One-Minute Book Reviews

January 30, 2012

American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best

Why are women winning fewer Caldecott medals than at any point in the 74-year history of the ALA’s top prize for picture books?

By Janice Harayda

Four out of five librarians are women, but when it comes to children’s book awards, nobody could accuse them of an excess of sisterhood. For decades the American Library Association has had a dismal record of honoring female artists with its Caldecott medal, given each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” That record just got worse.

Last week the ALA named the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and three Honor books, all four of whom were men. Long before that shutout for women, the number of female winners had sunk to its lowest level in the 74-year history of the prize. Women won 10 percent the Caldecott medals from 2000-2009 compared with 30 percent in the 1950s and 40 percent in the 1960s. They are also doing worse than men by virtually every other measure of the award. Male artists have won roughly twice as many Caldecott medals and Honor awards overall as their female counterparts. They have won all the Honor awards four times as often. And the women whom librarians have passed over aren’t second-rate artists: They include some of the greatest illustrators, living and dead, who have worked in the field.

This neglect of women is startling given the wealth of female talent that has existed in picture books since Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott medal in 1938 and Virginia Lee Burton soon earned one for The Little House. It is that much harder to understand because women are claiming more awards from others, including  75 percent of the 2011 National Book Awards and 83 percent of the most recent National Book Critics Circle prizes. And outside of library sites, the trend has received little notice, perhaps because it is to some extent masked by the profusion of ALA prizes added since the Caldecott, including the Coretta Scott King (for black authors and illustrators) and Pura Belpré (for Latinos and Latinas). Many of the newer awards have gone to female artists and allow the library association to say that it honors women while denying them its showpiece award for picture books, which has more prestige and impact on sales.

Caldecott judges snub women’s books on other year’s-best lists

Librarians have defended their Caldecott record with arguments that collapse under scrutiny. Some have suggested that women win fewer Caldecotts because they are staying home and having babies instead of working on the next Where the Wild Things Are. If only female artists were all gay and childless like Maurice Sendak! Never mind that in the 1950s – when far more women stayed home – women won twice as many Caldecotts as in the past 13 years. And never mind that in England, where women also have babies, they won 60 percent of the Kate Greenaway medals (“the British Caldecott”) between 2000–2009 compared with 10 percent of Caldecotts.

Other librarians blame publishers for the medal gap. They speculate that fewer picture books by women get published, although they cite no evidence of it. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of children’s literature magazine The Horn Book, punted when he heard in 2007 that men had won four times as many Caldecott medals as women in the past two decades. “I wouldn’t argue that sexism is at work here without a lot more information – what percentage of picture books are illustrated by women, for starters,” he said.

The publishing industry offers much to blame in how it treats women, but it isn’t causing the medal gap. Consider the best-picture-books-of-the-year lists in major newspapers and trade magazines. In late 2011 virtually all lists included multiple books by female artists. Every year their editors and reviewers find outstanding books by women: It’s the Caldecott judges who have trouble. Then perhaps librarians have higher standards than the critics for the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? Not likely: This year School Library Journal had several female artists on its best-picture-books list.

The idea that publishers are causing the medals gap loses more ground when you consider the books spurned by Caldecott judges. This year the also-rans included a book that made the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books list: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which has unique and beautiful paper cuts by Pam Dalton and a text by Katherine Paterson, who has won the National Book Award and Newbery medal twice each. Librarians also rejected a book named one of the year’s best by School Library Journal and other publications: Mouse & Lion, illustrated by 1973 Caldecott Honor artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose work has appeared in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and who is one of the greatest living picture-book artists. The judges instead gave a second Caldecott medal to Chris Raschka for his A Ball for Daisy, which has a bright crowd-pleasing appeal but lacks the depth and originality of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mouse & Lion. Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.

Favoring books because they’re by men … or because they’re about boys?

Some librarians counter the accusations of favoritism by saying that the Caldecott committees change annually. But rotating the judges doesn’t help if a long-term institutional bias affects decisions. And ALA judges have shown such a pattern: They lean toward artists who are popular with children or who they think should be, so their awards may reflect children’s well-documented prejudices about sex roles. Many librarians are also desperate to promote reading among boys and may honor books by men because they are more likely to depict male characters. This idea gains plausibility from the medal count for Newbery awards for books for older children, which skews in other direction: Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.

None of these reasons is acceptable. If the librarians want to reward books that they believe will interest boys without slighting women, they have a simple way do it: Give more medals. The Caldecott committee has often named four or five Honor Books but this year listed only three.

Whatever the reason for the medals gap, the ALA is sending a message to children that women are second best. Librarians can’t say “We want children to see that Caldecott medals on books have meaning” and, at the same time, “We don’t want that meaning to be: Women are also-rans.” Children will see in the medals what they see.

