Hands Off, Hussy! Hot Men of Children’s Literature Under (Too Little?) Fire
As I see it, the relative success of the blog A Fuse #8 Production hinged almost exclusively on being in the right place at the right time. I started the site at the cusp of the blogger movement, a time when they were just beginning to be viewed as hip and new. I specialized in a simultaneously popular and somewhat obscure topic. I was a children’s librarian in Manhattan, the heart of the publishing industry. Right place. Right time. Right content. It’s easy almost a decade on to forget that it wasn’t entirely luck based. I did the reviews and round-ups but there was one feature of my site that I started partly because I found the topic funny and partly because like any good blogger I was looking for hits. For a topic that could simultaneously shock and amuse. Thus was born the series Hot Men of Children’s Literature.
During the series’ heyday I received surprisingly little criticism. It wasn’t that people necessarily approved of a children’s librarian calling different guys in the industry “hot”, but they at least got the joke. Rather than judge male authors and illustrators on the quality of their work I’d discuss the slant of their eyebrows. There’s no real reason to do that kind of a thing unless you’re just having fun. At its peak the series would get shoutouts at librarian previews, which stroked the ego. It was mentioned when Jarrett Krosczka was handed the key to the city of Worcester And, like most things, folks tried to use it for marketing purposes. I’d have publishers suggest to me new up-and-coming debut fellas as possible subject matter. Men would suggest themselves or, far worse, their wives and girlfriends would nominate them. And while it is difficult to tell a man he isn’t hot, it is infinitely worse to tell his mate.
In the end it had done its job (getting me attention) and I could retire it. HMOCL, as we affectionately dubbed it, had been an innocent lark. An innocuous poke at an industry.
Or was it?
What if HMOCL was more than that? What if it paved the way for a new kind of marketing attitude? Think about it. Our industry is dominated by women and quite a few gay men. Heterosexual fellas exist but do not make up the majority of children’s booksellers and librarians. Did publishers discover that raw sex appeal was a legitimate way to sell to a willing juv lit public?
These questions arose recently with the publication of the New York Magazine article The Children’s-Book Guy: An Ideal Crush Object. I came to the piece as I come to many hot topics these days. Which is to say, by reading infuriated comments on Twitter and then working my way backwards in time to the original article.
Children’s literature hate bait happens, so I set out to read the piece proclaimed by so many to be anti-women / hateful / damaging / etc. I read it. I read it again. And one thing was very very clear. This was definitely Hot Men of Children’s Literature 2.0.
To sum up, the article is a chirrupy little celebration of the fact that there are a lot of cute “children’s book guys”. It names names. It fantasizes about what it would be like to be with such a fellow. And it identifies female fans of children’s literature as a distinct type:
“I’ve been to my fair share of kids’-book events and long admired the women who have made careers out of stepping into the brain of a little kid and shepherding them through imagined worlds of joy and wonder. These women are generally in their mid-50s, with great glasses, admirably draped Eileen Fisher duds, and expensive sandals.”
In doing so, it made these actual women, and their bookseller/librarian/academic counterparts just a touch grumpy (my favorite comment coming from Anne Ursu on Roger’s blog saying, “I’m amused that she thinks women who write children’s books can afford Eileen Fisher”). As it happens, the author provided an apology for the piece afterwards, which is worth reading.
My job at this point was to find out if folks were inclined to lump me in with this piece. And occasionally someone would, but never angrily. Roger Sutton mentioned it jovially on his blog. One person speculated that my series was different because I was an insider and this woman was clearly an outsider. Hands off, hussy! Judging male children’s book industry insiders in a sexist manner is Betsy’s job!
Initially I tried to distance myself. My series was satirical, I said. I included more than just adorable 20 and 30 year olds. I did dead guys even! But at the end of the day how different was I really? I may not have written in her Carrie Bradshaw-esque style, but the content was the same.
Back in the day I was asked why I didn’t do a Hot Women of Children’s Literature companion series. The answer was that I couldn’t figure out how it would work. Women in the industry don’t incline towards female creators based on their relative physical “hotness”. But to suggest that they don’t incline towards women for similar reasons isn’t entirely true either. It took me years before I realized that in the children’s literature world there IS an equivalent to hotness in men: Relatability in women. Cute can be cool. Adorkable can be desirable. But if that female author or illustrator comes off like a best friend? Fantastic! Now look at some of the female authors and illustrators lauded by, say, The Nerdy Book Club. Katherine Applegate? Wouldn’t you want to spend time having brunch with her? Ame Dyckman? Maybe the sweetest human being I’ve met in years. Lauren Castillo? So friendly and fun. Rita Williams-Garcia? Quite possibly the world’s most enjoyable human being. Kate DiCamillo? Hee-larious! None of these women are stand-offish or curt with kids. And they strike their fans as someone you’d want to spend more time with, personally.
This is NOT to say that they aren’t talented. Of course they are! But being prejudiced towards a children’s book creator isn’t always gender specific. We are influenced by looks and attitudes. Remember my post on whether or not you have to be a performing extrovert? It applies here.
Fortunately we are also attracted to sheer raw talent. Or, more precisely, our kids are. Because kids love what they love. They don’t adore Judy Blume because she’s friendly but because her books still speak to them. They don’t check out Mo Willems because he is hot (a matter of opinion, of course) but because his books are funny as all get out. And while marketing to the “emotions” (shall we say) of the gatekeepers may work initially, we can all adore a title regardless of whether or not we’ve ever seen so much as a photograph of its creator(s). I trust the kids in these matters. Blood will out. Good books will out. And Hot Men / Relatable Women? I suspect they’re not going anywhere.
[Full credit for the images in this piece to BookRiot and their article (by the fabulous Minh Le) 5 of Hollywood’s Sexiest Men Want to Read You Children’s Books]
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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