Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why Don't Women Illustrators Win Caldecott Awards?

By Carol Baicker-McKee
I added some links at the bottom on 1-27-2012 - also some captions.
See also two related posts:
Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence by Cynthia Light Brown
Women and the Caldecott, Part II: More Musings on the Gender Gap by Carol Baicker-McKee
The 2012 Caldecott Medal Winner. Published by Schwartz & Wade, 2011
I didn't set out to write this post. My plan was to do one of my paired picture book reviews featuring this year's winner of the Caldecott Medal for the best illustrated book with a past winner that complemented it. I thought I'd also write a few sentences about each of the Honor winners and suggest similar golden-oldies for them too. And I probably will still do that - they're all lovely books, as you can see throughout this post - but I'll do so at a later date.  Because something struck me this year about the winning illustrators.
2012 Caldecott Honor. Published by Little Brown
All four were men. Not a female in the bunch.

 And that got me curious about whether there was a pattern.

 There is.

2012 Caldecott Honor. Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2011
Call It the Glass Slipper Ceiling

What's undeniable is that women are much less likely to win this important award. I haven't done any sort of a formal statistical analysis, but a quick hunt through the data  shows a large gender difference in every decade since the award was initiated in 1938. Women have won less than a third of the Gold Medals (32.5%) and slightly over a third of the Honor awards (36.7%) given out over the award's 75 years. In no decade have women come close to winning as many awards as men. Beginning in 1958, men have swept the awards fourteen times; women have swept a year only once - way back in 1945.
2012 Caldecott Honor. Published by Hyperion 

What's especially odd (at least to me) is that things seem to have actually gotten worse for women over time: during the last 20 years, women have won the top prize only 25% of the time (5 of 20) and a similar rate of honors (27.3% - 17 outright plus one more as part of a husband-wife team out of 65 honor awards); in contrast, during the first 20 years of the award (1938-1957), women won the Medal outright 5 times plus 3 times as part of a husband-wife pair for 35% of the awards - and they won 50% of the Honors during that time!

What the heck?

A Little Background: The Caldecott and Why It Matters

To understand why anyone would care about this gender discrepancy, you need to know the importance of the award. The Caldecott is arguably the most coveted award in the U.S. for illustrators. Each January, the American Library Association awards the medal to honor "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children" published during the previous year. In addition to the gold medal winner, the ALA also recognizes one to five Honor books, a total of 233 to date.  If you want to learn more about the award and past winners you can check out these resources:
  • Info about the award on the ALA site here 
  • List of all the past Medalists and Honor winners here
  • The Wikipedia  summary of the award
  • Images of most of the covers of past winners on the Small Fry Books website here.
Winning the Caldecott or even garnering an Honor benefits an illustrator's career in multiple and lasting ways. Not only do these awards immediately and tremendously boost trade sales of the winning title, they virtually guarantee that every school and public library will acquire a copy - often multiple ones - and they also raise the profile of an illustrator's earlier and subsequent work. In addition, Caldecott titles tend to remain in print almost indefinitely - particularly meaningful in an age when most children's books go out of print in a year or two. Winning illustrators can also expect to receive dozens or even hundreds of speaking invitations - and substantial speaking fees. Perhaps most importantly to many illustrators, though, the award often raises their stature in ways that confer both more opportunities for future work and greater freedom to create what they want.

