By Megan Lacera
We're celebrating Women's History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen or Twitter #kidlitwomen
My debut picture book, Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies, comes out next year, and I’m so excited and nervous that I often fall asleep still thinking about it. My husband, Jorge Lacera, and I created the story of Mo, a mixed-race zombie kid who has a deep, dark secret: he absolutely loves vegetables. He tries and tries (and tries) to convince his zombie cuisine-eating parents to overcome their prejudices against tomatoes and peppers and just give peas a chance.
Like many writers and artists, we’ve put our hearts, souls, guts, and brains into this book. Knowing that it will be out in the world one day soon fills me pure, never-ending joy. It is a long-held dream come true and the first of many stories to come!
When I hear accounts of sexism, racism, harassment, exploitation, and abuses of power within the children’s publishing world, I am furious and deeply saddened. Our kids deserve much better than this. We all deserve much better than this. But am I surprised? No. Even though Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies will be my first traditionally published work, I’ve spent most of my career in the kids entertainment business. I’ve worked full-time at large kids’ media and toy companies and small start-ups. As the founder of my own creative studio, I’ve consulted and freelanced for global kids’ consumer product giants, entrepreneurs, animation companies and more.
I’m lucky to have collaborated with truly amazing people. People who strive every day to bring the greatness that lies within them out into the world so it can be shared and multiplied. People who are humble, thoughtful, compassionate, loving, and tremendously hard-working and talented. People who profoundly understand that children are our future…that positively impacting, nurturing, and loving a child creates positive ripples in the universe that go on forever.
I’ve also worked with awful people. People who create or contribute to hostile work environments, who abuse power, who harass and bully others to make others feel small and diminish their influence, who actively strategize to tear down others’ sense of self-worth and purpose so they can enact their own agenda (which is often simply promoting themselves). People who will say and do anything to gain trust and alliance, and then slowly and deliberately use that trust to exploit the well-meaning people around them.
People who aren’t in it for the kids. Not even a teeny, tiny bit.
Yes, all of these types of people that I mention are a part of the kids’ business. They positively or negatively influence everyone who works with them, and they influence the toys, media, movies and more that our kids engage with and are impacted by. They influence the books kids read, too.
I’ve been hurt and affected by these people. Many well-meaning folks have. I’ve struggled to find my way when faced with “boys clubs,” predatory producers, and bullies. I was pretty naïve when I started out—my mindset was “we’re creating stories and worlds for kids! Everyone’s hearts must be in the right place.” The realization that this simply isn’t true rocked me to my core. More than once.
Luckily, I’ve learned a few things (and I’m eager to learn more every day) that have helped me navigate the very adult world of creating for children. Maybe something here can help you, too.
As this amazing effort to uplift #kidlitwomen and “improve the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry” continues throughout March and hopefully long into the future, here are three things to consider:
1. KNOW YOUR VALUE: Too often I hear creators diminishing themselves, accepting unacceptable terms for their work, or “laughing” about how at least they “love what they do.” We can love our work, we can understand that it is a gift, a dream, and still get paid well for it. When we don’t expect to be valued, we become more vulnerable to companies and people who are desperate for our stories and characters and eager to show their ability to “get a deal.”
I used to be pumped for the opportunity to use my talents that I’ve developed and sharpened over the course of my life. I tried to negotiate financially, but in my head I knew I wasn’t going to walk away from something that I deemed “exciting.” “Even if it doesn’t pay much—or anything—it will be fun and I’ll add it to my resume.”
Oh, past self.
Last year, I had a call with a small company who wanted me to write a book for them. They wanted the book to be the beginning of an intellectual property (that the company would own and that they could exploit across products and media). This is something I’ve been quite successful doing in the past and I knew I could deliver the goods for this company. Oh, and they wanted a full picture book to be completed in a month. Original characters, stories, the full kit and caboodle. Easy-peasy, right?
Post call, I sent them a quote for the work.
I got back a note that included a question: “Is this just for the writing?”
In the past, I would have let that go, chalked up the “just” as no big deal. But at that point in time, I knew from the conversation and this email that the company did not value what I do. They highly valued the final product of what I do.—They were more than ready to create new revenue streams and licensing potential from the characters I would create and the world I would build. But they didn’t have a clue what went into all that, and they weren’t going to pay me suitably.
I figured I’d find a better client—and I did.
I know sometimes it is not possible to insist on our worth or to say no to a job. We have families to take care of, bills to pay. Sometimes we have to suck up a less-than-ideal situation in order to keep moving ahead.
