow out now, but I look forward to Calling Caldecott next season when I can post my opinions about books and processes more freely. :-)

  21. Violet Jane says:

    All of this talk about “The Farmer and the Clown” possibly being a pedophilic picture book or creepy or inappropriate is a smokescreen and utter, fantastic nonsense. The 2015 Youth Media Awards were all about “diversity” for diversity’s sake. I have said it, and I stand by what I say.

  22. Seems like a good time to reread this Ursula Nordstrom letter in defense of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/04/it-is-only-adults-who-ever-feel.html

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