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Down, girl, down!

aidancarriejpgEven in my day having been one of Betsy Bird‘s Hot Men of Children’s Literature (BB: are those archived anywhere?) I was more than a little skeeved out by Meaghan O’Connell’s “The Children’s-Book Guy: An Ideal Crush Object,” published yesterday in New York Magazine but reading like something written by Carrie Bradshaw in 1999:

“If you think about it, the young male children’s-book author (or illustrator) is in many ways the perfect crush: artistic but in a productive, financially solvent way; imaginative, filled with empathy and quiet wisdom — like a dad, but not. Like a dad, but single. Children’s-book guy will wake up just before you, stepping over your rescue dog to start the Chemex and make you both pancakes (childlike wonder).”

Why is what was amusing then annoying now? (I know, ’twas ever thus and the number one reason I’ll never get a tattoo.) Part of it is tone: O’Connell aspires to an ironic distance from her own lubriciousness but who is she kidding? Another part is the gratuitous swipe she takes at female children’s-book creators: “These women are generally in their mid-50s, with great glasses, admirably draped Eileen Fisher duds, and expensive sandals.”  (She adds, “I want to be them” but, again, who believes that?)

But the sentiments O’Connell expresses are hardly unheard within our own realms of gold; indeed, she quotes a number of fellow droolers from among our ranks. There’s an odd kind of sexism at work in our work. I tried to talk about this when Daniel Handler put his foot in his mouth last year and perhaps it is foolhardy to try again, but here is another example. Some time ago I was casting about for children’s book people who do something else that is interesting (see these questions for Tom Barron and Deb Taylor) and wrote to about a dozen publishing friends–all women–for suggestions from among their stables. Every single name that came back was of a young, white, man. Where were the women?

They are of course everywhere, from writers and illustrators to agents and publishers to reviewers and librarians and teachers to readers. When it comes to books for young people, females are in the majorities of all those groups. Not to take anything away from Dr. Johnson (or Cynthia Ozick), but perhaps their minority renders men the dancing dogs of children’s literature, where “one marvels not at how well it is done, but that it is done at all.”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I don’t know how I feel about this, but I feel that you expressed that particular tangle admirably.

  2. “one marvels not at how well it is done, but that it is done at all” — this tends to be true of men in all child-related roles (parenting, teaching elementary/middle school, working in childcare, writing/publishing children’s books, working in children’s librarianship…), doesn’t it? Skills and roles that are semi-mandatory for women who want to be perceived as normal and adequate are seen as downright miraculous when performed by men. (See: how a father can “babysit” his children.)

    So of course sexism leads them to be revered, even by women in the same field: when men, particularly straight white men, who can have their choice of any field*, CHOOSE to toil in the often-misunderstood, always-underestimated world of “women’s work”, it seems notable. And I think there’s a bit of a feeling that their presence elevates our field, because they prove that this is work that people can choose rather than default to. Such is the insidious work of institutional sexism!

    *of course women SHOULD have their choice of any field, too, but there are still many where the fight is a constant uphill battle

  3. No one is commenting on the part of the article that offended ME! “These women are generally in their mid-50s, with great glasses, admirably draped Eileen Fisher duds, and expensive sandals. I want to be them. I spend the readings wondering how hard it could be, really, to write a children’s book. They’re like, what, 20 lines? Hide a little mouse on different parts of each page and boom, I’ve got a flowing kimono sweater and a new life purpose.” Oh god. Another example of how everyone views the children’s book field. Picture books are easy to write? Hah, bloody hah. Just try it. And as a mid-50s woman with great glasses who was actually wearing Eileen Fisher when I read the article? I’m an editor, not an author, but I have to say to Meaghan O’Connell: it hurts, but touché.

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I did see Elaine Konigsburg in that crack.

  5. They’re archived out there somewhere on the old blog, no worries.

    I’ve been trying to figure out why I too was, as you say, skeeved out by the piece. Ironic since I basically got my start but doing precisely what she’s off-handedly written here. I like to think (and I’m probably just fooling myself) that Hot Men of Children’s Literature was mildly satirical in its blatant objectification. Look at the pretty fellas! Also, I didn’t just do guys in their 20s and 30s (ew) but older fellows as well. Still, you say potato…

  6. Kate Barsotti says:

    I would be curious to hear why men are so often promoted over women in our industry, especially illustration. I can name 20 top male illustrators without effort. I cannot do the same for women, not as definitively or as quickly. Is there something female illustrators need to improve or work on? How do we elevate our status?

