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It’s always men’s night at the Caldecott

This is a perennially thorny subject, one that’s been aired before. But. Seeing the gender disparity amongst Caldecott winners this starkly expressed is kind of hard to ignore.

Do we want to take this on again? Has anything changed since Roger’s 2007 blog post? Thom Barthelmess, past president of ALSC and currently curator of the Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University, looked at 75 years of Caldecott winning books and made this slide for a 2012 power point presentation on “Caldecott Culture” (delivered at the Center for Children’s Literature at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin).

I asked him recently what might account for such a significant disparity:

THOM: “It’s such a curious phenomenon to me, Martha, and a real puzzlement. When I gave the talk I invited the audience to think with me about what was going on. We came up with a bunch of possible factors, most of them questions: What is gender breakdown of picture book illustrators in general? What is the gender breakdown of art school illustration students? Are these groups predominantly male, too? What do we make of the predominantly female makeup of the Caldecott committee? What role does that play? Are there trends in illustrative style or approach that follow gender lines? Might those trends line up with what the committee is looking for? Might men have an easier time getting a ‘distinctive’ manuscript published? One thing that seems sure is that there are probably lots of things at play at once. What I found especially surprising is that the gender gap is actually increasing over time. Men have always predominated, but the difference is especially marked over the last few decades.”

I agree, that last point surprises me as well. What is going on?

(Just to be clear that this is not solely a Caldecott phenomenon, but a more pervasive picture-book phenom, I examined the 2013 picture books we starred at The Horn Book through this illustrator-gender-disparate lens, and the tally is: men, 15; women, 6.)


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I can think of two possible explanations (excuses?). One is that we, men and women alike, may, however subconsciously, value the contributions of males more than females. Two (and it was Lolly who suggested this to me), it could be that male artists are more likely to make picture books that are distinguished–not necessarily in quality, but in deliberately looking different and groundbreaking and edgy, that is, dick-wagging.

  2. When I looked at this several years ago (and I don’t think much has changed since) I was able to establish that although there are more female practicing children’s book illustrators than male (based on a sampling of SCBWI illustrator members), women are more likely to illustrate “younger” picture books and men are more likely to illustrate “older” picture books (based on a sampling from trade catalogs). And the Caldecott tends to go to older picture books. Case in point: Denise Fleming and David Weisner.

    I suspect that there are a number of other factors involved, though.

  3. Interesting post. I just made a comment this morning about how it irks me whenever I see a children’s book panel, especially when it’s about illustration, and it’s all men or mostly men on the panel, nothing against the men, but I see it all too often. Another question that I wonder about is what role does the predominantly female makeup of editors in children’s publishing play as well?

  4. I really appreciate the approach here, but of course, this gender gap phenomenon isn’t limited to the Caldecott. So I wonder if it is, in part, that girls are taught to read across gender lines and boys aren’t. As a result, I wonder if: a) librarians, who are rightfully concerned about boys reading look to award books (subconsciously or not) that could get boys to read and b) because women are taught to read across gender lines, books that appeal to boys feel more universal. The solution might be about getting boys to read girl books and getting girl books covers that reflect literary quality. (remember Maureen Johnson’s brilliant post of covers:

  5. Well, to me it’s simple. Men get more book illustration jobs. So the ratios reflect the reality of what is going on. The token woman amongst the clan of men award winners is getting old. One female blogger told me that women do not paint bold and to paint “balls out”. Talk about insulting, women who do not value themselves as an equal to the men, then giving shade to their fellow females. What about the working male illustrators married to art directors and editors? That’s a factor. Another one is when heads of organizations and editors tell me how handsome that male illustrator is and never mentions the female’s beauty. The fan-girl thing with the males is obvious now that I have social media. And no matter what they say (especially the misogynists) get twitters and gurgles and love from the harem, woops, book professionals and colleagues. I really do not see progressive points of view when it comes to this subject matter. It makes me sad and frustrated and not wanting to buy books because I’m not feeling the equal love of my colleagues no matter how hard I try. I used to joke with my agent that I need to dress up like a hot young male to get any work.

  6. Martha, I’m interested to see that you found the trend in the Horn Book stars as well. And that gives us the chance to look at the sample. What was the ratio of women to men in all of the picture books reviewed?

  7. Is the disparity the same/similar/worse if Honor books are included? Just wondering . . . I was a huge fan of Pamela Zagarenski’s Sleep Like a Tiger Last Year (written by Mary Logue) and have high hopes for Melissa Sweet’s A Splash of Red (written by Jen Bryant) this year . . . so maybe there is hope!

