Women and Children First! Why anyone who cares about gender and literature should pick up a children’s book. Now.

February 24, 2012 | by | 7

The first time I heard that Judy Blume is one of the most censored/challenged American authors of all time, I laughed. I was about fifteen.

“Judy Blume? As in, the Judy Blume?” I didn’t believe it. You couldn’t walk through my middle school library without tripping over a copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

“Yes,” my mother said. “She’s controversial because, among other things, she wrote about a girl getting her period.”

I knew this. I had read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. a couple of years before. “So what? They banned her book?”

I was incensed. I didn’t have the words to speak of it then, but I remember how viscerally rageful it made me. What was the big deal? What could be more natural, more essential, more inevitable, more female, than a girl getting her period? But like I said, I didn’t have those words.

“That’s stupid,” I told my mother (not an uncommon exchange, back then).

If I’d had the right words…well, they would have been censored. But if I’d had the words, I might have said something about what was taken from me in that moment of realization. It was my first harsh lesson about what it really means to grow up female, the first time I gained an inkling of the fact that I was a soon-to-be woman living in a society in which womanly things must be talked about behind closed doors and certainly never written down. A society in which women’s bodies are treated as objects, available for your viewing pleasure but unworthy of inner exploration. A society in which the roles that women traditionally hold—essential roles, like making homes and giving birth and raising children—are taken for granted, looked down on, and—worst of all—regarded as something unworthy of being called work.

I couldn’t comprehend all this at age fifteen, yet I’ve never forgotten the impact and the pain of that first tiny lesson. Nor have I forgotten the source that opened my eyes to this uncomfortable truth: A challenged children’s book. Even as a teenager, in the throes of my inarticulate frustration, I felt profoundly attracted to Judy Blume and strangely proud of what she had done. Society said she shouldn’t write it, but she did it anyway, and when they got mad and tried to stop her, she kept on coming. I loved that.

The more powerful lesson I’ve learned since then is that Judy Blume, in her defiance of the status quo, by no means stands alone. Children’s writers of all stripes stand with her, as do the many teachers and librarians who steadfastly insist on placing such important books in the hands of children; we are collectively and constantly at the vanguard, shaping a new generation of readers.

Much like writing from a female perspective, writing for children represents another way of diverging from the privileged, straight, white, adult male point of view that apparently dominates mainstream literature. Even though I am indeed female, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize up front that the primary identity I claim in the literary world is not “woman writer” but “children’s writer.” Until very recently, it never even occurred to me to identify myself professionally based on my gender because, even though being female directly affects many aspects of my life, I’ve never experienced it as a barrier to advancement in my writing career.

Perhaps you’re about to dismiss me as naïve. Clueless. Oblivious to the obvious forces of male domination that wreak daily havoc on the literary world. The thing is I don’t live in that particular literary world. I live in the Kidlit world, an alternate reality where the only limitations for a female author are her own imagination and her willingness to speak the truth in its simplest fashion. (I kid you not.)

When women writers rail against gender discrimination, I feel quite distanced from their specific struggles, yet I do feel a kinship with them in the desire to be fully recognized and respected in the context of literature. I’ve grown increasingly aware of distinct parallels between how women writers talk about their relationship to the literary establishment and how children’s writers talk about our relationship to that same establishment. That feeling of having to claw your way into a firmament that doesn’t have much respect for your ideas or your work, despite its beauty and its power—that feeling is something that children’s writers can’t ever overlook or forget, either.

Upon further reflection, I’ve come to understand that our gender plays a direct role in why children’s writers feel so marginalized. But it’s easy to fool myself, because in the Kidlit world, quite frankly, women rule. An overwhelming majority of my writer colleagues are women, as are the authors whose careers I look up to most. My editors are women. By and large their bosses are women—well, at least until you get to a certain level. We also have a preponderance of female agents, reviewers, and on and on. I might go weeks without crossing paths with a man, professionally.