    It is hard enough to fight men’s sexism. It is troubling to face it from other women. I believe we are taught to value men’s accomplishments more, and for whatever reason, illustration and art in general may be run by women, but men are stars.

    As an example: I heard from a illustrator outside kidlit who helped plan a conference as an unpaid consultant. She put a lot into it. When it came time to hire speakers, men were invited and paid. She had the expertise to plan and design, but it ended up hurting her, not helping. Her assistance turned her into an assistant. I have other examples: women who speak for free, then discover male peers were paid; book tours deliberately designed around men because it is deemed to be more prestigious and a draw. We already know about awards.

    The whole issue is pretty painful and discouraging. It is not so much wanting attention or flattery, it is knowing what the lack of support means for your career and legacy, and if you are able to have either one.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Ooh, Betsy, a NEW scandal: Fuse #8 does ’em ALL.

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Also, Kate, our emphasis on boys’ reading–while we publish many books “to” girl readers, and depend on them to keep children’s books a going concern, it’s the elusive boy readers who get the attention. I’m trying hard to think of another industry that puts so much energy into the indifferent.

  9. Melissa Posten says:

    There are a few big female illustrators who get toured widely and regularly, but up and coming? Not so much. Whereas a “hot” (possibly in all meanings of the word) up and coming male illustrator is much more likely to get a wide tour. Considering most publicists are female, this is baffling and frustrating.

  10. Anne Ursu says:

    I’m amused that she thinks women who write children’s books can afford Eileen Fisher.

  11. To be honest, I am trying really hard not to be offended by the title, and I’m coming up real short. Any chance you could change it? It is really a bit upsetting to me.

  12. Well said, Kate Barsotti: “It is hard enough to fight men’s sexism. It is troubling to face it from other women. I believe we are taught to value men’s accomplishments more, and for whatever reason, illustration and art in general may be run by women, but men are stars.”

    I found myself reading and re-reading O’Connell’s article and questioning whether I’ve lost my sense of humor. But honestly, this???

    “I can’t think of a female children’s-book author who has received that kind of attention at the store. Part of it has to be due to the industry being so female-majority, but I worked in kids’-book publishing for ten years, and plenty of people make comments about how crush-worthy male authors are during internal sales and marketing presentations.”

  13. With you, Ellen. Thanks for saying it. I feel like part of what was behind the original piece was an assessment that because this is a female-majority profession, sexism is absent… and these jokes have no bite. But here, as there, think this is a misjudgment.

    Meanwhile, I was really glad to see the author listening to criticism yesterday, and today she’s posted a thoughtful response. We all get it wrong sometimes, and I appreciated her willingness to engage and listen. (Though I’m still having trouble with her implication that objectifying men is different, and therefore doesn’t do harm.)

  14. What Anne said!

  15. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Here is the apology from O’Connell that Sarah references:

    I *do* think that objectifying men is different from doing that to women, in the same way that prejudice from people of color is different from racism expressed by whites. The rot starts at the head.

  16. Yeah, definitely agree when it comes to the fallacy of “reverse sexism”, and agree that objectification is inherently different– but also think men can be victims of sexual harassment (from both women and men) in ways that sometimes get lost or downplayed. The sexism of the post was the most glaring, but also think there should be a place for men to be able to say if unwanted attention is uncomfortable, especially in a professional setting.

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That’s very true–it happened to me once in a very threatening way, but guys are expected to be flattered, and we aren’t really given ways to talk about it. (I wasn’t flattered, I was scared.)

  18. KT Horning says:

    I thought Ellen was referring to the title of Roger’s rant, not the title of the New York Magazine article.

  19. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That’s what I thought, too, KT–is someone here assuming differently? (I’m not changing the title but am prepared to take my lumps in the comments.)

  20. Oh, thank you, Anne, I thought I was doing it wrong.

  21. This thread is probably dead now, but I wonder if you can answer a (pretty big) question, Roger. I talk with other people in the industry about issues of promotion and representation a lot, particularly after I’ve made the mistake of allowing myself to be put on another all-male panel at some festival. And at some point our discussions always become stymied because we don’t have any real numbers.

    What IS the gender distribution among published children’s authors? And illustrators? What about among aspiring authors and illustrators? Does anyone actually have these numbers?

  22. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Adam, I last looked at this in 2007, and found that picture books published in the U.S. that year were illustrated by men and women in equal numbers. That’s the only data point I have!

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