I’ve set up this blog because I want to start a debate about gender bias in picture books.

I believe that the scarcity of male gatekeepers in the picture book industry means that its output reflects boys’ tastes less than girls’ and that this lack of gender-balance is exacerbating the gender gap in children's reading abilities.

My argument, based on my experience as both an author and a parent, is set out in the three essays below.

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cool not cute: what boys really want from picture books

This two-part essay contains my main argument.

Part 1: The Uneven Playing Field argues that the lack of gender-balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers is making picture books more appealing to girls than boys.

Part 2: The Missing Ingredients lists some of the ingredients with boy-typical appeal that are missing from most picture books and suggests ways to gender-balance picture book appeal.

Click here to view/download a pdf of COOL not CUTE Click here to view/download an EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of the essay

nature and nurture: boys will be boys

This essay looks at some of the scientific evidence that suggests that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for sex differences in children's preferences.

Click here to view/download a pdf of NATURE and NURTURE

fighters and fashionistas: the spectre of stereotyping

This essay addresses concerns about gender stereotyping which may arise from the assertion that some preferences are boy or girl-typical.

Click here to view/download a pdf of FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS

These three essays were revised and updated in February 2015. You can read a blog post outlining the revisions and the reasons for them here.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Have I got this the wrong way around? Publishers responses to COOL not CUTE!

In my last blog post I outlined some of the feedback I’d received from various groups in response to my essay COOL not CUTE. The one group I didn’t cover in that post was picture book publishers as I wanted to address their feedback in this separate post.

I wrote to all the picture book publishers I’ve worked with recently to let them know I was publishing the essay and have heard back from most of them. Most of the publishers that responded acknowledged that the issue was worthy of debate but defended the picture book industry’s current output. Most of them did so by making one or more of the following points.

1. Many picture books currently being published appeal universally to both boys and girls.

I don’t dispute this point and acknowledged it on page 8 of the essay where I wrote that “there are a great many picture books published each year that have genuine cross-gender appeal” and mentioned the collaborations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler as excellent examples. As I wrote in the essay, my argument relates to the “relative numbers and content of picture books that principally appeal, intentionally or unintentionally, specifically to boys or girls.”

2. Many picture books are published each year with themes with boy-typical appeal such as aliens, dinosaurs, monsters, diggers and pirates.

While these picture books have themes that appeal to boys, my argument is about the ingredients that are used within these themes such as combat or villainy. Many boy-friendly ingredients excluded from picture books are commonly found in similarly-themed films and TV programmes suitable for children of picture book age.

For instance, one picture book theme that’s particularly appealing to boys is pirates. In 2012 Aardman released a U certificate film called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! which includes all of the Missing Ingredients listed in Part 2 of COOL not CUTE. Here are some specific examples:

Combat: Characters are seen fighting with cutlasses, firing pistols and canons and hitting each other with various objects such as frying pans. The violence in the film is generally non-lethal, but one running joke involves a pirate, Cutlass Liz, killing other pirates by running them through with her sword.

Peril: Characters repeatedly find themselves in life-threatening situations and at one point the hero is almost beheaded by an executioner.

Irredeemable Villainy: The film’s villain is an evil, sabre-wielding incarnation of Queen Victoria, who’s last seen swearing vengeance on the hero.

Although many pirate-themed picture books have been published over the last few years, very few of them contain dangerous, exciting ingredients such as these. I accept that some four-year-old boys will find these ingredients unappealing and I’m not arguing that ALL picture books should include them; but in addition to tamer, cuter picture books about pirates, aliens, dinosaurs, diggers and monsters, there need to be many more wilder, cooler picture books for the children of both sexes who are currently rejecting books in favour of films and TV shows which cater to their tastes.

3. Films and TV shows may have different standards of age-appropriateness to picture books, but that’s because picture books have higher standards.

I’ve suggested that the standards of age-appropriateness applied to picture books should match those of films and TV programmes certificated as age-appropriate for picture book age children. However, some picture book publishers I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks have told me that they would not allow a four-year-old child to watch films such as Star Wars IV: A New Hope or The Incredibles, despite the U certificate indicating that the content of both these films is age-appropriate.

I’ve been using films and TV shows as a measuring stick to judge picture books against. Should it be the other way around? Is it TV and films that are getting it wrong?

The main reason I think it’s reasonable to use film and TV age standards as a measuring stick is that they are judged in a far more impartial manner. TV shows and films have their age-appropriateness assessed by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), an independent organisation that has a statutory responsibility to make such assessments.

