On being complicit.
As a Youth Services Librarian, I sometimes have opportunities to mingle with those in the publishing community, including the authors and illustrators of books. I’ll meet them at signings or events at conferences, or from booking an author visit to my library and community, or from an excited phone call to tell them that they’ve won an award.
Much like children’s publishing, my profession is “blindingly white and female“. Also just like in publishing, despite being overwhelmingly female, more often than not it’s the men who get more recognition and opportunities. In publishing, the winners of the Caldecott are overwhelmingly male. In librarianship, library directors and managers are predominantly male. (The whiteness also needs to be addressed, but is not the focus of this essay).
I am not blameless in this. I’ve fawned over ‘attractive’ men in publishing, and giggled over the “hot men of children’s literature.” I’ve bought into the idea that men are to be congratulated for deigning to write books for children and teens, elevating the work by their very presence. I’ve told male colleagues that if they go into Youth librarianship, they’ll get ahead at a much faster rate since they’ll be such a novelty. (However, anecdotally, I’ve noticed that most men become teen librarians, and will rarely work with younger children.)
Still, I do hold a certain amount of power in the library field–after all, if youth librarianship is so white and female, it must be librarians like me who are giving all these Caldecott awards to men, right? To many writers and illustrators, I am seen as someone who can either get their work into the hands of readers and help them build their careers, or I’m someone who doesn’t buy their books for my collection because I don’t have “those” kinds of kids in my community. To many parents, I am the person who knows good books and I am a trusted authority when it comes to finding material for their children to read, either for pleasure or edification. To teachers, including teacher librarians, I am an integral part of the team, helping make sure youth have access to many types of materials, including those outside the scope of a tightly focused school collection.
The trust relationship I hold most dear, however, is the one between myself and a child or teen who comes to me asking for help to find “the” book–you know the one. The book that can change their life, that can turn a non-reader into a voracious one, the book that can help an abused girl realize she’s not alone (and it’s not her fault), the book that can turn a passive observer into a passionate activist, the book that makes a child feel seen and important, or the book that just takes the reader somewhere else for a while. This is not always an easy task, but it’s often the most rewarding.
Most librarians and teachers make sure to let children know that there are people behind the books and stories we love–someone had to think up those beloved characters and scenes and plots, and work very hard to bring them to life. Sometimes, when we can, we facilitate it so children can meet the creators they love. This can change a child’s life. After meeting an author or illustrator, children are almost always inspired to read more, draw more, write more, and tell more stories.
So what am I, the Youth Services Librarian, supposed to do when the perfect book for a child happens to have been written or illustrated by someone who has repeatedly assaulted women, or made racist comments, or behaved appallingly in other ways? Or, what can I do when these books are already an integral part of so many lives? Is there anything I can–or should–do, when a child idolizes a monster who has created something they love?
Sometimes I think about this in light of having grown up in an abusive family. I was desperate for the love of my parents, who showed their love in dark and painful ways; yet I can’t throw out every hug they ever gave me just because they used those same arms to slam me against a wall when I was mouthy. There’s no separating the two– it would be madness to try. To hold on to the good things they gave me, I must acknowledge the bad things, too.
Is there a way to walk this line when it comes to the literature children desperately love that’s been created by men who have used the power they gained by publishing this literature to bring harm to others? Should we even try to explain? Is that any less cruel than letting a child find out, on their own, years later, that the author of the books they loved most as a child was also someone who committed violent atrocities? I wouldn’t wish loving a monster on anyone, but is that a choice that needs to be made?
Again, to make this huge discussion personal, I think of the stories we’ve lost. My mother was a poet who stopped writing poetry after she dropped out of college (not enough money) and married my father. Who knows what kind of poetry the world would have if she’d kept writing? The cruel thing is, we never will know. We’ll also never know what kind of children’s literature (and, honestly, art in general) we’ve missed because women were passed over by editors and agents in favor of men, or what books never had a chance to find their audience because the publisher put all of the promotion behind the men in their catalog.
What we do know is that there is a huge amount of work that’s been created by women and nonbinary creators, and when we decide we don’t want to contribute to the careers of men who’ve made bad decisions, there is a bountiful body of work that we can turn to instead, and should have been considering all along.
Because perhaps instead of mourning what we (think) we have lost, we should start thinking about everything we have gained (a door opened to honest conversations, where we believe and value women and the stories they tell), and could possibly gain going forward: a culture around literature for children and youth that is safer, more fair, and more welcoming to everyone.