Caldecott judges don’t discuss their deliberations, so we may never know why they found all women unworthy this year and honored a male artist’s book about a dog that lost its favorite red ball. But judge Michele Farley offered a clue on Twitter soon after the ALA denied the medal to a woman for 11th time in 13 years. Farley tweeted: “I am so happy it was a dog book!”

A note about the sources for this article: The U.S. Census Bureau says that 4 in 5 librarians are women. The 2-to-1 ratio of male-to-female Caldecott medalists came to my attention through a comment by Peter, editor of the Printz Picks blog, on the Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal, and my math confirmed it. All percentages and ratios come from my calculations and can be confirmed through the winners’ lists on the prize-givers’ sites or on Wikipedia. Some comments grow out of my conversations with librarians and publishing executives.

This is the second of two posts on the 2012 Caldecott awards. The first dealt with the scarcity of Caldecott medals for black artists.

Janice Harayda is a novelist award-winning critic who has been book editor the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been reviewing books for children and adults for two decades. Jan tweets about books for all ages at @janiceharayda.

Comments on this site may not exceed 250 words, must relate to directly to the post, and must be civil. They must also include either a full name, a photo avatar or a link to the commenter’s website, unless their author is known to the moderator. Comments that do not meet these guidelines will be deleted or edited.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

18 Comments »

  1. I think this is a very important conversation, but I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. As a culture, don’t we tend to reward men for any willingness to interact with/care for our kids? How many times have I heard a woman say that her husband is “babysitting” the kids so she can have a night out? Whether as a teacher, librarian, pediatrician, or author, we heap praise on men for working with kids. As though that’s above and beyond our expectations. So maybe the problem is our limited expectations of what men should/will/can do.

    Comment by LaurelSnyder (@LaurelSnyder) — January 31, 2012 @ 9:32 am | Reply

    • Laurel: I agree that this is both the tip of the iceberg and has a cultural dimension. To cite just one example of why: Research has shown that female teachers call on boys in class more often than girls even when the teachers are aware of the problem and try not perpetuate it.

      One of many things that is particularly troubling about the Caldecott medal gap is that I see other prize-givers making more effort to deal with the cultural bias toward boys than the ALA is. In England, for example, that bias is even stronger (because of such factors as a more deeply entrenched old-boy network and a tradition of primogeniture). But the Kate Greenaway award honored six times as many women in 2000-2009 as the Caldecott judges did. And if the bias toward boys is a cultural problem, I’d like to see the ALA show some leadership in overcoming it instead of contributing to it. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 31, 2012 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I agree. I also do not understand why an award for illustration is given to an illustrator who is using the same style that he was already recognized for in the past for that same award.
    If every book by this illustrator looks the same year in and year out are they all award worthy? Does that mean nothing new could possibly compare this one artist’s same old same old?

    Comment by Laura Hamor (@LauraHamor) — January 31, 2012 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  3. Laura: Thanks for mentioning the repeat honor for Chris Raschka. I, too, am concerned about this but for a slightly different reason: I believe that some male illustrators (Chris Van Allsburg, for example) deserved more than one Caldecott medal.

    But the Caldecott judges have been much more willing to give multiple awards to men. For example, Virginia Lee Burton got the Caldecott for “The Little House.” But she didn’t get one for “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” which was no less worthy. In the modern era, Trina Schart Hyman got only one Caldecott medal (for “St. George and the Dragon”) when she was certainly a more distinguished illustrator than some men honored in her lifetime. All of this makes it look as though that the ALA has a double standard: On the basis of the medal count, the Caldecott judges see men’s books as worthier of repeat honors than women’s, especially when the women aren’t part of a team such as Diane and Leo Dillon’s.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 31, 2012 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

  4. Glad to see someone else has noticed this gender gap. I’m an author/illustrator who recently posted about it on my group children’s writers blog. (You can see my post at http://rt19writers.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-dont-women-illustrators-win.html.) The post has generated a lot of discussion, and I’m planning to do a follow up with more links to others’ perspectives on 2-3-12. I’ll include a link to this excellent post and comments. (See http://rt19writers.blogspot.com/). Though I too feel indignant, I suspect that the reasons for overlooking the outstanding women in the field today are complex and happen at every level from who chooses to pursue careers in illustration (and gets support/encouragement to do so) through the publishing/promotion worlds to the committee. And of course our society’s biases. So very glad to see people talking about it though and I thank you very, very much for having the courage to discuss this.

    Comment by Carol Baicker-McKee — February 1, 2012 @ 12:16 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Carol. Enjoyed your posts. I agree that the reasons for the male domination of the Caldecotts are complex. But it’s important not to let the ALA off the hook on this one.