To ensure that its judgements reflects public attitudes, the BBFC commissions regular public consultations and revises its guidelines accordingly. A report on the last consultation, comprising of 8700 interviews, can be found here on the BBFC web site. An appendix on page 79 of the report outlines the methods that were used to obtain a demographically diverse sample that represents the public as a whole.

I think this demographic diversity of views, including an equal representation of both sexes, goes a long way towards explaining the differing standards of age-appropriateness between films/TV and picture books. I think the more restrictive standards of age-appropriateness evident in picture books reflect the views of a far narrower demographic, and one that I’ve argued in COOL not CUTE is overwhelmingly female.

What do you think?
Are there any flaws in my arguments?
Have I misrepresented the counter-arguments?
Have I omitted an important counter-argument?
If so, let me know and join the debate using the comments box/link below!

Friday, 15 February 2013

A View from Above the Parapet

People working within the picture book industry are reluctant to stick their heads above the parapet
and express their views publicly on this issue 

I set up this blog because I wanted to start a debate about a female bias in picture book content, which, in my view, is resulting in the reading habit being broken at an early age for many boys. Visitors might have noticed that, although I can be emailed through my main web site, there’s been no email link on this blog until now. This was because I was hoping that people would participate in the debate by posting their responses to COOL not CUTE and the other essays in the comments section of the blog where other visitors could read and respond to them. I’ve tried to make it clear that ALL comments, supportive or critical of my argument, are welcome. So far, no one has posted a comment on the blog and while some people have responded to me publicly through twitter, most have opted to respond to me privately, via email, phone or in person. I’m going to share some of this feedback in this and the next post.

One email I received was from a content creator who’s been working in the picture book industry for longer than I have. They began by saying, “Thank you so much for articulating, in a calm and reasoned manner, what I've been frustrated by for many years,”* and went on to outline their experiences with several publishers where they had “come up against the cosy censorship and self-censorship” that I’d described.

Their comments seemed so pertinent that I wrote back to them asking if they’d post something similar in the comments section of the blog, without pointing the finger at any individual publishers. In their response they explained that, “the problem with accusing the gatekeepers of conscious or unconscious bias is that they are, unfortunately, still the gatekeepers,” and went on to say that they’d “got many very good female friends in publishing who would be completely outraged at the idea that they might not know what's best for boys. And that's my friends! So, unfortunately, I can't be the one to raise my head above the parapet.”*

I think this response explains the reluctance many people within the industry have towards expressing their views on this issue publicly.

Several of the people I’ve had responses from are picture book illustrators. When I was writing the essay I’d assumed that the predominance of “cute” over “cool” was partly a reflection of the personal preferences of many illustrators and had suggested that illustrators with such preferences might be drawn to working in the picture book industry. However some of the comments I’ve received have made me reassess this view.

One illustrator made this comment about their experience at art college:
“It was funny how the idea' of 'cool' instantly reversed from a 'macho' GCSE school to a more 'feminine' art education and I think this was even reflected in ideas of what is good (suitable) art and bad.”*
This suggests that, in some instances, illustrators may be encouraged to suppress their more boy-typical preferences as part of their training.

Other illustrators I subsequently heard from seemed to have had a relatively impartial training (or were self taught) but described being steered away from producing boy-friendly content once they began working in the industry. Two of them made the point that the cuteness that characterises much of their work was a reflection of supply and demand rather than personal preference. They both said they would like to work on more picture books with cooler or darker content, but could rarely get commissioned to do so. And, as one illustrator commented, they needed to “pay the bills” like everyone else. It wasn’t that these illustrators didn’t enjoy working on cute picture books, it’s just that they would have liked to work on some cool books as well.

I suspect that another reason that people both inside and outside the industry have been reluctant to post comments is because the acceptance of boy-typical or girl-typical preferences is often dismissed or condemned as sexism. I should say that - so far – no one has accused me of this in their responses.

The word “typical” is important in these descriptions. While some of the parents that have contacted me have told me that the essay reflects their experiences with their sons, others have told me that their sons would not like some of the content, such as combat, peril and villainy, that I’ve identified as having boy-typical appeal. Other parents have told me that their daughters find this same content extremely appealing and made the point that the differences in content between picture books and other media is driving children of both sexes away from books and towards TV and films.

