Childfree adults in children’s literature

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, January 2016]

Recently, I’ve started paying attention, when reading children’s literature, to adult characters who don’t have children. This started as I was rereading Matilda last year to write an article on it; it struck me that the Trunchbull and Miss Honey shared one characteristic: their childlessness. But while the formidable headteacher hates children, Miss Honey’s own narrative arc in the story sees her eventually adopting Matilda (spoiler alert) (oops, too late). While Miss Trunchbull is quite clearly childfree (childless by choice), Miss Honey’s happy resolution seemed to entail being finally ‘completed’ by a child.

‘Childfree’ adults denounce the degree to which adults, in society, are seen as incomplete when they don’t have children; to them, it isn’t the case that any adult in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a child. Children’s books, in this respect, seem to me in general to perpetuate the idea that adults need children. Worse, they often appear to imply that childless adults have a problem that needs to be rectified (= they need a child), and childfree adults, meanwhile, should be either completely in the service of children, or suspicious, monstrous, or dangerous.

Here’s a vague taxonomy of childless and childfree adults I’ve been playing around with in my head. Feel free to add, criticise and nuance! Children’s literature seems to me to categorise childless and childfree adults broadly according to those lines:

The childfree (childless by choice):

– The monstrous and the murderous: Dahl’s Witches, Carroll’s Red Queen, Barrie’s Captain Hook. Ogres and giants. They hate children. But they are also clearly obsessed with children. Their whole raison d’être is to kill a lot of them.

– Cool uncles and aunts, nice godmothers: Those childfree adults are equally obsessed with children, but devote so much time to children who are not their own that presumably they don’t need their own; in fact, that would probably come in the way of the affection that the protagonist needs exclusively. Basically, they’re surrogate parents, but allow for the necessary fifty shades of authority that are germane to children’s books. Godmothers in fairy tales, Rowling’s Sirius Black, Dahl’s BFG, Jules Verne’s many travelling uncles, and my own Sesame Seade’s lazy student boss Jeremy.

– Anthropomorphic animals and picturebook adults: This category of adults who are basically children doing adult jobs, and who mostly appear as protagonists in literature for the very young. Those adults by definition cannot have children, since they are essentially placeholders for children themselves.

The childless: (not by choice)

– Those who are mourning a child, or mourning never having had a child: melancholy figures who, explicitly or implicitly, appear sad to not be parents; or have lost their child, or a child very close to them, and are generally on their own path of mourning and grief. Often, this translates as some emotional investment in the child protagonist of the story. E.g. Lois Lowry’s Giver, Ma Costa in His Dark Materials, and even Dumbledore who lost his younger sister. They are, I think, a sad or more profound variation on the childfree ‘in loco parentis’ adult described above.

– Those for whom being childless is fairly unproblematic, but who end up looking for a child for various reasons: E.g. Miss Honey, as mentioned earlier, but also for instance the bizarre Willy Wonka, whose name implies that there might be something wonky with his reproductive organ, leading him, at the age of I have no idea how many years, to have to look for an heir.

Blurry zone: Teachers

Teachers are an interesting, huge category of childfree/ childless adults in children’s literature. To my knowledge, no Hogwarts teacher has children. In fact, many teachers in children’s literature seem mysteriously to have no kids at all. Whether it’s by choice or not, teachers seem to devote their whole time to other people’s children. I wonder if it’s because teachers’ children (who do exist in children’s books, but not that many) would distract from the total absorption that child protagonists require from their teachers. It mirrors the narcissistic impossibility, as a young child, to imagine that one’s teacher might have a private life, or – horror!- other children than us to look after.

It seems to me that children’s literature shows a lot more empathy for the childless than for the childfree; and presents the childfree as being still very invested in children, whether nefariously or positively. In other words, children’s literature doesn’t really let adults, at least in leading or secondary roles, be indifferent to children.

Of course, indifference towards children couldn’t be very frequent among adults in children’s literature, because of clear narrative and generic reasons: this type of text, obviously, is rather centred on children, so adults in children’s literature need to work within that narrative. But as a result, of course, we grow up thinking that adults must be interested in children, by nature and by necessity; and if not, it makes them suspicious.

Please add your own thoughts! This is a very quick and not very deeply thought-out taxonomy, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots.

Publishing is not a charity

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, November 2015; original post has interesting comments.]