  8. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    And, now that I look over our list. It’s pretty masculine isn’t it?
    Of course, in deliberations, no one is paying attention to gender or race at all. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering the authors’ and illustrators’ names, but I can remember the art on every single spread.
    I wish I could publish the list of books we considered in January, but, of course I cannot. I cleaned out my computer after my Caldecott year. It would have been interesting to look over the list and see what the pool of contenders looked like.
    I have heard Hope’s argument before (that the librarians love the young men writers and illustrators) and I do see some pretty embarrassing gushing at the booths at ALA. (I am NOT a gusher.) But, on the committee, it’s just all about the books on the table.

    But, if the books on the table are all illustrated by men…

  9. I’m a children’s book author/illustrator new to the field (but not the world). Must say I was surprised to be the only woman included in a recent reading series for children at a NY museum, but that 20% number seems in line with what I’m hearing.

  10. Total side note here, but an interesting thing I’ve found is that the Newbery has nearly identical numbers, but in reverse – 66% female to 34% male.

  11. I took an art history class with Eunice Lipton, a strong feminist and art reviewer. She took us to a museum show of women artists who were overlooked throughout the centuries. This is not new under the sun. But it would be fantastic to break the status quo in my lifetime with my peers. We are literate and do hold ourselves to higher standards, that is how I read it on social media. Time to walk our talk. And yes, the opposite is true of the older books. Women are dominant in those genres. I am picture book only, I cannot really pipe in about this.

  12. I wonder if many of the male illustrators who dominate the panels and awards are a.) single/childless; or b.) likely to have a woman in their lives who is holding down the home front while their men dive deeply into their careers and their art. I think it is possible that many really talented women illustrators simply cannot devote the same kind of attention and time to their craft as their male counterparts, because they are also working the full-time job of chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, tutor, driver, healer, and all around house-hold anchor. That reality is certainly reflected in other fields. Could explain some of the imbalance.

  13. Jennifer, your point is well-taken and even irrefutable! but it doesn’t explain the opposite Newbery gender disparity Scope Notes noted above…

  14. So there’s no consideration at all to the author’s gender or race? Is that true for all the judging (except for things like the Coretta Scott King Award and Bupre award)? If so, it seem more important than ever that people on the committee are diverse because we do tend to respond to that which is in our racial make up slightly differently. Of course, that doesn’t explain the gender issue…

  15. Robin, my figures do include honor books. Indeed, it was the 2012 awards, where the Caldecott and Geisel winners and honor books all went to white men, 8 for 8, that cemented the disparity in my head and prompted me to deeper investigation.
    And, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible work of my Graduate Assistant Katie Clausen who did the lion’s share of the statistical collection.

  16. Thank you, Graduate Assistant Katie Clausen!

  17. Thom, great question. It may take me a little time to compile those figures, but I will get on it!

  18. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t know what the numbers look like now, but when Read Roger was asking this question in 2007, a count of reviews from the Horn Book Guide (which reviews all hardcovers published for children by publishers listed in LMP) indicated that male and female illustrators were published in roughly equal numbers.

  19. Male and Female illustrators were in equal numbers, but for what type of books? Where female illustrators illustrating younger PB books that were cater to girls or small children (pre-schoolers, toddlers and babies)? I’m throwing it out there.

  20. Time to end the stereotypes which is a big reason men get more work. I am a single woman, child free by choice, who illustrates books that are not younger but the same age range as “men” books. I’ve been told that men are the “bread winners” so they get the jobs. But I am the sole breadwinner in my householder. Not one size fits all in our current world. In our society women who are of a certain age become invisible. This is a very sad truth.

  21. Is this 1952 Mad Men times?

  22. As a now old woman who has been around this business since she was a young “chick” both the fine art and illustration worlds have always been male dominated. Testosterone has always ruled — whether from the old boy network or from female sycophants who relish male attention and discount female creativity. .And it’s been going on for a long time. Has anyone ever questioned why we can count only a handful of woman in art history? FYI: When i was doing research for the biography I wrote and illustrated — “Wanda Gag : The Girl who Lived to Draw — I found the remarkable Wanda — “mother” of the picture book– was as pissed at the way she treated as I was.

  23. Wanda Gag was treated poorly too? This is more than a topic to discuss every few years on blogs. This is the subject for a book. I hope one of the academics following this discussion takes it on….

  24. I did bring this up to an academic and was treated poorly. Even my friend with me said “My, he was terse”. That’s when I started hanging out less and less with my book colleagues and more with a female oriented arts community with heart and equality (from the men towards me).

  25. Or…are ALLOWED to make picture books that are distinguished-not necessarily in quality, but in deliberately looking different and groundbreaking and edgy. Maybe women are writing/making these books, too, but there not getting published???

  26. Meant, “they’re not getting published. Not “there.” Just got a bit emotional and hit enter too soon. (You know women…we’re just too emotional.)