      It may be that the US has more male illustrators, for example. But the fact is: All too often, when a Caldecott committee get wonderful books by women that perhaps have been published against the cultural odds, it doesn’t reward them. You mentioned Rosemary Wells (http://www.rosemarywells.com). The ALA has had opportunity after opportunity to reward her, and it hasn’t, while it has honored Kevin Henkes (whose pictures aren’t as witty).

      The list of deserving women who never got a Caldecott medal is endless, going back to Wanda Gag, who got an Honor instead. And it seems to me that the medal gap has grown as large as it has partly because no one is holding librarians accountable for it.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 1, 2012 @ 2:01 am | Reply

  5. I can’t speak for American school librarians and children; but as a school librarian in New Zealand I rarely promote a book just because it has won an award – I might mention it but the children aged 5-11 yrs are not terribly impressed with that unless it is the Children’s Choice item. My criteria for promoting it will more likely be how interesting the children will find the plot and characters and to a fairly large extent whether they will be able to make a connection with it. The connection factor and how contemporary it is will figure highly in the bulk of my recommendations – I have just run a report on the 125 most popular books in our school library for 2011 – not an award winner or even a piece of literature amongst them [unless you count a few by Roald Dahl]. Mostly we are looking at Geronimo Stilton, Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants et al. Of course this seems to present a challenge for me this year to promote some other books which I think the children should move on to and of course the more worthy books are being read , just not in such numbers.
    It’s been a really interesting discussion though both here and on the childlit list serve out of Rutgers – certainly prompted me to look at award winners here. The results probably reflect our different societies and social conditions – fairly well balanced for the last 3 years despite the predominance of women amongst published authors and illustrators.

    Comment by Angela Soutar — February 1, 2012 @ 4:40 pm | Reply

    • Angela: Your comment relates to something very much on my mind. Near the end of my research for this post, I realized that it might be revealing to check the sex breakdown of picture-book award-winners in English-speaking countries besides the UK, especially Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (because all three produce high-quality books, some of which reach the U.S.). I didn’t do it only because that information would have made the post even longer.

      But after I read your comment, I took a quick look at the past decade or so of Australian CBC picture-book award-winners, and although I haven’t done a precise count, their top prize clearly went to more women than received Caldecotts in 2000-2009. If the NZ awards are about evenly balanced, that means: Australia, NZ, and UK picture-book awards are all representing women better than the Caldecotts (if you believe, as I do, that female artists are creating award-worthy books). You’ve made me want to do an exact CBC count, and I’ll post it if I do. Thank you!
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 1, 2012 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks so much for bringing this to light! I am a children’s bookseller and have been reading picture books at story time for over 16 years now and longer than that to my own children. I also have a blog where I review kid’s books. I have reviewed 140 picture books in the last 3+ years and your article prompted me to go back over those reviews and get a ratio of male to female illustrators. I came up with about at 1:1 occurrence of books illustrated by men and women. Interestingly, of the books illustrated by women, 4 out of 5 were also written by women. Something is definitely askew with the ALA and the Caldecott. Some of my favorite (American) women illustrators I’d like to see win the gold: Rosemary Wells, Sophie Blackall, Jen Corace, Marla Frazee (at least she has a couple of silvers) and Julia Denos. Non-American illustrators I also love: Renata Liwska, Gillian Tyler, Emily Gravett, Mini Grey and Beatriz Rodriguez.

    Comment by tanya turek (@books4yourkids) — February 1, 2012 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

    • Tanya: Great to have a bookseller’s view. I especially appreciated your comment on Rosemary Wells, who seems to be in a position similar to that of Dr. Seuss (three Honors, no medal), except that she hasn’t won one Honor. In all awards contests, alas, judges reward books perceived as “serious” more readily than funny ones.

      My experiences as a critic have been similar to yours. At least 50% of the books I’ve reviewed for children and adults on this blog have come from female authors or illustrators. And my Caldecott post began with the hazy sense that every year, the judges were rejecting outstanding picture books by women. This idea crystallized when I read the statistics compiled by Peter in the Comments at http://bit.ly/CvAno, which documented the medals gap. Thanks so much for recommending authors whose books people may want to seek out, whether or not they have a medal on the cover.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 1, 2012 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  7. I am proud to say I am married to a female illustrator who has won a Caldecott Medal (2011). I am saddened to say that I find this article demeaning to those women who have won, while also condescending to the male illustrators who have worked hard and earned the honor in their own right. Readers, be wary of assertions such as this: “Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.” The qualification of the winning books as “less-deserving” is an editorial opinion and should not be treated as fact. But perhaps more importantly, the statement is fundamentally mean-spirited. We should strive to be kinder and more inclusive of one another, less reactionary and more thoughtful.
    Thank You,
    Philip C. Stead