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a ‘quiet book’, as she called it, published in the UK – a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.

Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: “Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won’t be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don’t want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I’m a writer – if I don’t write, I die.”

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears – and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn’t franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we’re constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You’ve heard this as much as I have. “We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books”. Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It’s thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they’re indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think there’s enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children’s Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children’s literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I’ve talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don’t invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don’t mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won’t. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They’re ‘hot’ books. And they put their money and promotional push where the ‘hot’ book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers.

Well, in this context, it’s not exactly shocking that bestsellers should ‘fund’ the quiet books. It’s only fair, seeing as they’d had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those ‘hot’ books are just more funded and more pushed because that’s what a majority of people want, so that’s what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That’s another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: ‘Publishing isn’t a charity’. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don’t make money shouldn’t actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn’t just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It’s not like this initial openness to ‘failure’ would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one’s asking publishing to be non-profit, but it’s not true that it’s simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing ‘what sells’. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children’s publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it’s ‘not a charity’. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children’s publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children’s publishing in France. Being children’s publishers, ‘We have a social responsibility’, he said, ‘to talk about this to children’. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c’est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children’s literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It’s been top of the children’s bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow’s similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything’s better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one’s awareness of the social responsibility of being a children’s publisher. I’m not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.

France’s Zoella

(First published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

France has its very own Zoe Sugg: she’s called Marie Lopez but goes by the name of Enjoy Phoenix, and she’s a beauty, make-up and life vlogger. Like Zoe Sugg, she’s written a book, which was published a few days ago and is called #EnjoyMarie (the title sounds only slightly less weird in French). I wasn’t the only ‘old person’ to discover her works on that occasion, but she’s been fabulously popular online for a while.

Le livre d'Enjoy Phoenix, numéro un des ventes la première semaine.

Hardly had #EnjoyMarie been published that the press started mocking the book, with the trendy magazine Les Inrocks devoting an article to ‘The 27 sentences that will make you think Enjoy Phoenix is the new Flaubert’. Each sentence is escorted by a sarcastic comment:

3.We are a generation of words created by an ever-sharper technology and, without noticing, we’re living under the attractive power of the webs of the Internet.” EnjoyPhoenix > Edward Snowden.

17.I shudder as I imagine drinking my first glass of alcohol… I hope there will be some.Spoiler alert: there was.

Etc. It’s funny in some ways, but it’s also a bit facile to mock a 19-year-old who started a blog five years ago as a means of dealing with school bullying, and who picked the phoenix as her animal of choice to express her desire to be born again and different. But then French adults are always cruel to teenagers, as I well remember.

Lopez’s book is in many ways a bizarre phenomenon in a country which is far from having a literary landscape as cluttered by author ‘brands’ and celebrity books as the Anglo-Saxon market, even in children’s and teenage literature. As the title of the Inrocks article indicates through the direct and snarky comparison with Flaubert, there is something distinctly disasteful, for the French mindset, about a book so obviously commercial.

It’s worth saying here that Les Inrocks is in many ways culturally snobbish, but as regards edgy pop culture – they’re not at all protective of highbrow culture; you would never find an article on Flaubert in there, so the reference sounds a little bit out of place. But even they, faced with walls of fuschia pink #EnjoyMarie books in each Fnac (the French franchise of cultural supermarkets), felt defensive enough to remind their readers of our literary canon, which in France would be packaged between white or cream covers. (Judging a book by its colour is very much a thing in my country.)

L’Express, meanwhile, has decided to compare the sales of #EnjoyMarie to those of the other best-selling non-fiction books of the moment, which are: a sociological study of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrators by an academic; a political study of Germany by a politician; an apology of blasphemy post-Charlie-Hebdo-massacre by a feminist intellectual; and a book on health and nutrition by some doctor. ‘Enjoy Phoenix sells more books than all those people!!!!!’ L’Express marvels.

And provides a diagram to prove this astonishing fact:


My French writer and illustrator friends are watching all of this with some amusement and not much anxiety. But some are mildly incredulous too, in part because of the unashamed money-making dimension of the enterprise. As I’ve written about before, the French market is much less commercially-oriented and there’s much less money to be made; books cannot be discounted, and they are generally quite expensive (my latest YA novel retails at 15,99€).  

