Pop quiz: name a children’s writer. Think about them in your brain. You’re thinking about a woman, right? Probably someone like J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins. Or maybe you’re thinking of people like John Green and Neil Gaiman? Male writers are really the outliers in children’s publishing, all the way up to YA, where the majority of heavy hitters are women. I can report that a friend (who is male) with a YA book out next year was at a retreat with his agency where he was basically the only guy in the room. But you’ll read a million features about John Green before you hear about the legions of other (female) writers out there. Occasionally someone like Maureen Johnson, the author of ten wonderful young adult novels, will stir the pot with a provocative idea, like her “Coverflip” pitch, which points out how cover images, the gender of the author, and the content inside are all inextricably linked together. While it went viral, did it make a difference?
So when VIDA — the organization that publishes annual stats on the gender breakdown of literary publications — decided to do a count for children’s literature, they went to a specific source: prestigious awards. And the gender parity that you see will shock you. Maybe. It shows that even when men make up a tiny slice of the pie, the industry is paying more attention to their work than other authors’.
This could be a problem because awards mean attention; attention means booksellers, librarians, and parents know these books exist; these books get increased sales and prestige; and it gives authors a chance to have a career. It’s important to look at the gender disparities in the business and execution of children’s media, as these stories help shape how kids perceive the world. It’s why someone like Geena Davis is doing research on what kids get out of family entertainment (heroic boys, mostly) in TV and film.
As VIDA co-director Erin Belieu said in a statement, “This new data for children’s books questions the assumption many have that at least one industry in publishing actually favors women. In fact, the story is the same. Being male still seems to present an advantage when it comes to recognition, prestige, and awards.”
In the case of awards, like the Newbery, the Printz, and the National Book Award, the publication counted back five years. Most awards are at parity, save the Newbery, which has been dominated by women, with 16 female honorees and six male. For publications that honor the “Best Books of the Year,” they took a count of the 2013 stats for places like Kirkus and the New York Times Book Review. Some are at parity, and some, like Booklist, appear to be proportional.
But the disparity in this VIDA count comes in the negative space — unlike the stark lack of women in literary magazines — and because of that, the pie count for children’s literature stats feels somewhat incomplete. It’s a tricky jump of the brain to realize that men, a minority in this particular writing genre, are getting a disproportionate amount of the awards and honors. It’s also too bad that VIDA didn’t attack the rich topic of the lack of diversity in children’s books, one that feels vital to the way we live now.
VIDA is doing great and necessary work, but I’m not sure of the gross effect these particular pie charts will have. Perhaps a knottier, more complicated, and vital project would have been tracking the media’s obsession with crowning John Green as the one “real” YA writer, the “leader” of a new brand of realistic fiction, unlike those yucky, girly vampire dystopias, and the gender issues in publishing brought up by Green’s success and “brand.”
For the full VIDA count, click here.