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Walrath: Eliminating Bias

On his way to a National Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty, a young boy heard its plotline for the very first time: A man approaches a sleeping woman he has never before met and kisses her. Never schooled on Disney, and allowed to defy gender stereotypes to follow his love for ballet, this boy asked his mother, “Isn't that sexual harassment?” This is how structural violence works. Pieces of society seem so natural, so how things have always been done, that insidious messages and practices become invisible. Not to that young boy.

I heard this story at a Washington DC gathering of women who write for young people. It was January 20th 2017. We’d come from all over and were making signs for the March the next day. As children’s writers, we know the power of stories. We know the importance of giving young people keys to locked doors – to let them dream of new worlds and to think for themselves in this one. And yet, this very female industry is filled with male bias. At another gathering of #kidlitwomen we decided that Women’s History Month would be a good time to challenge this bias.

Children, still considered women’s work, accord a lower status to Children’s Literature as compared to its adult counterparts. And the preponderance of women in the field has turned its few men into rock stars - who receive more attention, awards, accolades, higher advances, and even higher rates of pay for school visits. This isn’t the standard 70 cents to every dollar that women experience across a variety of professions. These disparities are more like those in Hollywood.

This bias also impacts content. If we assume that boys will read books only with male protagonists while girls will read books about both boys and girls, we not only perpetuate stereotypes, but are likely to conclude that action sells. In a world desperate for social justice, we need the kinds of emotional stories, typically associated with female gender, that marketing departments reject as too quiet.

These factors all derive from deep biases against women in society at large, a society in which activists and academics alike work tirelessly to expose and eliminate sexism and misogyny.

Books open minds, build community, and encourage compassion.

Children create our collective futures.

Eliminating bias within their literature empowers kids to ask questions that will create better futures for us all.