In a publishing world where advances for teenage novels are generally between 500 and 2000 euros, and there are never any announcements along the lines of ‘NEW AUTHOR GETS FIVE BOOK DEAL FOR AN UNDISCLOSED SIX FIGURE SUM’, #EnjoyMarie feels like an odd import from Britain or the US – it’s no coincidence that the name sounds English. Interviewers and journalists spend a lot of time telling their readers about Marie Lopez’s supposed salary.

Another interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell – I might be wrong! – Marie Lopez probably wrote her own book mostly on her own; unlike, as everyone here remembers, Zoe Sugg. Keren David wrote a great blog post on the matter a while back. Keren was annoyed “that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers –  let alone Zoella herself –  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print.” Like Keren, I think it would be far healthier if the world was actually told that writing is a proper job, which not everyone famous is always necessarily qualified to do.

It’s time to confess that I haven’t actually read Zoella’s book (sorry), but it sounds to me like it was well-received by her fans. By contrast, Lopez’s book is getting mixed reviews, including from its target audience. I think this is the first time a French publishing company has given a book deal to a teenage celebrity in this way, and I wonder if they underestimated the need to hire professional help to bulk up the content of the book.

Is this the beginning in the French publishing world of a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things? Well, you can tell from the way in which people are reacting that it isn’t something they’re close to getting used to. But after all, ex-First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler’s memoir on François Hollande sold hundreds of thousands of copies earlier this year. Maybe France is slowly edging towards this brave new world after all.

On Charlie

I haven’t been here in a long time – my 2015 plans included living less in the now; leaving Twitter (you noticed, didn’t you? No? Thought so), writing fewer blog posts, not checking the news compulsively, and burying myself in good books and in work even more than usual.

But the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, and living less in the now sounds like a hollow decision. It was a huge shock for me and for the community of French and Belgian writers and illustrators who make up most of my Facebook feed. We did a strange kind of online mourning, talking, swearing, joking, breaking down, reading news articles communally, sharing good and also less good cartoons about the terrible news, ridiculing the cartoonists who clearly hadn’t understood a thing about Charlie and were drawing twee little children, nice gods, French flags and cutesy pencils, all of which would have been relentlessly mocked by the departed. But whatever, people express their sympathy as they see fit and their hearts are in the right place.

On the British side, it was quite hard for me and my fellow expats to read reactions on the walls of Facebook friends and articles in the press. Everyone condemned the attack, but there were many buts. I adore Britain, I chose to live here and I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but the cultural clash between Britain and France is much greater than most people who haven’t actually lived in both countries would imagine. In particular, ‘being left-wing’ is a very different thing here. ‘Being feminist’ is a very different thing. Even ‘secularism’ isn’t the same as ‘laïcité’, so technically I’m not a secularist, because even the National Secular Society is a bit too mild for my taste. I’m a laïcarde by default here.

The Charlie events exacerbated those differences. Many of the comments reflected what I already knew about incompatible beliefs and attitudes between the two countries. But there was also a lot of laziness in those reactions, with cartoons taken entirely out of context and read literally – idiotically – with no respect for the webs of visual and verbal references which would have been instantly recognisable to any French person. Us French lefties in the UK who liked Charlie Hebdo felt, all of a sudden, like we’d been outed as Daily Mail readers, which is pretty ironic.

Anyway, I thought I’d post here a few articles in English which reflect my feelings more or less accurately:

– My friend and colleague Olivier Tonneau’s hugely successful Comment Is Free column, and the original (and longer) version on Mediapart.

– Kenan Malik’s ‘Je Suis Charlie? It’s a Bit Late’ blog post

– Leigh Philips’s very developed argument, with comments on specific cartoons.

– Along the same lines, Lliana Bird’s article.

– Finally, it’s worth having a look at The Charlie Hebdo Cartoons No One Is Showing You. 

I’ll be back here soon enough to talk about The Book, and about Other Things, I’m sure.

Children’s literature and the current political situation in France

Dear UK/US readers, you might have heard of the Hollande/Gayet affair, but that’s so yesterday now. Something much more scandalous has taken its place in the French media: a children’s book.

