Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Outnumbered

In a recent post on the Little Blog of Murder, Judy Clemens explained the mission behind The Sisters in Crime. (By the time you read this there should be a new link on the right leading you directly to the SinC site.) That mission is:



"To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries."


It’s hard to believe that in this day and age women still face inequities, especially in a field of literature with an award named after Agatha Christie and where the best selling authors are frequently Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwall, and Sue Grafton.

In response to her post I made the comment that if a man wanted to get a taste of humble pie, simply attend a convention for children’s writers. Namely, any event by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. At these events, the ratio is roughly 10 to 1 in favor of the ladies. Judy responded with a question as to why that is.

Turns out that’s a big question. I’m not sure I can answer it, but here goes.

My first thought was, let’s face it; writing for children doesn’t come across as a manly pursuit. The kites and the butterflies and the bold colors that adorn the children’s section of the bookstore, the Writer’s Market publications, the banners at the conventions, and the SCBWI website don’t exactly ooze of testosterone. Even the nametags at a SCBWI convention can make a 40 year-old man feel like a little brother when his sister decides to use him for “dress up.” It seems at times like a man entering children’s literature is like an American Gladiator blundering into a ballet class. It ain’t pretty.

But then explain Avi, Jerry Spinelli, Louis Sachar, and especially Gary Paulsen – who, if he ever reads this, just might fly down here between Iditarod runs to personally kick my ass. Carl Hiaasen needs no machismo to create fine fiction for kids and adults. Nor does Dave Barry, who might say machismo sounds like a snack food you spray from a can. ESPN’s John Feinstein is hardly lacking in male credibility, and while one could say Brent Hartinger is on the opposite side of that spectrum, it hardly matters to his readership.

Indeed, preconceived notions based on the sex of the author quickly fall away in the realm of children’s literature, as it should in any genre of fiction. In the seminal weeper "Charlotte’s Web" - composed by E.B. White, a man – Wilbur is saved from death by two females. (Fern and Charlotte) In "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" Aslan’s sacrifice is witnessed by two young girls. The male author C.S. Lewis may have been following a biblical parallel on this point, but the fact remains he had to live inside the skin of someone different from himself – to paraphrase Harper Lee – in order to tell the story. And that is the job of any writer regardless of his chosen genre.

So, as it turns out, there is no shortage of male writers in the field, I just haven’t met that many in Ohio. The natural question you might ask is: if all these guys write for children, why don’t they show at the conventions? Well, they do… in New York and Los Angeles. Oh, and Maui. Don’t forget Maui. Paolini did the Maui. But we don’t see them in Cleveland. Or Indy or Detroit for that matter. Hmm. Don’t have the answer to that one.

The second thought that came to me is tied with a deeper perception of our relationship with children in America. This goes back to my brief experience as a student teacher in my college days. Again, in my pursuit of this career, I found myself in education classes dominated by females. In America, education is a feminine pursuit. Guys coach, or lead the band, and, in order to fill a gap left in the classroom, they also teach a math class or something else. Otherwise, teaching is a girly thing.

Trust me, your local school principals would like to balance that picture. If I could only describe the light in principal’s eyes when he or she would see me walking into their classroom.

But I ask you, and be honest, picture a 45 year-old man in charge of your child’s 1st grade class and tell me… doesn’t that make you just a bit uncomfortable? Feel like calling the school board? Or at least putting a hidden camera on the guy? I thought so. I mean, come on. Why would a man want to be in a classroom with all those little children? You know he can’t be wired right.

We don’t really want men on our classrooms until about the 5th grade, and even then he better by god be married with four kids and in church every Sunday. That “Obama in ‘08” bumper sticker on his car will come up at the next PTA meeting, there buddy. A Liberal in my kid’s classroom? Next thing you know he’ll have my son singing show tunes and trying out for the color guard. On second thought, better just fire the hippie now.

Now, follow along: if the classrooms are taught mostly by women, and if writing for children – particularly early readers and primary grade readers – is more likely to employ the skills of someone with classroom experience, then ergo most writers for young children will be women. Therefore, the ranks of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators will be mostly female. Stands to reason.

But then there’s Dr. Seuss, still showing up on the bestseller chart year after year. (To be fair, “Oh, The Places You Go” pops up every May as a faux sentimental graduation gift from befuddled grandparents who think a Wii is something you don’t touch until you’re married.) There’s Ian Falconer’s highly praised if not Manhattancentric “Olivia” picture books. (Wonder how many parents have wandered onto www.olivia.com and got a nasty shock?) OK, there’s Mary Blair, but she’s old school. Captain Underpants rules, and he’s the product of Dav Pilkey’s imagination.

So, I guess I don’t know why I feel like Custer at Little Big Horn at a children’s writer’s convention. Maybe it’s because the ladies find it easier to break away on a Springtime Saturday while the guys have yard work and fix-it projects to do. Maybe the guys are too tired to make all those 7PM group meetings at the library on the second Wednesday of every month, and they fall out of the loop. Maybe. I don’t know. I’d theorize some more on it, but to be honest, I’ve got a book to write, and I need to get back to work.

Let me know what you think.