  27. Elizabeth Bluemle says:

    Very important topic! Thank you for addressing it so directly. I do think, as Roger posits, that we value men’s contributions and sub- or unconsciously ascribe more authority to their work. Look at any BEA author breakfast or panel discussion; the speakers (especially keynoters) are heavily weighted toward the male. Obviously, there are many more factors in play here, and it isn’t as though the distinguished books are not distinguished. I do wonder if it were possible to view the art anonymously, how results might shift. For instance, why Barbara McClintock has never won the Caldecott is unfathomable to me. Anyhow, lots of thoughts but am typing furiously on a teeny screen, so I’ll stop and look forward to everyone’s thoughts on this topic. Thanks again.

  28. Backing up a bit to Jennifer and Martha’s remarks on the 1st, I think the phenomenon of women’s home and family care encroaching on their professional work is exactly why we see the disparity between the Caldecott and Newbery winners.
    Writing is possibly the least expensive home-based sole proprietorship a person could possibly enter. You need a laptop and a library card and time. Nobody has ever suggested to me that I need an MFA to be taken seriously as a writer. In fact many people have suggested the opposite is true.
    Art supplies are expensive. An art studio takes up quiet a bit of dedicated space. As I understand it there are some kinds of painting which cannot be interrupted because of factors involved in the drying of paint. No doubt someone else could describe this more exactly. It’s also my perception that illustrators who’ve been to art school get taken more seriously, although others could speak to that more accurately as well.
    By contrast, I began writing when my kids were 6, 3, and 1 week old because a composition book fits in a diaper bag. My laptop is my entire office. Although I sometimes write in my tree house or back yard studio, I often write at the park, dance studio, choir practice, doctor’s office, and everywhere else my family needs me to be. If something comes up I can stop work mid-sentence if necessary. If I can’t remember where I was going with that thought when I come back to the page later, it probably wasn’t a strong enough thought to be in the book anyway. I’m sure it will be lovely when my family needs me less. Perhaps I will be more prolific. But I never get the impression that my work is being taken less seriously because I’m a mother. I have a very large extended family which is time consuming in some ways, but on the other hand, I’ll always have a 10 year old in my life. The emotional life of the middle grade child continues to turn up in my living room regularly even though my own children are moving out of that era. That deep involvement in ongoing family life feels like an asset in my particular corner of the the literary world, but if I was trying to paint, I’m not so sure it would.

  29. Dare we mention the role of librarians (predominently female in the children’s arena) here? If there’s indeed an equal parity of published male/female-illustrated books out there (someone here said so), are the men presenting themselves more aggressively at the various presentations, social events, et al? Just wondering. For your consideration, not an opinion….

  30. One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency for women and men alike to be more impressed, sometimes in subtle ways, by men writing for children than by women doing so. It’s the same effect that makes people see a man taking care of his kids as a wonderful father, while a woman doing the same tasks is often taken for granted and not particularly praised for work she’s just expected to do. As if men start out with bonus points for engaging with children at all, even today.

    I don’t know to what extent these attitudes affect rewards and reviews, especially since there are also biases towards men writing for adults that may be relevant. But they are there.

  31. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thom, I’ve finally got the answer for you (thanks to Horn Book intern Russell Perry). Out of a pool of 204 picture books published in 2013 and reviewed in the Horn Book as of the November/December 2013 issue, 110 were illustrated by men, 94 by women. Not exactly equal, but pretty close. Interesting?

  32. Late to the party as always. Thought I’d mention that The University of Connecticut ran a panel last week on the status of women in children’s publishing, and the Caldecott issue discussed here received particular attention.

  33. One of the topics I’ve been interested in w.r.t. children’s books is the gender of the protagonist(s) of the stories in addition to the gender of the authors/illustrators. Is there any work that has been done on studying Caldecott or other awards in this light? Would love to see it!

    I have a college student volunteer working with my nonprofit to study the ratio of male/female protagonists in family movies (G/PG/PG-13) across the decades that these ratings have been in place, and similar to a comment above, the numbers seem to actually deteriorate by decade, with the recent past more male dominated. I’d guess this is most likely due to the rise of the summer blockbuster.

    Anyway, since there is a long time series of Caldecott Awards and Honors winners, would be interested to know what the numbers on male and female protagonists look like over time!

  34. Kate Barsotti says:

    I would like to see a site devoted to the history of women artists in illustration, because, due to these disparities, I keep finding interesting artists from the past I’ve never heard of.

    I’d like to hear art directors and editors weigh in. Are female artists less experimental or risk-taking? If so, why?

    And on that topic, I am frustrated at seeing such fresh approaches in illustration outside the U.S. Why do we stick with such safe art? So many great books generated from other countries: unpredictable, stirring, even dark.

  35. Kate — Denise Ortakales’s site is your answer.

  36. Ed Spicer says:

    I am very happy to be on a Caldecott Committee that chose three women (including the winner) and one man. I did not realize that until AFTER.

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