    Comment by pcstead — February 2, 2012 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

  8. Phil, you have a few conflicts of interest here that you didn’t disclose. First, you wrote the text for your wife’s Caldecott winner, “A Sick Day for Amos McGee.” Second, in my review of “Amos,” I praised both Erin’s pictures and your words http://bit.ly/OMPReps. But I found Erin’s illustrations stronger. I wrote, “Erin gets an A for her art and Philip a B/B+ for his writing,” and added that your writing had less power than the text of the greatest Caldecott winners, such as “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Little House” (one by a man, the other by a woman). Third, I received a personal note from a member of your family after the review appeared. And Erin has faulted the post above on another site. I don’t know what’s going on, but if you leave further comments, I hope you’ll be more up front with visitors.

    2. The numbers of male and female Caldecott winners raise disturbing questions, whatever you think of the tone of my post. Others have raised them, including Peter in the Comments at http://bit.ly/CvAno. These questions deserved more attention than they were getting on library sites, and I provided it. Far from condescending from past Caldecott winners, I have praised repeatedly many in addition to your wife, including Virginia Lee Burton, Maurice Sendak, David Wiesner, David Macaulay, Trina Schart Hyman and Chris Van Allsburg.

    3. At no point did I attack personally any Caldecott judge in the way you called me “mean-spirited” and “reactionary.” My post focused on numbers, broad patterns, and long-term trends that transcend any one judge or even group of judges. I agree that we all “should strive to be kinder.” But name-calling isn’t the way to do it. I admire your work and that of your wife and am sorry to see such a response from you.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 2, 2012 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  9. @Phil Stead: Ms. Harayda’s personal opinion on the worthiness of award-winning books does not in any way discount the Caldecott sex bias that she has illuminated here.

    When a woman speaks up against sexual prejudice and is told she’s being “mean-spirited” and should be “kinder…more inclusive…less reactionary and more thoughtful,” it can have a devastatingly chilling effect. In fact, telling a woman to be “kinder” and “more thoughtful” when she’s criticizing institutionalized discrimination is dangerously close to misogyny itself. Characterizing a woman with a grievance as an emotional, irrational figure is a classic sexist tactic in shutting down discussion about sexism.

    I hope Ms. Harayda continues to be just this “reactionary” when it comes to calling attention to discrimination in the literary world. And a professional author or illustrator should know better than to let a critical review provoke hasty comment.

    Comment by Leah Raeder (@LeahRaeder) — February 4, 2012 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  10. I believe that it’d be harsh if we start considering the matter in sexual prejudice. It’s all natural cycle and keeps going up and down. So if the women are winning less medals, they may win more in future as they had the same in the past.
    Secondly, the excuse that the publishers do not respond to female writers the same way as they do to the male writers sounds too lame. I mean, if anything can make them money, why wouldn’t they go for it?

    Comment by muhammad saad (@msaadulhaq) — February 4, 2012 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

    • Muhammad: True, awards are cyclical. But since writing this post, I’ve looked at the percentage of awards to women in other English-speaking countries that have a major award for a children’s-picture-book artist. And female illustrators won more awards in 2000-2009 in all the countries I looked into: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain. So if there’s a cycle that favors men, it seems to be affecting only the Caldecott judges.

      I may not have been clear about publishers. What I was trying to say was: When people don’t like the results of other awards, they blame the judges. But when they don’t like the Caldecotts, some instead blame publishers (who, they argue, may not be publishing as many books illustrated by women): It’s like blaming the team or league when you don’t like calls by umpires. I was trying to show that inconsistency, however indirectly. Thanks for your comment.
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 4, 2012 @ 5:37 pm | Reply

  11. I’m with Phil to some extent. I feel this post IS mean-spirited because it comes across as the Caldecott committee intentionally discriminating against women. The headline is inflammatory, in my opinion. I don’t think Ms. Harayda (or anyone) wants to see this award (or the Newbery) become one where the winners must be of a particular gender (or race, or ethnic background) every alternating year.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — February 12, 2012 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

    • Agree: Nobody wants judges to believe they must choose winners of alternating sexes, races or ethnicities instead of the best books. But neither does anyone want to see exceptionally talented women get overlooked year after year. As I see it, that’s what’s happening now.

      I’m not suggesting that the Caldecott committees are intentionally discriminating against women. In fact, I don’t know what’s causing the medals gap: A subconscious bias may be at work. Or something in the awards criteria, procedures or judge-selection process may favor men. If so, that would be happening at a higher level than any Caldecott committee. Either way, the credibility of the awards will suffer if they appear to people to be unfair (as they did to some this year, when men swept the Caldecott honors, although women produced outstanding books).

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 12, 2012 @ 8:36 pm | Reply


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