Having such a woman-centered community means the gender issues we face are very, very different from those of adult writers. For starters, there are great positives. Our community is incredibly supportive and unified—largely because it’s so woman-driven. There’s much less cattiness, public critique, and overt competition going on than I observe among adult writers. Rarely, if ever, can I recall a children’s author publicly criticizing another—instead, we tweet each other’s good news, we cross-promote each other’s books and we wish each other happy book birthdays with genuine excitement. Children’s writers band together, and we cherish that profound moral support because we never receive anything similar from the broader literary community.

Indeed, our gender-based challenges tend to originate outside the Kidlit community, not within. We struggle against the cultural perception that raising and educating children (and writing for them) is “women’s work,” and therefore something to be taken for granted and considered simple. The fact that we care about kids at all renders our contribution less valuable in the eyes of the literary mainstream. Kidlit authors are mostly women, taking care of women’s concerns, so therefore we deserve less prestige. We belong in a box, apart.

Plenty of adult writers look down their nose at children’s books. Time and again I’m asked if I think I’ll ever try adult writing, as if my efforts won’t be meaningful until I’ve done so. After looking at my (award-winning) teen novel dealing with the Black Panthers, an editor from a major publishing house once handed me her card and said, “I would love to see a real novel about this topic. Let me know when you feel ready to write for adults.” She said this with a straight face, in the careful tone of voice you might use to explain something to a toddler.

I’ve grown used to this sort of dismissal. It didn’t occur to me at the time to be separately angry that another woman used this tone on me; my mindset was stuck in “adults” vs. “children.” But such a reaction from a powerful woman in publishing points out that the problem isn’t only with men—it’s a plague on our whole society. (For instance, I have no trouble believing that Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. was removed from school libraries by just as many women as men.) Just how deeply have we internalized the need to keep woman stuff out of the public eye? When women do succeed in male-dominated industries, must we do so by casting aside our woman-cares and blending into the status quo? It often seems that’s how women survive at the top.

Children’s writers (a community of women, remember) are also radically excluded from consideration for most major writing awards and fellowships—the ones that come with the most money and which carry the most prestige. On the smaller scale, I’ve had many artist grant opportunities denied to me because “we don’t consider writing for children.” Understand me here—these committees weren’t saying to me that my writing was not deemed worthy, but that the very creative endeavor I chose to undertake was deemed so inherently less than as to not even merit the briefest of glances. Is that right? Is that fair? But children’s writers tend not to ask these questions, or aim for these goals, because it feels like beating our heads against a wall, and we know we will never convince the powers that be to respect us.

Sometimes, in social settings, I reach a point where I almost feel compelled to give in to the social pressure, and minimize my own work, “Oh, it’s just a children’s book.” But there’s nothing more frustrating, because I’m incredibly proud of what I do. I respect my young audience and I care deeply about their opinions. Much more than I care about gaining the respect of the self-appointed literary elite.

On the whole, children’s writers have ceased to care much about whether or not we fit into the mainstream literary establishment at all. Out of self-preservation, we’ve cultivated our own warm, supportive world. When children’s lit folks refer to adult writing, people outside the community sometimes think we’re being salacious. The fact of the matter is, our worlds are so very separate that “adult” vs. “children’s” are useful designations. Children’s lit isn’t simply a genre of writing; it’s an entirely separate sphere, a mirror world that caters to a younger audience. Our books can’t be pigeonholed as all alike—we have literary fiction and popular fiction, science fiction and delightfully cheesy romance, dystopian fantasy and gothic horror, short fiction anthologies and self-help. We do it all, we just speak in a language young readers can relate to, and we have breathtaking talents among us whose work rivals anything you would find in adult literature.

Female children’s authors don’t worry much about representation in the grand scheme of things, because in our alternate world, we’ve got it. We’ve got it in truckloads, to the point where we have conversations about needing more books by men. Men are prized for their scarcity, and because of that they often rise faster and farther than we, the female majority. For such a small percentage of our writers, men get a disproportionately healthy chunk of publicity, and it’s uncommon to see an award platform filled entirely without one. Do the men in our ranks really get more attention, more readers, more money, more awards relative to their numbers? It seems so, but is that yet another example of gender favoritism, or is it actually a great stride toward equality? Are children’s publishers doing for men what we wish adult publishers would do for women—enthusiastically welcoming them into the fold, offering them a chance to be seen where they haven’t been seen much before?