When it comes to publishing, we try and try and try to get an agent and then we try and try and try to have our book(s) acquired. By the time an offer finally arrives, we just want to sign and be done with it. An event wants us to come speak and gosh, they don’t have money to pay you this time, but next time they will. And so on.
We are valuable for so many reasons. ALL of us. Remind yourself of this every day and try asking for more until you get it.
2. DIVERSIFY YOUR SKILLS AND TALENTS Early in my career, I left a job at a kids’ entertainment studio that I loved. I didn’t really want to, but the environment was awful for me. I often referred to it as “Lord of the Flies” for the way people were pitted against each other, the sexist ways men treated the women, and the general lack of respect for kids among the executives. The final nail in the wall was when “pitch sessions” started. All of a sudden, employees were expected to pitch several original concepts (their own original concepts) every month. The intent was that these concepts would turn into animated series, product lines, and more. We weren’t going to receive raises. We weren’t ensured proper crediting. We weren’t going to have any of other responsibilities lessened in order to make room for all of this creative work. Been there? I bet many of you have.
I tried very hard to change the atmosphere, to make a case for raises and crediting with the executives, but I failed. There were too many employees there who were romanced with the notion that their concept *might* be chosen to be made into a TV show. Too many people worried about the fallout of confronting the powers that be. Too many employees worried about feeding their families if something backfired. All completely understandable.
So, I quit.
Soon after (because, bills) I started a job at the headquarters for a retail company—totally not in my life plan. But during my 2.5 years there, I developed and honed a variety of new skills—not just with my writing, but with managing, business planning, budget mastery, creative direction, photography, collaborating with partners (PR, ad agencies, web developers). I had a boss who taught me a great deal about dealing with conflict at work and speaking up for myself with executives and “higher-ups.”
I never would have gone after a job like that, but it changed my perspective on what’s out there in the world. Don’t we all get stuck in our bubbles sometimes? Sometimes we have to leave home to find new solutions, new ways of thinking.
When I moved back into working for a big kids toy and entertainment company, years later, I was a different person. I found myself in a much stronger, more confident position. I knew I could leave an unhealthy environment and recover. I could lean on different skills if I had to.
Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity that I can to learn something new and diversify my skills.
It’s wonderful to have a singular goal, a dream that you know you must make happen in your life. It also, much like undervaluing yourself, makes you more vulnerable to people who will manipulate that dream for their own ends. I’ve heard writers and artists say things like “this is the only thing I’m capable of doing!” No, it’s not. Learn something new so you don’t feel trapped in a bad situation with no other options. Learn something new so you aren’t forced to say “yes” to something that you don’t want to. Learn something new because it makes you a stronger writer, illustrator, editor, agent, executive, leader, or anything you want to be.
3. ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS: I love the idea that “good work speaks for itself.” I mean, I really love that idea. Because if good work can speak, than I don’t have to.
It’s challenging—always has been—for me to advocate for myself. I know many women share these struggles. It’s much easier for me to advocate for others—especially people I care about, who are fighting the good fight, whose presence makes life better for us all.
However, I’ve learned the hard way that standing up for myself –or hiring people to advocate on my behalf--is not only a good skill to learn, it’s crucial to advancing in my career. I take it seriously now, and I continue do my best to advocate for those around me as well.
I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to take credit for my work. Whether it’s claiming to actually having written something that I wrote (when we hadn’t agreed to such terms), or suggesting an idea I had is theirs, or trying to convince me that our contributions to a project are “equal” when they are anything but. I’ve worked with people who’ve come to me with a very loose, rough idea. “There’s a lead character. And a diverse set of friends. They have adventures.” That’s it. And I take that little tiny nugget and I create an entire story, and real characters with real relationships and backstories, and intersecting plots. I dream up a whole entire world for them to leave in and reasons why they live there, and themes and characters arcs and beginnings and endings and and and…
And when it’s done, the person with the little nugget comes to me and says, “wow, look what we wrote together!”
No. No. NO.
Years ago, I went along with some of that nonsense. “Who cares who gets the credit,” I thought. “All that matters is that the work is good.”
Oh, past self.
Credit and acknowledgement matters. It matters financially, it matters for attracting new opportunities, it matters. As hard as it is, as difficult as the conversations can be, we must take credit for our work. We must give credit for others work (Thank you, Gaia Cornwall, Renee Beauregard Lute and Jorge Lacera for reading my piece and providing feedback! Thank you Jorge for creating the graphic that appears on this page. And thank you to Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal for creating this space to uplift women and fuel change!).
I’ve worked and will continue to work on these three things. I hope that they spark something inside of you to help you grow and flourish as a powerful contributor for kids. I look forward to learning more from everyone who is participating in the #KidLitWomen discussion!