As the author of a funny adventure story for middle grade readers, I’ve found myself in a sort of unusual position over the past few months following my book release. I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel. (Author Anne Ursu wrote a great post about one of these appearances; you should read it immediately if you haven’t already.)
Without exception, my male co-panelists have been wonderful people, great writers, and thoughtful and funny speakers. I’ve been honored to sit alongside them, and I hope I’ll get many more chances to do so in the future. But the gender breakdown of our panels doesn’t usually come close to representing the gender breakdown in children’s publishing as a whole, or even in middle grade fiction in particular. My YA-writing friends tell me that in the world of teen lit, the reverse is sometimes true, and it’s not unusual for a YA panel to consist mostly of female authors. I’ve also seen panels about “books for girls” populated entirely by women, and panels about “books for boys” populated entirely by men; if you’ve attended a children’s literature conference recently, you probably have, too.
Lately, writers and readers have been asking for more representations of diversity in the books we read, the authors we’re exposed to, and the opportunities presented to all of us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or the other traits that make us unique. While I can’t speak to all of these issues in the space of this blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a shameless and specific plea for bringing groups of both male and female authors to speak to kids.
Here are just a few of the great things that can happen when men and women share the stage at an author panel or school visit:
Kids see themselves in the authors standing in front of them. I love speaking to elementary school students, telling them about how I became a writer, and showing them silly photos of myself when I was their age. I do this because I want kids to know that I was a lot like them when I was growing up, and that if they want to write books someday, that’s an utterly achievable dream. Bringing a group of both male and female authors to an elementary school shows kids in a concrete way that both boys and girls can grow up to be authors—and engaging, interesting speakers, too!
Kids learn that both men and women can write all sorts of books. There’s a general perception—more of a stereotype, really—that men write funny, adventurous stories and women write quiet, heartwarming stories. A quick romp through any library will illustrate how inaccurate this idea really is. When we include women on panels about funny, adventurous stories, and when we include men on panels about quiet, heartwarming stories, we bust those stereotypes wide open, and that’s nothing but good for the kids (and adults) who attend these events.
Kids understand that both men and women write for boys and girls. Why do we so often assume that men write for boys and women write for girls? When I visit schools, I want boys to know that it is totally okay for them to read and enjoy my books, and I want girls to know that, too. I don’t write “for boys” or “for girls;” I write for whoever wants to read the stories I have to tell. I also know that my male author friends feel the same way. Some of our books might be about death-defying adventures, and others may be about friendship or family, but all of our books are for anyone who wants to read them: boys, girls, adults, postal workers, foreign dignitaries, and swamp monsters.
The elephant in the room gets a chance to leave. When there is a noticeable gender disparity on a panel, gender suddenly becomes a salient topic, even if it has nothing to do with what the speakers are actually talking about. This can be stressful, awkward, and distracting for presenters and audiences alike. As important as it is to discuss issues of gender, most of us would usually rather get down to the business of what we really love: talking about books written by—and for—everyone.
There’s far more to say on this subject, of course, and other smart people have already said much of it wonderfully, but I hope that all of us who write, publish, curate, share, and love children’s literature will keep this conversation going over the next few months and years. And if you find yourself organizing a panel, getting author friends together for a group school visit, or inviting speakers to a conference, please take a few moments to consider whether the authors in the group will represent a wide, diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. It’s important, and it matters—not only to us, but also to the kids who read our stories.