 Why Don't Women Illustrators Win their Share of this Award?
I don't know! So what follows are some hypotheses, some mine, some I've come across in google land. Please feel free to chime in if you have ideas (or better yet, facts).
Hypothesis One: The percentage of female winners could just reflect their distribution in the pool of children's book illustrators.
Analysis: This seems unlikely to me - but I can't disprove it because I can't find any reliable statistics on the gender breakdown of illustrators. I've tried hard to find some kind of data on the SCBWI site and other lists of illustrators, but without luck. If anyone out there has any stats or a good idea about how to track them down, let me know.
In my google searches, I did come across this interesting blog post from last spring by the poet and artist Nikki Grimes, in which she mentions a prominent illustrator who alleges that women only get 20 percent of illustration assignments.
Certainly the Caldecott is hardly alone in finding eminence more often in the work of male illustrators. For example, this year's list by the New York Times of the Top Ten Illustrated Books includes just two books by women. The gorgeous compilation Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art that showcases illustrators invited to exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts features a paltry five female illustrators.
BUT, if you've hung around the children's publishing world at all, you'll probably have noticed it's, well, estrogen-dominated. Attend any children's lit-related event and you'll quickly realize that authors, editors, art directors, children's librarians, and even the random book fan are mostly female. (Restroom lines are a particularly easy way to capture this at a glance. At the first mid-Winter SCBWI conference I attended, women doing the pee dance in an interminable line went rogue and stormed and occupied the nearly empty men's room during the lunch break - because otherwise a good many of us would have either missed the afternoon sessions or peed our pants.) Although it's true that the illustrators' events I've attended have usually had a bigger proportion of guys than the children's writers' events I've been to, women have still greatly outnumbered men - so if more guys are pursuing children's illustration, they're skipping conferences and other author/illustrator events.
At any rate, if I'm right that female illustrators (or at least wannabes) actually outnumber males, then the discrepancy is even more discouraging.
Hypothesis Two: Men are better illustrators.
Analysis: Geez, I hope this isn't true. Plus I really just doubt it. Aside from the fact that I can spout the names of dozens of fantastic women illustrators off the top of my head, including plenty whose works are enduring favorites, I've really never read or heard anything about a significant gender difference in artistic ability. (Though the Nikki Grimes post had comments from an artist with a hypothesis about the kinds of artistic skills men might excel in.) For another thing, being an outstanding illustrator for kids seems to me to require skills, like understanding child development, that would give an edge to women, since they are still socialized to be more in tune with young children than men are.
What's more, there are some illustrator awards with a more equitable gender split. For example, the Greenaway Medal that's the UK equivalent of the Caldecott has gone roughly equally to men and women (though women have a slight edge, especially in recent years). See the list here.
Hypothesis Three: Publishing Is Biased in Favor of Male Illustrators
Analysis: The idea is that for various reasons publishers either save plum assignments for men or devote more resources (like publicity budgets) to them and these acts position men to be more likely to win major awards. Again, I find this hard to believe as the primary explanation, though I guess it might come into play sometimes. (The Nikki Grimes post discusses a possible "sexual heat" theory that's kind of fun to contemplate; makes kids' publishing sound a lot more lascivious and conniving than what I've witnessed!)
Hypothesis Four: Award Committees Are Biased in Favor of Male Illustrators
Analysis: The idea is that committees of course know the gender of the illustrator and either prefer the masculine artistic sensibility in general or just like guys better. I've served several years on a children's book award committee (Best Books for Babies - read about the award here), and well, I  feel skeptical that this could be the main culprit. Our committees have just seem focused on the quality of the art (and text) and its suitability for our intended audience - gender doesn't ever come into the discussion, aside from lamenting how few books for babies depict men in caregiving roles. Moreover, awards committees are constantly changing over, so the bias would have to infect generation after generation of individuals. Certainly not impossible - it wouldn't have to be obvious or even conscious - but to me it doesn't seem likely to be the sole or primary reason.
Hypothesis Five: The Nature of the Illustrating Task Favors Men
Analysis: The idea is that there is something about the task of illustrating a Caldecott winner that makes it more likely to be achieved by men. Having illustrated several books, I can see some ways this might come into play; although this year's winner isn't a good example, Caldecott winners often feature labor-intensive, time-consuming styles of artwork. Typically in picture book publishing, the text comes first and is submitted in more or less finished form (which means the author can take as much time as he or she chooses to get it perfect) - but the illustrator often has to work to a tight deadline. Illustrating a book can thus consume one's life - making it a tough fit for someone with primary family responsibilities. And perhaps female illustrators  are more likely to be in that position, thus limiting the kind of work they can produce or abreviating their careers. I don't know; just wondering.
Hypothesis Six/Seven: Some or All of the Above? Something Else?
Actually, given the size and persistence of the discrepancy, it seems likely to me that more than one factor comes into play. I'm confident I haven't covered all possible bases - and I wonder about my own biases in evaluating different possibilities.
So what do you think? And what if anything can/should be done to correct the imbalance?
In Closing: A Few More Interesting Controversies, My Choices for this Year's Caldecott, and Some Great Illustration by Women
  • There's lots of concern about racial inequalities - both among illustrators and subject matter.
  • Is there a "New York" bias? This year's winners all hail from the NYC area...
  • Author-illustrators are FAR more likely to win than illustrators illustrating someone else's text (42 of 75 medal winners - and of the remaining, 7 were illustrated by a family member of the author's, suggesting collaboration of some sort was likely. Interesting given most publishers' preferences for selecting the illustrator and for keeping authors and illustrators completely separate)
  • Should popularity  with kids (or at least potential wide appeal) be a consideration in choosing winners? (It isn't.)
Here were my top two choices for this year's Caldecott, neither of which won anything. One by a man, one by a woman:

This one did win a Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor.
Candlewick Press, 2011

Illustrated by Marla Frazee; written by Mary Lyn Ray. Beach Ray books, 2011
And here are some more beautifully illustrated books by American women; two books that won the Caldecott, two that did not but to my mind could have.
Illustrated by Mary Azarian; won the Caldecott in 1999

Love, love, love all of Virginia Lee Burton's books
Written and Illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, won the Caldecott in 1943

Molly Bang is versatile and gifted in so many styles.
Written and illustrated by Molly Bang who has won Caldecott Honors three times - but not for this book, which I love

Hard to believe that Rosemary Wells hasn't won a Caldecott.
Written and Illustrated by Rosemary Wells, a prolific, gifted, beloved author-illustrator who has received many awards and honors, but oddly, never the Caldecott

ADDED 1-27-2012: Links to check out on this subject:
What a surprise! Turns out my observation was neither unique nor new. Here are a few other sources to check for further thought:
A couple of posts on Elizabeth Bluemle's excellent ShelfTalker blog (for Publisher's Weekly)
"Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz by Gender" (from 2011)
"The Awards by Publisher" (from 2012)

Threads on two discussion boards (must be a member):
Verla Kay's Blue Boards Check for threads on the Illustrators boards
Child_Lit The thread is "Awards and Gender"

Two subsequent posts on our blog:
Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence by Cynthia Light Brown
Women and the Caldecott, Part II: More Musings on the Gender Gap by Carol Baicker-McKee


  1. Carol that's perfect...

    The Glass Slipper Ceiling.

    I think it's a combination of things. I recall a lecture at a conference by David Brooks that was about studies between men and women in abilities like math, verbal, etc (and I'll apologize ahead of time if I'm remembering the facts incorrectly). The only significant difference was that men are more self-confident than their abilities actually show, and women are less self-confident.

    So this could play into men being more assertive in promoting themselves - whether it's at a conference, approaching editors, online, etc. I'm pretty sure this is a factor in men's greater success in contemporary art, where succes is in part dependent on how you present yourself and convincing people that what you're doing is great stuff and they should spend more money than God to buy it.

    As we all know, this is a very tough business with many rejections even for successful writers and artists. I suspect that people who can push through that are ultimately more successful. And if you have a lot of self-confidence it's easier to push through the rejection.

    As to whether self-confidence can also affect the style of art - is the art by men more adventurous, or even cutting edge? I don't know, but if it were, it would have a leg up on getting medals, which would favor that.

    Carol, I think you should boldly and with full self-confidence approach a well-known newspaper or magazine with the title for an article, "The Glass Slipper Ceiling" which would either be written by you, or at least feature you and your wonderful, beautiful art. Might I suggest the Wall Street Journal? Or the New York Times?

  2. What perceptive ideas, Cynthia. The analogy to the math/science abilities is apt (I remember that article too). And I think I will boldly approach a couple big media outlets. Today. Thanks for the confidence in me!

  3. This is an EXCELLENT article, and I agree with Cynthia that you should pitch the major periodicals with this topic. You've made it clear that there are no easy answers to this question, and I like the fact that you make no assumptions. Hypotheses yes, but it's really about the fact - women receive far fewer Caldecotts than men.

    I'll be thinking about this for some time.

  4. I never noticed the discrepancies in the awards, but when attending any writer’s conference it's quite obvious I am in the minority. This post surely has me wondering.

    I agree with Cynthia. Approach a major publisher with this.

  5. Hi Julie and Dave,
    I'm amazed I never noticed before. What's interesting to me is that the Newbery (for best writing) has the gender gap I'd expect given the proportions of women in the field (many more female winners than male).

    Another interesting pattern in the data is the number of repeat winners - you can see that info on Elizabeth Bluemle's blog.

  6. Fascinating (and perplexing!) observations, Carol. Kind of interesting that Caldecott was a man and Greenway a woman, given the outcomes of those awards in their perspective countries... :)

    I have to admit, I've had mixed feelings about the whole Caldecott Medal tradition for quite some time. Quickly: It's so hard to "judge" art (of any kind), but I think it's important to honor artists and their work. The Caldecotts leave so many good books and illustrators out. The fact that the committee that votes on the books is only made up of only 15 people is astonishing to me. What confuses me the most is that (as you mention in your closing points) children have no representation.

