When I was teaching seventh grade English, one of the most important things I ever taught my students was this:
Words are powerful. We own the words that come out of our mouths, and we own the impact those words have upon the world and the people around us. So use your words well. Use them carefully. Use them for good.
Today, I want to talk about some words I’ve heard coming out of grown-up mouths lately. Words spoken by great people. Words that were meant as friendly, harmless fun, I’m certain. Words that are having an impact that their speakers probably didn’t intend.
I was honored to be part of a magnificent panel at the Texas Library Association Convention this week. “It Can’t Be Science! It’s Fiction!” featured six authors of science-based novels and chapter books for young readers – two men and four women. It was one of the most enjoyable panels I’ve ever been on because the conversations felt rich, smart, organic, and fun. I so appreciated that the organizers made it a point to include both men and women, something TLA and ALA have been working hard to do. But at the same time, something about the panel troubled me.
I sat between Megan Frazer Blakemore, who wrote THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL, and Nate Ball, who writes the ALIEN IN MY POCKET chapter book series. Both are talented writers, kind human beings, and brilliant thinkers who share a passion for science and getting kids excited about it. Both inspired me with their words and their genuine excitement for their work. And I think most of the people in our nearly all female audience would agree on that.
But Megan and Nate saw different reactions from the crowd. Megan, from what I saw, received some lovely compliments on her books and her presentation. Nate did, too. He was also asked for photographs. Someone came up to him and said, “Oh! You are hot! I’d heard you were hot.” Other comments were easy to pick up as people filed out of the room.
“He is so cute!”
“I wonder if he does school visits!”
“He’s just adorable.”
Now, I’d never fault anyone for thinking those things. Nate, a PBS personality, is by all accounts, a perfectly good-looking guy. But is that really want we want to focus on in the words we speak aloud? On a panel about science in books for young readers? I’d argue that doing so produces a couple of results that the good-hearted people who spoke them probably didn’t intend.
1) It devalues Nate’s work. He’s an accomplished mechanical engineer who owns his own company, has devoted much of his life to doing cool science things, and now devotes even more of it to helping kids discover science. He is also someone’s son, someone’s husband, and someone’s dad. As teachers and librarians, we tell our students that the things that matter are character and kindness, curiosity and passion and hard work. These would be wonderful things to praise aloud, whether the writer/speaker is male or female.
2) It sends a strong message to the people who put together panels for teachers and librarians: Teachers and librarians like panels with men. Cute young men are good. Bonus points if they are also funny and charming. And while many cute, young, charming, funny men are also darn good writers, the end result of filling panels with these men is that publishers are leaving out women who might be just as talented, funny, and smart. Words matter. When we gush over writers because they are men, when we say, “He’s just adorable!” what publishers hear is “Send us your men. We will buy their books.” And publishing is a business. So that is what happens. It is happening more and more often.
Today’s Publisher’s Weekly headline shouts, “Four Children’s Luminaries Headline BookCon Panel at BEA!” In a world where statistically, women write more of the books, our luminaries are men. Why? Maybe because that’s what we’ve been asking for with our words. And words are powerful.
I’ve been that teacher in the audience before – the one who turns to a friend and says, “He’s adorable!” I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think I was helping to perpetuate sexism in an industry where even though women write more books and hold more editorial positions, men hold a disproportionate number of spots on bestseller and award lists. Conversations like this one, mostly had with my colleagues, have changed the way I think about that kind of comment.
It’s not harmless, no matter how I intended it. It affects the male colleagues whose work I respect, the female colleagues who should be getting the same kind of attention but aren’t, and perhaps most importantly, the kids. When we send out an all-male panel, we are sending a strong message to our girl writers. This business of making funny, popular books? It does not belong to you.
We all speak some words that we wish we could take back. We all carry biases of one sort or another, as readers, as writers, as teachers, as librarians, as humans. And the very best thing about being a person with powerful words is this: we get to think about the impact of our words. We get to choose every day, which ones we speak aloud.