On Sunday, Jean-François Copé, head of the socially-conservative, neo-liberal party (Sarkozy’s party, right of centre) discovered children’s literature. It was a bit of a shock: the poor man’s blood ‘curdled’ (his own terms) when he laid eyes on this picturebook:

tous-a-poil-de-claire-franek-livre-895930582_MLTous à poil (“All naked”), by Claire Franek and Marc Daniau, had since 2011 lived a quiet, fairly unnoticed life on libraries’ bookshelves. Its only claim to fame was that it had been, like 499 other books (including one of mine), included in the list of ‘recommended reading’ for schools by the Ministry of Education.

This fun little picturebook shows dozens of people stripping: Dad, Mum, children, the neighbours, the schoolteacher, the President – and going to the beach. The avowed aim of the author, not that it matters much, was to trigger smiles in the child reader and de-dramatise body image.

Jean-François Copé, however, was not amused. He brandished the odious picturebook during an interview on TV and proceeded to read it out loud, making sarcastic comments and noting that ‘at some point, in France, we’re going to have to stop to think about what we’re doing to our children.’

Jean-François Copé overestimating the size of his own brain

Jean-François Copé overestimating the size of his own brain

By Monday morning everyone on French news was talking about this book, and about children’s literature in general, and children’s editors and authors were being interviewed. It had been a while since children’s literature had been on the news so much, and it was actually funny, so we all thanked Copé for the sudden rise in interest for our work.

By Monday afternoon we’d all stopped laughing. Because no sooner had Copé finished his diatribe that a quagmire of Catholic, right-wing extremist ‘associations’ and groups declared war on politically committed children’s literature, stating that their next plan was to ban from school libraries offensive books such as Tous à poil.

Their target, in fact, is perhaps more accurately all those books that promote gender equality, or hint at the fluidity of gender performativity. And of course, books that feature same-sex relationships. For the first time in France, which is by no means a prudish country for children’s literature, we see emerging a very strong desire to prevent librarians, teachers and booksellers from stocking and recommending children’s books that present ‘alternative’, radical, or even slightly transgressive ways of life.

And it wasn’t the first time – things like that have been happening increasingly often for the past couple of years.

Last week, there’d been a much smaller, but (to us children’s literature people) just as noticeable furore on the Internet about a children’s novel called Je porte la culotte/ La journée du slip. Recently published (also by Le Rouergue), that novel contains two stories; one in which a little boy wakes up as a girl, and the other one in which a little girl wakes up as a boy.

A children’s literature blog reviewed it, and the review caught the eye of extremist groups. The authors received death threats. Reading the comments on the original blog post is enough to make you want to stop writing politically committed children’s books forever.

You might be wondering where all that is coming from – France, after all, has a long tradition of subversive and politically radical children’s literature. Yes, but conservative politicians and traditionalist Catholic activists are only just beginning to discover them. Or at least, they’re only just beginning to make their opinions heard about them, because the media are now listening to these small clusters of people who are becoming more and more organised.

It had been brewing for a while but truly took shape last year, when François Hollande’s law legalising same-sex marriage, which we supposed would be just a formality, woke up a normally silent and disorganised fringe. Astonished, we watched people demonstrate, sometimes violently, against that most banal of requests – allowing same-sex couples to marry.

The movement didn’t stop with the gay marriage laws being passed. More recently, galvanised by Spain’s proposed restrictions on abortion, the same activist groups took to the streets again to protest against abortion in France.

Now they’ve found yet another thing to protest against. The Minister of Education as well as the Minister for Women’s Rights in the Hollande government are currently encouraging schools to teach children about the non-essentialism of gender (you know, that idea that was more or less radical in the fifties). Children are asked in schools to engage with the stupendously controversial idea that not all nurses need to be female nor all air pilots male.

Activists are calling this the rise of ‘gender theory in schools’, which refers to absolutely nothing else than the strawman they created by naming it so. Spectacularly, two weeks ago, one of their ‘leaders’ sent hundreds of texts to parents of young children, urging them not to put the little ones at school that day: they were going to be ‘taught to masturbate’, there would be ‘a sexologist coming to school’, and, wait for it, ‘Jewish doctors would come and examine their willies, telling them that they can change them for vaginas if they don’t like them.’

I know.

Jean-François Copé’s absurd attack on Tous à poil thus takes place at a hugely heated time in France, and here we go, he’s given those people another thing to focus on: they’ve already declared that their next battle will be children’s literature.