    The criteria for choosing the winning books is very interesting. In choosing the winners, the judges don't just look at the art, but rather at how well the artist interpreted the story - which is why many of the winning books were authored and illustrated by the same person, I think.

    My own favorite childoon BOOKS/stories on the list were more often illustrated (and written) by men then women (R.McCloskey, L.Bemelmens, L.Lionni, M.Sendak, Galdone, V.L.Burton); but if I consider the art alone, my favorite ILLUSTRATORS are mostly women (V.L.Burton, B.Cooney, T.Tudor, M.Brown, J.Pinkney). Go figure.

    My favorite recent Caldecott book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, was illustrated by a woman, but authored by a man (her husband). Literally the perfect marriage between illustrations and text. Hurray for Erin and Philip Stead! :)

    1. No - I follow her blog - they are married. http://erinstead.com/about/

    2. Hi Wendy,
      I think awards like the Caldecott are important, although I think the buying public (including libraries) sometimes places too much weight on them; as you point out, there are many, many beautiful books each year and it's clearly subjective which single one is the best.
      Interesting your comments on the gender of authored-illustrated texts vs illustrated only. I've often wondered whether editors sometimes give male illustrators more encouragement to fully develop their own projects.

      I love A Sick Day for Amos McGee as well - story and illustrations!

      Ruth, I also think the Steads are married - see this interview from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/04/138797874/erin-and-phillip-stead-illustrator-and-author-of-a-sick-day-for-amos

  7. Hmmm. Is it risky to comment?
    One famous and competent, qualified, distinctive female illustrator who spoke at our regional SCBWI conference joked that changing her name to David might finally bring her the Caldecott.
    Like Cynthia, I have noticed a higher level of confidence (earned or not) among my male colleagues than among my female colleagues. I don't want to bring the men down, but I'd sure like to elevate more of the deserving women.
    Anyway, I bet it changes with the next generation. (worth researching, and I haven't: Are there more female Caldecott winners in the past 30 years than in the previous 30? Are there more female Newbery winners in the past 30 years than in the previous 30?)

    1. Hi Ruth,
      I know what you mean about commenting - I felt a twinge of dread when I wrote this piece. But I'm honestly not laying blame at anyone's feet. I KNOW how hard those awards committees work and how dedicated they are to choosing the best, and I also have never had the sense of conscious gender discrimination among the editors and art directors I've encountered - so I'd hope no one feels unfairly criticized!
      I agree the goal should not be to bring the men down - I am grateful for the guys in this field and in awe of the talent of these guys at the top. But like you, I feel that the genius of many women has been overlooked or not properly appreciated.
      And oddly, no - things have NOT been getting better for women illustrators as far as this award goes, but worse! That's the thing that worries me. But I'm hoping you're right that we may see more change in a generation or two.

  8. Seems female illustrators have the same struggles as women practicing other forms of art. If you haven't seen it already, you may find this movie interesting, "Who Does She Think She Is?" Here is the movie trailer: http://www.whodoesshethinksheis.net/

    This would not necessarily apply to lack of awards, but its an interesting article about bright women and success in general that I thought was interesting: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201101/the-trouble-bright-girls

    1. Hi Cathy June,
      Sorry I missed this comment earlier - don't know how that happened. At any rate, thanks so much for these insights and links. Interesting reading.
      Unfortunately, it's not even just women in the arts: women seem to be underrepresented relative to their numbers and accomplishments in fields like science and medicine as well - and of course politics.

  9. It isn't just the book world dealing with this. A new post by Pat Mitchell on Huffington Post talks about women filmmakers and the issues they deal with. A group of 50 + women in film got together to take a look at the "state of women in film and launch an initiative to shore up the pipeline that channels women's ideas, sensibilities, and good work onto the big screen."
    What did they discuss, "why there is a disappointing underrepresentation of women across all sectors of media, particularly in clout positions."
    Sound familiar?

    1. It seems to be a pervasive issue in the arts, Kitty - and in academia and the sciencific research community as well. And I suspect in many, many other fields. Some of it may be due to the fact that women are still more likely than men to have the greatest share of family responsibilities, making it harder for them to produce not just the quality of work that garners top awards, but the quantity that gets the individual noticed and supported all along and thus positioned for top opportunities. It will be interesting to see if things change going forward.

  10. Great article. It's something I've noticed for years. And I enjoyed these thought-provoking comments. I agree that men are often a bit more confident in their selling, I also agree that men are able to better focus on their work (while shoulder more and family responsibilities). I've heard lots of theories, and I think it all bears more discussion.