Where Have All the Female Illustrators Gone?

Posted April 19th, 2011

Thanks a MillionFor the longest time, I had the distinct impression that there were precious few women illustrators in the children’s book market. Can you blame me? According to one noted illustrator, a scant 20% of the illustration work goes to women. If that’s true, no matter how you look at it, that’s a pretty low percentage. When you set that percentage next to the rather large, comprehensive list of female artists available today, the percentage seems even more egregious. What’s going on here? Time to ask some hard questions.

Questions are what led me to write this particular blog. Recently, I approached the editor of a current work-in-progress about seeking out a female illustrator for one of my new books. The book is written by moi, a woman, and is about women, and so I thought it only right that the book be illustrated by a woman as well. He did not disagree. So, to help matters along, I decided to put together a comprehensive list of female illustrators from which to choose. To build that list, I went on Facebook, suggested I was building such a list, and asked my FB friends who should be on it. The response? A veritable deluge of names! I was pleased, but more than a little surprised. Why did I not have a sense of their presence in the marketplace, I asked myself. I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years, and yet I had no idea of such a dominant female presence. What were the reasons?

Are the skill sets of male and female artists significantly different from one another? A female art teacher I spoke with suggested that, on average, men have a better spatial sense and a better intuitive idea of perspective than female artists, while women, on the whole, are better at drawing figures. I find that argument intriguing. I can personally think of an artist couple I know for whom that is exactly true. But I don’t know how common that is. I do a little painting, myself, but I’ve never attempted illustration, so this is not my area of expertise. Still, it would seem to me, for the many different kinds of books that are produced, more than 20% of them would benefit as much from the skills of a woman as that of a man, whether or not those skill sets differ.

There may be another reason why the lion’s share of illustration work seems to go to men rather than women.

Even a cursory look at the publishing industry will reveal that women dominate the field. How many male editors or art directors do you know? Go on. Count them. If you need more than one hand, I’d be surprised. When it comes to illustrators, which gender do you think a female editor or art director will be inclined to hire? Go on. Be honest. And if that male is cute? Forget about it! I’m not blind. I see all the flirting that goes on between male artists and the women who hire them. Still, I’d never thought about how that casual interplay might impact the selection of illustrators for book projects. (And don’t even get me started on the number of women NOT winning the Caldecott!

Do all male artists flirt? No, not all. Does sexual heat always play into the hiring choice of an illustrator? Absolutely not. To suggest so would be an insult to many outstanding men working in this field who eschew the very idea of using their manly charms to secure a contract. However, to deny that gender preference is, indeed, a factor on many occasions would be, at best, dishonest. That’s not happening here.

So, what is the solution? How can we even the playing field for women artists? That’s a tough one. I have a suggestion, though, a place where we can begin.

We can and should encourage editors and art directors to do a better job of sharing projects with female illustrators. We should raise our voices whenever we encounter this type of gender inequity. And, as authors, we can make a concerted effort to suggest and recommend more female illustrators for our own books. That’s my plan, and I hope other authors will do likewise.

Heck, my own future might include cover art and picture book illustration. If it does, when I venture out into the marketplace, I’d like to find a level playing field. Wouldn’t you?

“Eyes on the Prize”

Posted April 1st, 2011

1st prizeChildren’s poetry is the bastard child of American Literature.

Bet that got your attention.

“That’s strong language,” you say.  Actually, the term is quite appropriate.  Let me explain.

You can win a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award for poetry, provided you write poetry for adults. As a poet for adults, the Guggenheim is available to you, and the Pushcart Prize, and the NEA grant, among others. National Poetry Month has dedicated seven days of its reign for the celebration of children’s poetry but, then, they don’t give out any awards. There is an NCTE Award for Children’s Poetry, which I myself was pleased to win a few years ago, but that is for a body of work, not an individual book. And that’s my point. There is no major, national award given for a single work of poetry for children. Why is that?

Mind you, I am aware of, and grateful for, the awards created by Lee Bennett Hopkins and, more recently, by SCBWI, but I am talking about an award coming from the American Library Association. Where is that award?

At the moment, when it comes to children’s book awards, all genres are lumped together: fiction, humor, nonfiction, mystery, fantasy—you name it. It is important to note that individual prizes do exist for humor and nonfiction. They exist, one would assume, in recognition of the fact that each of these genres incorporate a specific set of skills not evident (or usual) in other genres. That can certainly be said of poetry, yes? So why isn’t there a major, annual award offered in this particular genre?

On second thought, forget the question. I’ll jump right to the point, obvious though it may be: the time is past due for a standing, annual poetry award within the realm of children’s and young adult literature. Period.

I’m thrilled that poetry has its own month, and that it does include a special week recognizing and celebrating poetry for children and young adults. That’s wonderful. Now, let’s take another big step. Let’s create an annual children’s poetry award, with a special category for verse novels, may I add. Poetry for young readers deserves that recognition. ‘Nough said.

At Jerusalem's GateAs much as I love National Poetry Month, there’s something about this time of year that excites me even more: Easter. A few years ago, I wrote a book called At Jerusalem’s Gate, a poet’s take on the Easter story, seen from the multiple points-of-view of the characters who were part of the original story 2000 years ago. And so, in this month of Easter, I close out with two poems from this collection.

“An Act of Kindness” focuses on the Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea. The second, “To Be Continued,” is from the point-of-view of a soldier.

An Act of Kindness

Christ crucified lay limp
as any son undone
by beating, cross, and spear,
a Pharisee the one
to bear him to a place
of rough rock and rest.
Perhaps—this God knows best—
he swabbed away Christ’s blood
with tears, the only bath
the Sabbath would allow.
Perhaps he chose instead
to kiss the Master’s brow
and whisper his goodbye.
Perhaps he merely wept,
while tired muscles strained
to roll the stone in place
and soldiers sealed it tight
to inch by inch lock out
the air, hope, light.

To Be Continued

Don’t tell me he is God.
I pierced his human side,
used my daily-sharpened spear.
In time, I’m certain
someone will explain
how he can be here
preaching still
and rising
on the wings
of the wind.