What power do these people truly have? It’s difficult to say. They’ve dominated our news for over a year. They’ve resorted to acts of violence. And this is all happening some twelve years after the extremist right wing party, Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen’s Front National, reached the second round of the national elections for the French Presidency.

So we children’s writers and illustrators might be posting funny pictures of naked children in children’s books on our Facebook profiles, and Photoshopped pictures of naked Jean-François Copé, and showing support for our colleagues who inadvertently launched a media storm, but we’re not as merry as we may look. It’s ridiculous, yes, but a dangerous kind of ridiculous.

We’d really prefer children’s literature to make headlines for a different reason. In the meantime, we’ll retreat back to our quiet little Internet niche of friendly forums, blogs and Facebook pages. And write yet more politically committed books, because clearly they’re increasingly needed.

The Argument from Parenthood

I briefly mentioned the accursed phenomenon in this post. That phenomenon, well-known both to children’s writers and to academics in children’s literature or education, is the dreaded, dreary, dreadful deadlock of the argument from parenthood.

An argument left unexplored by Schopenhauer in The Art of Always Being Right.An argument strangely overlooked by Schopenhauer in his Art of Being Always Right.

This argument goes like this:

A: What I mean is that Book X can be criticised for its sexism.

B: Well, my little Phlox loves it!

A: I’m not saying children don’t like it, I’m saying it’s ideologically problematic.

B: Well, she isn’t bothered by the ideology!

A: It is quite possible that she might not notice it.

B: Children notice everything. They have the third eye. They are magical clairvoyants of miracle.

A: I’m not su-

B: Do you have children?

A: No.

B: If you did then you’d know. At the moment you don’t so you don’t.

A: Oh, ok then.

B: You know, I used to be like you, believing all the myths. For example, the idea that we can bring up girls not be girly and to be equal to boys. But then I had Phlox, and I gradually realised I was wrong. I observe her closely. She is naturally attracted to pink, and even at two years old she was enthusiastically helping me clean the house.

A: Ah, I guess essentialism is right then.

B: I used to believe that there was no maternal instinct, but then I held little Phlox against my chest and took my breast out of my bra and pressed the nipple against…

A: Can we not talk about this.

B: I love my children.

A: Oh I know.

B: Do you hate children?

A: No, I…

B: You must do, if you spend all your free time nastily disparaging all the books they like.

A: I don’t have anything against children.



I am barely exaggerating, and please don’t go and think that those things don’t happen at the most inappropriate moments, e.g. in the Q&A session at the end of a conference paper. It happens at least once in every conference, but often more. The following is a real (honest, unedited) argument from parenthood we heard at a conference last year.

The paper was a Marxist critique of the commercial myth of Santa Claus. Right after the talk, a hand shot up into the air. At the other end of the arm, a middle-aged lady. Her question, verbatim:

‘Do you have children?’

The youngish lady who’d given the paper looked for a minute like we’d have to push her eyeballs back into her head in a very short while. Eventually she stammered: ‘Well, I … Actually, I don’t think I should be answering this question…’

Not in the least disturbed, her questioner said, ‘Ok. Because I have to say, you talk about all these things, but I have children, and you don’t take into consideration the sheer magic of Christmas, the beautiful moment that it is for them, you can see it in their eyes…’

Bis repetita. I’m not quite sure what makes those people so OK, in the midst of an academic discourse, with bringing to the debate their own personal experiences of having created another human being from scratch. And more staggeringly, with asking straight out if their addressee has achieved the same ‘feat’ (presumably they would then be on the same wavelength).

What if the presenter couldn’t have children? What if she’d lost a child? This isn’t exactly the kind of revelation you want to hear in a busy panel sessions.

What if she didn’t ever want children? Would that make her Marxist reading of Christmas less valid?

Even when people don’t directly ask if the person has children, the argument from parenthood must be, I’m sure, extremely offensive and painful to academics who for some reason that they don’t need to disclose cannot or do not want to have children, and/or have had traumatic experiences in this very personal side of their lives. They must feel like they should be able to carry on with their academic work on childhood without it being hammered into their heads that it is incomplete without the insights of actual parenthood, whether or not from choice.

