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Kidlitwomen*: A Conversation with Karen Blumenthal

Following her interview with last year’s Caldecott winner, Matthew Cordell, Julie Danielson interviewed author Karen Blumenthal by email for Calling Caldecott to discuss Kidlitwomen*, which Karen co-founded with author-illustrator Grace Lin.

Calling Caldecott: Tell us about the origins of Kidlitwomen*. For those not familiar with the project, can you talk about when and why you and Grace Lin co-founded it?

Karen Blumenthal: Grace and I met at a retreat earlier this year, and we started chatting about some gender inequality we had experienced. We asked others if they wanted to discuss it. We ended up with more than 15 people in a room talking about why it seems like men in the business are put on a pedestal and what could be done about that.

Grace wanted to do something that would work toward solutions, rather than just complaining. The suggestion was made to encourage people to write essays and posts about women’s and gender inequality issues that could publish in March, which is Women’s History Month. Before we left the retreat, we had started a Facebook group to explore the issue, and within a week we had several hundred members.

We settled on “Kidlitwomen” as a name and then added an asterisk (not allowed in the title on the Facebook page) because the focus includes trans and nonbinary people.

CC: And then during March so many women in the field, including editors, authors, illustrators, critics, etc., wrote and shared essays on “improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry.” (Those are archived here.) What was it like for you and Grace to see these passionate responses? What, if anything, surprised you about these essays?

Karen: It was absolutely amazing! It was incredible to see so many people sign up to write and so many who followed the page and chimed in. I counted more than 125 different posts. The diversity of issues was fascinating — how women fare in awards, especially illustrator awards; advances and book marketing; school visits; conference experiences; #MeToo incidents; underrepresentation of people of color; underrepresentation of people with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ people; who can — or should — write others’ stories; parent roles; librarian roles; ageism; intersectionality; being told women aren’t funny; downplaying women artists. There were just so many angles!

Grace was intrigued by how many people were afraid to write and also the conflict between those who wanted us to be very progressive versus those who wanted to take smaller steps. Either way, we urged people to be respectful, and they were. The discussion was nearly always thoughtful and heartfelt.

Posts about intersectionality, ageism, and writing others’ stories generated lots of comments and clicks. But the subject that generated the most posts/essays was gendering of books and authors’ styles — “boy” and “girl” books, “boy” and “girl” authors. I raised kids in the 1990s, and I tried to avoid that way back then. It was heartbreaking to see that it’s still so prevalent.

CC: Tell us about the relatively new podcast and its format. It’s an essay followed by a short conversation with the author of the essay, yes? 

Karen: Grace is working hard on the podcasts. People read their essays, and then Grace and others interview the essayist for more insight. It’s fascinating to hear Shannon Hale elaborate on gender stereotyping issues and Tracey Baptiste talk about intersectionality.

Grace is working on going beyond the original posts to address subjects that have come up more recently. I think the hope is that the podcast will go on until early next year. Subscribe on iTunes!

CC: The Caldecott Award has historically been dominated by men. More males than females have won the award since its inception in 1938. It’s also true that more males than females have also won other major illustration awards. There are always theories as to why, though no one has really delved into the why of this with any long-term data-driven research. (Fortunately, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center now has some data and will be keeping diligent stats going forward.) Can you make any sense of this? Why do you think men dominate illustration awards?

Karen: We had a lot of discussion about this, based on essays by Christine Taylor-Butler about male dominance of both the Caldecott and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator awards.

Is there an inherent bias toward male artists? Are there style differences in which a male’s style is judged “better” than a female’s style? Do editors and publishers give men more promising opportunities or promote their books more? We didn’t have a clear consensus on this. But it’s a distressing trend, including the fact that a woman of color has never won the Caldecott Medal.

CC: What are some ways in which the so-called gatekeepers of children’s literature (publishers, librarians, critics, booksellers, etc.) can be more conscious of gender inequity in this field? How can we all do better?

Karen: All of us — publishers, librarians, critics, booksellers, authors, illustrators, and parents — can start by examining and trying to eliminate our own gender biases. We can support women’s work, especially that of women who have been traditionally marginalized, and pay attention to whether we are elevating men just because they are male.

It cuts across the board: Are women’s books reviewed at the same rate? Are they marketed the same? Are publishers, booksellers, librarians, and parents working to stop categorizing books as “girl books” and, thus, not for boys? Are they highlighting and championing female main characters? Are we stretching to make panels and programs equally male and female when the industry is far more female than male? Are we asking more men to come to schools so that boys can see male writers? Are we working to include women of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ representation — not just in panels but also in organizing programs? Are we ignoring or moving aside older women?

Ultimately, a fairer, more equitable industry is better for the kids we all work so hard to serve.

CC: For those who haven’t heard episode one of the podcast, can you tell us about some of Kidlitwomen*’s future plans/projects and where you plan to go from here?

Karen: This is still evolving. The podcast will continue for several months. We had a brainstorming session at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators LA conference that was short but productive. Still, we have a ways to go.

Should there be a symposium? Should we do more essays again next March? More podcasts? Is a Facebook page the best venue for talking about these issues? We’re still figuring this out, and we welcome your readers’ suggestions.

CC: If there are folks who want to get involved and help the cause, what can they do?

Karen: Follow #Kidlitwomen* on Facebook and Twitter and join in the conversation! They can also reach out to Grace or me.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this interview. I’ve been listening to the podcast and find it both distressing and encouraging. We have a long way to go. (There were so many posts in March that I missed some when they originally went up).

    I was one of the authors who participated in March by running a survey regarding school visits compensation with Jeanette Bradley. Yesterday, we shared our ideas for next steps- that is, what we can do to lead to lasting change and #kidLitequality in school visits compensation. We are only two people and certainly have not thought of everything. I hope readers will consider adding their suggestions to that post so it will be even more valuable. Thank you. http://www.michellecusolito.com/blog/2018/9/18/school-visit-survey-part-5-next-steps

  2. Thank you for the link, Michelle!

  3. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    So good. I am looking forward to linking in. Thanks for this.

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