Such questions easily fall by the wayside, though, because in reality children’s writers (gender aside) spend most of our time worrying not about our own representation, but about what we’re representing to our audience. We care about our readers, and we care about giving our young women strong feminist girl role models, and our young men compassionate, feminist boy role models. We care about making our queer characters round and complex and dynamic as opposed to stereotypical, and we care about weaving diversity into the fabric of our stories. Those representations matter a great deal more than anyone in the adult literature world has ever given us credit for.

Children’s writers remain extremely aware of our audience as gendered. And, once again, this is an issue that originates outside our community; it veritably permeates this culture. Parents, teachers and librarians talk about “boy books” and “girl books” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that most titles will be one or the other. Nancy Drew is for girls. Hardy Boys is for boys. If there’s crossover, it tends to be girls reading “boy books,” not the other way around. When we’re lucky enough to write potential crossovers, we lament book jackets cast heavily in pink and purple because boys won’t pick them up. Booksellers and librarians repeat it time and again. Girls will read anything, but boys are embarrassed to be seen with “girl books.” By middle school, kids have internalized the belief that the male experience is universal, and the female experience is something to be kept in a sphere by itself.

Children’s writers mull these issues deeply. We sit around coffee tables and conduct tweet chats and organize conference panels to talk about what young readers are seeing in our work, and what kinds of people they are becoming as a result. We ask ourselves why boys seem to stop reading fiction for pleasure around the fourth grade, and often don’t start again until after college. We ask ourselves what impact that dearth has on their ability to have empathy and to recognize other points of view. We ask what we, as a community can do to keep boys reading, and what we as a culture can do to raise emotionally healthy children. We link these goals because we believe that books can change lives, and we want all children to have the necessary access to the books they will need if they are to become their best selves.

The trouble is, even when we create all the right books, we can’t fight these battles alone. Rather, we shouldn’t have to. The problems are systemic; they reach much further than even the most impassioned voices among us. Children’s writers are doing our part, but we’re constantly undermined by the perception that our work is a thing to make light of, a thing to grow out of and ultimately look down upon. Why must it be so? If a five-year-old boy can love a story called Miss Rumphius that’s all about flowers, why can’t an adult male reader see the same book as more than a flight of fancy? What happens in those twenty-plus years? What inspires his transformation from open-hearted to narrow-minded? Knowing the children’s lit community as I do, I can say with near certainty—it wasn’t something he read.

Children’s writers collectively understand that we hold a certain power, by virtue of our audience, yet this power is rarely acknowledged by anyone outside our community in positive ways. Adult writers have little to say to or about us, apart from a general sense of dismissal, but every year the American Library Association catalogs the most challenged books in the country, and every year the majority of those books are books for young readers. Books dealing with issues like homosexuality, politics, complex social issues and sexual exploration. It seems that our culture believes books for children can be harmful, but not otherwise meaningful.

The deep hypocrisy of it all makes children’s writers roll our eyes. We know the value and the importance of what we do, and we have the readership to show for it. What the world thinks of us might as well be lint in the laundry: we filter it out, glance at it, throw it away, and slip right back into the warm, cozy sweater that is the Kidlit world. Children’s writers have pretty much given up on explaining or trying to justify ourselves to adult literary types. The approval and respect of our grown-up colleagues isn’t what matters most (though it would be a welcome change). Rather, we prefer to focus on shaping the next generation with our words and our ideas, because isn’t that where the genuine, systemic, societal revolutions we need are going to occur?

If you can remember yourself at seven, ten, twelve, fifteen, you might remember how wide open the world seemed to you then. These are the ages when gender identities are forming, when boys begin to understand what it means to be a man, and girls come to know womanhood from the edges, rushing in. We ought to spend time nurturing the next generation of readers and writers to overcome some of the gendered barriers we’ve all internalized. Otherwise the cycle only continues and we will have resigned our daughters to a similar fate of organizing, counting, struggling for their high voices to be heard amid the clamor of basses and baritones trying to take over the world.