You don’t hear haemorrhoid specialists being asked by other haemorrhoid specialists in the Q&A session, ‘Excuse me, but have you got haemorrhoids yourself?’ You don’t see fruit fly specialists lyrically raving on about the cuteness of their three-legged, twelve-winged, forty-eight-eyed wonders in the middle of an academic conference. OK, maybe you do. But why is it that children’s literature criticism – and education in general, I think – which makes people think it’s an OK thing to do?

It is NOT an OK thing to do, for the following reasons and many more:

  •                 Arguments from parenthood, in general, are extremely conservative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents implicitly justify patriarchy, ‘fear of the racial other’, etc, and their own life choices as academics, thanks to their kids. Simply from observing that their boys tend to prefer gun toys (‘even if I offer him dolls, he’ll choose guns!’), that their babies are more scared of the black neighbour than the white postman, they happily spring back into obscure essentialism.
  •                 Arguments from parenthood are a form of religious speech, in the sense that there is no possibility for anyone to refute them. If you’re not a Parent, you can’t know because you’re not a Parent. (“argument from belonging to a completely different sphere of experience”). If you’re a parent, you can’t know either, because you don’t realise that my kids are more right than yours. All I can say is that I respectfully tolerate your faith, but I personally belong to cult of the Non-Childed, or to the cult of the Childed-With-Other-Children-Than-Yours, and therefore according to your rules I can’t know.
  •                 Arguments from parenthood come from the absolute and intimate and clearly wrong conviction that one’s children can’t possibly be biased, influenced, deficient in some way or ignorant. If Phlox, Amaryllis and Cyprian are acting this way, it’s because it’s in the Great Nature of Childhood to be so. They are eternal vessels of truth. My obsessive-compulsive observation of their every move is therefore putting me in touch with Pure Childness. And it is beautiful, oh is it beautiful. (This brutally changes, by the way, at adolescence – I have much more patience for parents bemoaning the constant annoyance to their lives that is their teenager, since it at least promises some anecdotal entertainment.)
  •                 No one likes arguments from parenthood, even those people who engage most often in them. In fact, those people are probably the biggest haters of arguments from parenthood – when used by others. You can tell from their scrunched-up faces that they are exceedingly annoyed when another person has the cheek to argue from parenthood before them. They want to yell out, ‘That’s my argument!’. They want to interrupt the impertinent speaker and give their version (the true one) of Pure Childness.

Sometimes a verbal ping-pong game will engage whereby two people will issue arguments from parenthood in the attempt to prove, superficially, an academic point, but in reality, one’s superior parenting skills and superior children.

Variations on the argument from parenthood include the argument from grandparenthood, the argument from aunt- or unclehood, the argument from godparenthood, the argument from teachinghood (which I would consider slightly more acceptable), and the cutest of all, the argument from siblinghood, which is the property of young PhD students who think with anguish that there must be some truth to this type of argument and they should do their best to get into the clique. I’ve been there.

Questions containing arguments from parenthood are not questions, they are family stories. Answers containing arguments from parenthood are not answers, they are family stories. Arguments from parenthood are not arguments, they are family stories.

I’m more than happy to listen to family stories over coffee and cake. But when giving or listening to a conference paper, I want to be free to analyse your daughter’s favourite book and say that it reinforces male domination and racial discrimination without it being perceived as a personal attack on her aesthetic taste. I want to be free to say that the fascination we have for childhood stems from existential concerns incommensurate with the objective value of the human beings that represent it without being told that I’ll understand when I squeeze the glutinous fruit of my own entrails in my arms for the first time.

And I really, really don’t want to hear about episiotomies.

Especially after I finally caved in and Googled the thing and realised it means this.




On Gender (Im)Balance in YA/ ChLit Awards

Salut, Simone! How’s it going up there? Not much has changed here since you left us, I’m afraid. Well, ok, some things have changed, but not as many as we’d wish – not as many as you’d wish. Still second sex in most things. Even in children’s and young adult literature, supposedly ‘our’ domain, as mothers, educators and homemakers… Here’s my latest little (big) annoyance on the matter. Ready for the rant?

Last week a wonderful blog post was published by lady business on gender balance in YA and children’s literature. It was written in response to the claims that ‘women dominate’ this type of literature, which you’d be forgiven for thinking if all you know about it is Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games, and that female protagonists dominate it too.

