Why have male artists won twice as many Caldecott medals as their female contemporaries? I suggested a few answers in my post “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best.” And I’ve since created a one-page display on Pinterest of the covers of 10 picture books by women that lost the ALA’s annual award for “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Among the books passed over for the prize: Virginia Lee Burton’s classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, winner of the American Book Award. All have good company in the Caldecott judges’ reject pile, including Dr. Seuss, who won three Honor awards but never the medal. What other titles belong on my Pinterest list?
February 12, 2012
January 30, 2012
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.
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(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 26, 2012
November 20, 2009
November 18, 2009
Interesting reactions to my post yesterday on an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. An article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, in which I am quoted, begins: “It’s not Olympic figure skating, but even the National Book Awards can generate a judging scandal.” And Elizabeth Bird weighs in on the School Library Journal blog, where she wonders: “What should technically be considered a conflict of interest?” The winners of the awards will be announced tonight beginning at about 8 p.m. EST, and the results should appear almost instantaneously on Twitter (@nationalbook) at www.twitter.com/nationalbook. I may have comments about them after 10 p.m. on “Late Night With Jan Harayda.”
August 22, 2009
Something’s Not Quite Right. By Guy Billout. Godine, 32 pp., $14.95, paperback. Ages: 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Something’s Not Quite Right is a more sophisticated and intellectual French cousin of all those spot-the-difference books that require you to find minor variations in side-by-side pictures. Each page of this oversized picture book asks you to figure out what’s wrong with a painting by Guy Billout, an illustrator whose elegantly spare work has appeared in The New Yorker.
Some of Billout’s surreal images show biological impossibilities or incongruities that 5- or 6-year-olds could spot easily — a zebra with stripes that form a bull’s eye, a pigeon with landing gear for feet, a butterfly perched on a lever that lifts a building off its foundation. Other paintings show visual paradoxes that children might have trouble understanding without adult help, such a snowball apparently fired by a war-memorial cannon (which might have come instead from an unseen hand). And all the pictures have titles that, in some cases, add to their ambiguity: What are we to make of the painting called “Writer’s Block,” which shows a human figure standing behind a railing on top of an overflowing dam? Does the scene represent wish fulfillment? Or perhaps an inability to tap the wellsprings of inspiration just out of reach?
The varied levels of meaning and complexity make Something’s Not Quite Right more challenging than most spot-the-difference books and add to its intergenerational appeal. This is the rare picture book that on a rainy day at the beach might interest not just the young children for whom it is intended but their older brothers and sisters and the grandparents who could identify for both groups some of the famous sites on its pages, including the Flatiron Building in New York and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Best line/picture: Some of Billout’s images can be read metaphorically. They include a picture of a World War II tank crossing a field of sunflowers without appearing to harm them. You can read the flowers as a metaphor for France or the French spirit uncrushed by the war.
Worst line/picture: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition says that a picture shows “a Boeing 747 about to touch down without landing gear.” If you hadn’t read that, you might imagine that the plane was taking off and had lifted its landing gear.
Published: October 2002 (hardcover), May 2004 (paperback).
Furthermore: Billout was born in France and lives in New York. He has posted some images from Something’s Not Quite Right, unlabeled as such, on www.guybillout.com. He wrote the The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (Creative Editions, 2007).
August 8, 2009
February 28, 2009
Pat Cummings’s ‘Talking With Artists’ Series Lets Children Read About Their Favorite Picture-Book Illustrators and What They Do All Day
Any book in Pat Cummings’s three-volume Talking With Artists series would make a wonderful gift for a 6-to-9-year-old who loves to draw or paint. Each book is a colorful and often amusing collection of more than a dozen interviews (in a Q-and-A format) with well-known picture-book illustrators, typically supplemented by photos of their youthful and mature work and more. Vol. I includes Chris Van Allsburg and Leo and Diane Dillon; Vol. II, Brian Pinkney and Denise Fleming; Vol. III, Jane Dyer and Peter Sis. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Cummings has a gift for getting artists to talk about their work in terms that will engage children. “I love what I do,” William Joyce says in the second book. “It’s like getting paid for recess.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 28, 2008
The author of Shrek! also wrote picture book about a boy who can sulk even in a hammock on a beautiful summer day
Spinky Sulks. By William Steig. Sunburst, 32 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Not long ago, I mentioned the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on this site to an English professor and mother of two, who asked immediately if I had written about the late William Steig’s priceless Spinky Sulks. I said I hadn’t, partly because the book wasn’t quite old enough: Spinky Sulks came out in 1988, and the “Classics” series typically covers books published at least 25 years ago. And Steig wrote and illustrated so many good picture books that if I had to pick just one, I might choose Brave Irene, the story of an intrepid girl who doesn’t let a blizzard stop her from keeping her promise to her seamstress mother to deliver a dress to a duchess.
But if Spinky Sulks hasn’t been around quite long enough to qualify as a classic and doesn’t involve the high drama of Brave Irene, it is the hilarious story of an epic bad mood. Spinky is a boy who can — and does — sulk in a hammock on a beautiful summer day: His bad mood is so extreme, it borders on a parody of a sulking. That’s partly what makes his story so funny: Steig exaggerates enough so that children can see the humor in Spinky’s mood but not so much that he ridicules their feelings.
Spinky resists efforts to cheer him up — including his brother’s, “You were positively right! . . . Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium” — until he finds a way to lift his gloom on his own. In that sense, the book is a bit subversive. Steig doesn’t say so directly, but Spinky figures out how to do something that all parents want their children to learn to do: to tame their emotions in ways that suit their temperaments — even if you won’t find their methods recommended by Penelope Leach.
Published: 1988 www.williamsteig.com/spinky.htm
Furthermore: Steig, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, also wrote Shrek!. Spinky Sulks has won honors that include New York Times Outstanding Book and American Library Association Notable Book designations. Steig won a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a Caldecott Honor award for The Amazing Bone and Newbery Honors for Abel’s Island and Dr. De Soto. The site www.williamsteig.com/guides.htm has reading guides to Brave Irene, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto, and Amos & Boris.
Your public library has this book or can get it for you on an interlibrary loan for free or a nominal charge. Most libraries with children’s departments also have other good books by William Steig.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 20, 2008
Tasha Tudor, whose children’s books evoked a gentle bygone world, has died in Vermont at 92. Douglas Martin reports in the New York Times that Tudor often said she was the reincarnation of a sea captain’s wife who lived from 1800 to 1840 or 1842 and was replicating that way of life, which was also reflected in her books. Her son Seth suggested “that his mother’s more colorful remarks might be taken with a pinch of salt,” Martin said. www.nytimes.com/2008/06/20/books/20tudor.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
Over seven decades Tudor illustrated scores of books with pictures that, a Times critic once said, “have the same fragile beauty of early spring evenings.” The American Library Association chose two of them, Mother Goose and 1 Is One, as Caldecott Honor Books www.acrl.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/caldecottmedal/caldecotthonors/caldecottmedal.cfm
A review of Tudor’s A Tale for Easter appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in March www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/22/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.