I’m fond of asking adult writers, what was your favorite book as a child? They always have a ready answer. Think about the impact those early reads had on you. Think about the story, essay or poem that made you want to be a writer. Think about what it would mean to have a population of adults, who were taught early to love diversity, and grapple with politics, and question the world around them, and search for their unique voices, and see men and women as equals. Then ask yourself how much children’s literature matters, and whether it’s worthy of respect.

Respected or not, we forge ahead. Children’s writers continue to flout the social status quo, using narrative to promote diversity and revealing to children simple truths the world would prefer they not know, like the fact that—gasp —women menstruate (and they might even have feelings about it). Challenge us or overlook us—we won’t fold. We are a woman-centered community, putting children first, in hopes that those children will one day build a better and more gender-balanced society for us all.

7 Comments to 'Women and Children First! Why anyone who cares about gender and literature should pick up a children’s book. Now.'

  • NicoleL says:

    Lovely post and it came at the right time, after I read the comments to Maureen Johnson’s piece in the Guardian. i don’t know why I torture myself that way, but this revived my spirits and reminded me why I read and write children’s books and why we’re put into a literary ghetto. Thanks!

  • Betsy Miller says:

    Hi Kekla,
    Thanks for taking the time to explore this topic. It’s interesting the way that professional writers are grouped. I’m a technical writer. We do work for hire without any bylines. My experience has been that in this context, a writer’s gender doesn’t come up that often. For most of my career I’ve written for primarily male target audiences.

    I’ve also written a couple of nonfiction books for which the main target audience is mothers, and some fiction. When I started working on those projects I was surprised how female my writing voice turned out to be. In technical writing there isn’t much room for voice–it’s more of a tone that specific companies adopt, and the content is based on business needs.

    I’m working on a young adult novel right now. It’s about a teenage girl, and I would be very surprised if it attracted male readers. If I were to choose the right topic, I think I could write a nonfiction book for teens that would appeal to both genders. Maybe informational topics are just more gender neutral.

    It’s something to think about, that’s for sure.

  • As an emerging childrens’ author (one novel published, the sequel in progress), I was blissfully unaware of most of this reality. I’ve had the blessing of a wildly supportive writers group. The one conference I attended, we arrived en masse, no kidding, twelve of us attended the Florida Writers Association event. So I have felt an outpouring of love which has shielded me from taking to heart the occasional snipe. So I agree with Kekla. Seek your peeps. Keep them close. Rule the world or whatever sphere of influence you choose.

  • Fantastic site you have here but I was curious if you knew
    of any message boards that cover the same topics discussed in
    this article? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get opinions from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Cheers!

  • Dawn Paul says:

    Looking for another young readers’ author that handles relevant topics: Erin Dionne — check her out.

  • Wonderful article, thank you for writing it!

    Thinking back, the most memorable favourite books of mine as a child were the Swallows and Amazons seres by Arthur Ransome – marvellous adventure stories about girls and boys together, playing and sailing and using their imaginations. There was a wide range of characters, including wild and brave girls, more quiet and domestic girls, boys who were reckless or sensible or studious…

    as a Mum now I find it so hard to find book which are inclusive of both genders, instead of screaming ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ at their reader. My 8 year old daughter has a diverse group of friends and simply can’t identify with so many ‘girl’ books aimed at her age, which so often portray a world where boys aren’t included – but she also bounces off the books which render girls invisible. “I just want books about KIDS” she has said to me more than once.

  • Faith says:

    When I was a child, I was allowed to read pretty much anything off the family shelves that took my fancy, which meant I was reading adult’s and children’s books at the same time. I still do. Over the past year I’ve been hunting down the Margaret Mahy books that I missed out on, and the idea of anyone not valuing her books because she didn’t write ‘for adults’…that’s just so SAD. The good books are always good, no matter what part of the bookshop or library they are to be found in, or what gender the author may be. Thank you, Kekla, we need articles like this SO MUCH!

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