The blog post looks in incredible statistical detail at many awards in young adult and children’s literature and shows that in fact, not only male protagonists do exist in vast quantities in this type of literature, and male authors and illustrators are not unheard of, but also that this pretended rara avis is also overrepresented in the award industry.

In other words, there may be fewer male authors, but they win proportionally more awards; there may be fewer male protagonists, but they’re a pretty good predictor of whether a book will win an award.

I’m massively oversimplifying this: please go and look at the blog post in detail.

Anyway, as it happens, a year ago, I did exactly the same thing on my French blog. I’d long had an inkling that male authors and illustrators were disproportionately represented in awards and prizes for children’s literature. An analysis of the main French awards confirmed what I’d suspected. Children’s and young adult literature in France is written predominantly by women (2/3rds), but this proportion never applies to the most prestigious awards. One of them (a lifetime achievement award) has never been given to a woman.

I also looked at the representation of children’s authors in specialised media, and noted that men are disproportionately more likely to be interviewed and their books disproportionately more likely to be reviewed.

At the time, many of my author and illustrator friends supported me, and the blog post was shared by the French Children’s Authors & Illustrators Association, but many people were extremely shocked and infuriated by it. A number of Anonymous supporters of patriarchy readers commented that (old chestnut alert) ‘You should look at race and class imbalance, that’s the real problem!’ or ‘You basically hate men!’ or even ‘Why do we need to be so ridiculously punctilious about statistics??’ (of course if I’d just said what I ‘felt’ was true, I would have been accused of giving no evidence.)

One of them, a prominent male children’s author, shared the link on his Facebook page (I’m not friends with him, but a common friend helpfully screencapped it for me) saying that it was ‘the stupidest thing he’d seen in a long time’. Many of his friends ranted about it until he put a stop to the conversation: ‘Hey, wait! I looked her up, and she’s hot! I take back what I said!’.

Yes, Simone, I know. 2012.

Anyway, the important things are:

1) People don’t want to believe that this is true. Especially authors and editors, who in a female-dominated environment cannot imagine that there could still be institutional sexism. Even when given clear, uncontroversial evidence, they will still say that it’s not true.This applies to men and women.

2) No one here is arguing that anyone is doing that on purpose. It would be a ridiculous thing to argue. Rather, we are saying that there is still a bias in favour of male authors and illustrators, even when most judges are women. In fact, perhaps, in some way, because most judges are women. It’s not the fault of one particular person and it’s not the fault of ‘men’. It’s definitely not the fault of all the wonderful male authors and illustrators who win prizes.

3) The reasons for male domination in children’s and young adult literature are complex. Some people in the comments to my blog post noted that women writers are more likely to be perceived as ‘hobby’ or ‘part-time’ writers, and are more likely to be still in charge of much of the household tasks. Male writers, well, it’s their job. Men are perhaps better at selling themselves to a female-dominated world. They stand out.

4) As lady business points out, this is about asking questions, not providing answers. Institutional sexism is not a monolithic monster. It has countless ramifications. It’s a hydra. Cut one head and six new ones appear. Like Herakles, we must find a strategy to prevent them from growing back.

Blogging about it, sharing blog posts about it, talking about it are some of these strategies.

Clem x

P.S. for those who are interested, here’s the translation of my hypotheses for the overrepresentation of men in children’s literature awards.

– Men are simply objectively better than women in writing and illustrating children’s books. Whether it’s natural talent or just better artistic education, their books on average are better than women’s books. As you may have guessed, I don’t adhere very much to this explanation.

– In children’s literature like in many other domains, men are the norm and women the Other: in other words, everyone can identify with the masculine, but women are the only ones who can identify with the feminine. As a result of this unconscious prejudice, male creations are perceived as the most representative and normative examples of human experience, even when women are the ones judging them.

– Another prejudice may be that men are seen as more intelligent and more serious than women. Awarding prizes to male author and illustrators may be an unconscious strategy to help validate children’s literature in the eyes of everyone else. If men do it, it must be an art form, not just a hobby.

– Whether or not it’s conscious, men may be better at imposing themselves than women; they may know better how to put forward their work, may be more ambitious and competitive, optimise their networks, and may be less likely to be falsely modest.

– Moulded by an educational system where male thinking is valued, and entrenched in a society that perpetuates that myth, women may be simply convinced, unconsciously, that male productions are better than perhaps their very own.