I want to talk about rock stars.
Schools often go to great lengths to get their students excited about an upcoming presentation by a visiting author. That makes sense to me — after whipping up that enthusiasm, educators can then harness it for thoughtful, mind-expanding explorations of that author’s work, and for all sorts of creative undertakings by the students themselves.
Sometimes, though, the anticipation-stoking tactics include the use of certain words or phrases that make me uncomfortable. I feel uneasy when I see them on a sign in front of a school or hear them as part of the introduction right before I start talking to the students. The main ones are:
Rock star. (Yes. As in, “He’s a rock star!”)
I’d guess that most creators of books for young readers aren’t even celebrities in their own neighborhoods, let alone the “world famous” types they sometimes get described as to impressionable students.
But even allowing for a little hyperbole, I’m bothered by these characterizations because they run counter to what I see as the main purpose of my presentations to students: 1) making myself relatable to them, and 2) making a career like mine seem attainable to them.
My introductory slide from my recent visit to Cambridge Elementary in San Antonio.
Right after my greeting to them, I go straight into listing several other things — many of which will be recognizable and familiar to audience members — that I am in addition to “Author.”
These include “Former Kid,” “Texan,” “Son,” “Brother,” “Dog Owner,” “Spanish Learner,” “Researcher,” and “Rewriter,” which I say three more times because I want them to understand the effort that goes into becoming a published author.
Over the course of my presentation I try to replace any air of mystique about my career with a sense of awareness of what this fun, challenging job entails and how happy this hard work makes me.
Then I leave them with my hope that when they’re grown they will find something they love just as much — not an easy job, not a job that brings them fame, and certainly not one that bestows “rock star” status — but rather a calling that suits them.
And not only a calling that suits them, but also one that they can fully participate in without unfair and unnecessary restrictions, distractions, or impediments.
Which brings us to the subject of sexual harassment in children’s publishing, a phrase that I never imagined would find its way onto Bartography when I started this blog nearly 13 years ago. That mostly just shows how privileged and naive I was.
Harassment isn’t new. But the attention it’s getting in this industry — “ecosystem” is more like it, with libraries and booksellers and conferences playing vital roles — is not just new but raw, painful, chaotic, long overdue, and rapidly developing.
As of this afternoon, the best overview I’ve seen of where things stand is this article published this morning by Publishers Weekly. Long story short, a number of men in children’s publishing — guys who I bet have heard themselves described as “rock stars” more than a few times — are being accused of unacceptable behavior. Names are being named.
But what does all of this have to do with you and the young people who look to you for books and guidance? Three things.
First, I believe that young readers will wind up with better books when the creative process and literary life aren’t sullied or ruined for so many by male misbehavior.
Second, as the children’s literature community succeeds in its efforts to become a more hospitable place, there will be fewer obstacles to success for student writers who get encouragement from authors such as me.
And third, the book I’d been preparing to feature in my giveaway in this month’s Bartography Express newsletter includes an essay by an author who, in recent days, has been named in allegations by several anonymous accusers. I do not doubt these women’s stories. But I decided to proceed as planned with the featured book, as even under the current circumstances I believe it offers much more cause for hope than for despair.
I’ll soon post my Q&A with the editor of the anthology featured in the February issue of Bartography Express.