The Problem with Girls Who Don’t Like Pink

I see a lot of picture books submissions that challenge gender stereotypes by presenting the stereotype and then knocking it down. I am all about knocking down gender (and all other) stereotypes, but there is a problem inherent in this method, which is that in order to knock something down, it has to be set up first. For instance, a typical line might be, “Who says pink is just for girls?”

This is not the only example. It could be about a stay-at-home dad, or a boy who likes dance.  But I will use pink and girls for this case. Within that question, clearly set up to knock down later, lies the statement “pink is just for girls”. And now that idea is planted in the mind of a kid who may never have thought that colors only belong to one gender or another. The only reason to ask that question is to challenge an idea already in place. It gives a reader the chance to say “lots of people” or “I do”, and when they do, we haven’t moved very far.

But, maybe more problematically, it also sets up the reader as though they are breaking from the norm, which can be uncomfortable. The reader is forced to acknowledge that some people think pink is just for girls before considering which side of the equation he or she is on. And there is always the chance that they will side with convention. And that is the opposite intent of a writer who is challenging gender stereotypes. Once these characters are presented as unique or unusual or breaking from the pack, or even brave or bold or daring, the notion that pink isn’t just for girls can be scary. It takes guts to speak against that, and not everyone is willing to pipe up.

The best way to deny stereotypes is to speak as though we have already moved on beyond the stereotype altogether. This way, newer ideas—like all colors being for everyone without it even being a question—sound comfortable and “normal” and not something it takes guts to get away from.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we re-write history.  Old books give a great window into old ways of thinking. When And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding came out, ideas about gay marriage were not where they are today. And so those books made a splash. They paved the way for us today. Now, seeing two dads or moms at school with their kids isn’t unusual, and since it’s a normal thing we see, presenting two dads in a picture book without comment is a modern reflection of our time and a better approach to good storytelling.

So why do we keep publishing picture books about princesses who like to get dirty as though this is a new and novel idea? Girls who like soccer and boys who like to bake are not revolutionary ideas. Free to Be You and Me included “Billy Wants a Doll” in 1972, 43 years ago. It’s much more progressive to assume everyone already knows pink isn’t just for girls, and show some boys in pink doing other kid things, like fishing or competing in a quilt-off. We’ve moved on, and so should our stories.

On the Frustration of the Friend of a Friend

There is a phenomenon in publishing which seems, to the perpetrators, nothing but a harmless request, a simple favor, and something of a delight to all parties. To the people on the other end, it is dreaded, horrible, and impossible to explain why without sounding like an asshole. So I’m taking one for the team and I’m going to explain once and for all why we hate getting manuscripts from that friend of a friend.

Every editor and agent has experienced this: an aunt’s neighbor/a piano teacher’s sister/the gardener’s tax attorney, has written a book for kids. Because writing for kids is perceived as being easy, and besides, how hard can it be to get a book for three-year olds published? It seems like nothing to ask a professional to take a look at the manuscript. Why wouldn’t we? It will only take a minute, and it’s probably lovely. A dentist who wants to educate kids about dental health with a funny little tooth character? Why not send it to the vice president at Penguin? I’m sure she has time.

The thing is, I want all the authors to succeed. But I can’t help an author succeed unless they are willing to work as hard as I am. Books for kids aren’t something that are jotted off and sent to a publisher and then magically turned into books. Children’s book authors spend years studying the craft, joining writing groups, attending conferences, getting feedback, revising, scrapping projects entirely and starting over again and again. And so, when a person has not respected the long process, or thinks they can do all of that in one afternoon while the kids are napping, it’s insulting to our entire industry. And then to be asked to take it seriously is lemon juice on the cut.

I know many a publishing pro who has lied about her job at parties. My mother isn’t allowed to tell strangers what I do for a living because she forwarded one too many things my way. Cut off. But it’s hard to know whether something might have legs or not, right? What if this really is the next Seuss incarnate? Better safe than sorry, right? Mmm, not really. You have good sense. You have eyes. You like a good book. You can probably tell if something is truly clever or whether it is going to be a time-and-soul suck for a very busy human.

But reading a picture book only takes a few minutes, doesn’t it? Yeah, kind of. But ask a person in publishing when they might have a few minutes, and they will likely tell you “March”. And it’s not just reading. It’s reading, and really considering, and formulating a thoughtful response that won’t offend either the author or the friend who forwarded. It takes time, and the right mindset, and that combo is sometimes hard to come by.

So consider this a PSA. If you really want to help your boyfriend’s grandmother’s manicurist, consider referring them to the SCBWI, an international organization dedicated to helping amateur writers gain professional status. Or, if you’re in a bit of a fouler mood, you can send them this post.

Or you can consider this approach: “No, I didn’t say editor. I said she’s a MATADOR.”

Welcome to the Inside of My Head!

Oh, good, you must be thinking, another blog! Way to be late to the party, Heather. Better late than never, say I! Welcome, everyone. I’m glad you’re here. My intent with this page is to share my opinions alongside some information about the publishing world, and maybe some other things I find interesting, like the latest Prada collection, or kimchi tacos, or how I’m easing toward the life of a sneaker-head. I may include some book reviews, or interesting etymology, and maybe even, if I’m lucky, some guest posts.

So come one, come all, and leave your comments after the beep.