I’d tried to acknowledge these last two points at the beginning of Part 2 of COOL not CUTE where I said that “there will be girls who find all the ingredients I’ve listed very appealing and there will be boys who find none of them appealing.” Throughout that essay I made a point of referring to “many” boys preferences, rather than “all” boys or even “most” boys. The essay also acknowledges that, while I regard these preferences as boy-typical, they are shared by “many” girls. However it’s a long essay, so I can understand that these distinctions and qualifications may have been lost in the mix for some readers.

Although I’d still like people to share their comments and criticisms using the comments sections of this blog, I’ve now added an email link on the right for those who’d prefer to email me instead. As always I’m interested in hearing ANY comments — for or against.

Although I’ve had feedback from authors, illustrators, parents and a couple of reviewers, I’d be particularly interested to hear from infants teachers or children’s librarians as I’ve yet to hear anything from anyone in either of these groups.

The other group I have heard from is publishers and I’m going to address some of their comments and criticisms in my next post.

In the meantime if you are willing to join me “above the parapet”, please use the comments box/link below!

* The quotes in this post are used with permission.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Why it’s a bad idea to try to champion books by discrediting other media

Evangelists for children's books are not doing themselves or books any favours by attacking children's TV or films 

I’ve attended several children’s book events where speakers have tried to champion books to a young audience by discrediting other media and my heart always sinks when I hear them doing it. More often than not, films and television are the targets.

The oft repeated line that “the pictures are better in books than in films or television because you have to create them in your imagination,” is fine when presented as a subjective opinion.  However it's often presented as an objective statement, in which case it won’t ring true with many children brought up in an age when TV and film-makers compete to outdo each other with increasingly imaginative visuals. If a film is adapted from a book a child has read, sometimes the images on the screen will be disappointing in comparison to what that child has imagined, but on other occasions the screen versions will be more vivid, characterful and spectacular. I re-read all the Lord of the Rings books to my son around the time that Peter Jackson’s films were released in the cinema. Much as I admire the scope of Tolkien’s imagination, his prose is often pedestrian and his dialogue perfunctory and I much prefer watching the film adaptations, with Alan Lee’s masterful production designs, to reading the original books.

And the claim that “the pictures in your imagination are better” feels even more inappropriate and misjudged if there are picture book authors, illustrators and readers attending the event. I don’t think any of my picture books would have been improved by removing the pictures and leaving the readers to imagine them for themselves; the illustrations are a crucial part of a picture book’s appeal.

Worse still are the ambassadors for books who go one step further by claiming that watching TV will rot your brains. On two occasions I’ve heard such statements accompanied by readings of the song the Oompa-Loompas sing on Mike Teavee’s exit from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Here’s what the Oompa-Loompas have to sing on the subject of television (the capitalisation is Dahl’s):
Having denigrated television in this way, the Oompa-Loompas go on to sing the praises (literally) of books. Much as I adore Roald Dahl's work generally, I feel that this song crosses the line from amusing satire into prejudiced propaganda in a way that the other Oompah-Loompas songs don’t. Mike Teavee’s vice is one of overindulgence; he overindulges in television in the same way that Augustus Gloop overindulges in chocolate.  Both things are bad in excess, but Dahl does not have the Oompa-Loompas denigrate chocolate in Gloop's exit song.

I don’t think that ambassadors for books are doing themselves or books any favours by attacking TV, films or video games in this way. Most children listening will know from first hand experience how appealing and satisfying these other media can be.  So by attempting to discredit them an ambassador undermines their own credibility. If an ambassador says they hate something that a child knows and loves, why should a child trust that ambassador’s judgment when he or she proclaims that books are something that ought to be loved?

I think it’s nearly always better to work with the grain of a child’s enthusiasm rather than against it when promoting books. If a child tells you they don’t like books, ask them what they do like. If it’s TV, ask them about their favourite programmes and why they like them.  Try to engage with and understand their enthusiasm — this is easy if you like the same programmes yourself. Then, when you understand what it is the child likes about the programme and, perhaps more importantly, when the child has understood that you understand this, tell them about a book they might like that contains the same sort of content.

This approach can be made to work for most children of most ages – but not all. If a child of picture book age says they like a film like Star Wars or a TV show like Ben 10, there’s little an ambassador for books can do because, as I’ve argued in COOL not CUTE, there are no picture books that match the content of Star Wars or Ben 10.  Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of picture book age children that like this sort of content  — and most of them are boys.

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