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.

scroll down further for blog posts


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.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I've just discovered your blog (referred by a publisher!) and haven't read the main articles yet but I found myself nodding as I read the post above. I'm a children's author, freelance commissioning editor and mother of three preschool boys, so I have a strong interest in the topic.

    I mainly write non-fiction, and PLR tells me that my most-borrowed books by a mile are a series called Animals Head to Head. Each book pits ferocious animals against each other, gives them points for lethal qualities, and works out who would win in a fight. Then reconstructs the fight on the last spread!

    While reading your post it occurred to me that the combat and peril probably explains their popularity! Interestingly the idea came from a male commissioning editor (who has very brilliant cute ideas too).

    I look forward to reading the main articles & will come back & comment again!

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    Replies
    1. First of all, thank you so much for posting a comment, Isabel! As you can see from the above post, I'd almost given up on anyone doing so.

      Although there are many picture books that are just as popular in libraries as bookshops (the Donaldson/Scheffler ones being obvious examples) I’ve noticed a striking difference between library loans and sales figures for my boy friendly titles. As I wrote in COOL not CUTE, I thing this is because children have far more say over the choice of books in libraries.

      Since writing the articles I received my PLR figures for last year and one of the biggest anomalies was the popularity of spoof instruction manual, Monsters - An Owner’s Guide. This is a very technically-detailed book (in both illustration and language) about a self-assembly monster that ends up going on the rampage. Although it’s been one of my most popular books on library and school visits, it was a flop in terms of sales and was taken out of print a year after the paperback was published. My PLR figures show that it’s my 5th most borrowed book, with lending figures far exceeding those of some of my more commercially successful picture books.

      If you do find time to read the articles, please do post any comments or criticisms as I’d love to hear them. And please spread the word to anyone else you think might be interested.

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    2. Isabel- funnily enough I tried to buy some of the books in that series for my sons' school library and they were out of stock (they were published by Raintree weren't they?) I loved the top trumps concept! I had a big debate with some of the boys about which of the duos would be the most exciting.

      Johnathon- I think you have some very strong points however I think that one of the main issues is that if Dads don't read to kids then they are not interested in buying or borrowing books for them but then there's a knock on affect on the literacy rates of boys so therefore fewer men go into jobs related to literacy like librarianship and primary school teaching. I wish I knew what the answer was although raising your voice is a great start to get people talking about this.

      I buy books for three school libraries and have two young boys and I do my very best to choose books that will appeal to everyone. Personally I know that if my husband goes out to buy picture books (and he has) he does sometimes come back with different choices that I would make (it was my husband who brought Oliver Jeffers into our lives many years ago now for example and "The Monkey With a Bright Blue Bottom!"). I do my best to engage my young readers in the book selection process as much as possible, we have a suggestions box and I constantly ask them for their opinions and what they think of the books that I buy. I've just started in an infant school and I was looking through a Scholastic catalogue with two 7 yr old boys only yesterday talking about which series they liked the look of- I may be a female school librarian but I listen to the men in my life!

      Another major issue that I think needs addressing is the reading scheme that schools use- I am not an Oxford Reading Tree fan and don't think that the story lines appeal to everyone. I'm not 100% wedded to your general gender debate however- I have two boys and both are so completely different in their choice of story, format and approach to literature that I think it can be dangerous to draw absolute distinctions. My younger son loves cute things, imaginative stories, drawing and soft toys, my older son prefers non-fiction, lists, tales of plumbing disasters etc and these differences started from the moment they made their own choices. In my experience of helping children choose books I agree that there are general trends but I'd be wary of drawing strict gender lines. I think both boys and girls need more 'cool' although I agree that the impact will be more dramatic on the reading habits of boys.

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    3. Thanks for your comments, Jenny. I can’t really take issue with any of them. I’ve stressed the importance of dads reading on page 22 of my COOL not CUTE essay and again in my blog post on 18 October 2013. And in the post of August 2013 I outlined the self-perpetuating system that you’ve described, which applies to other demographic factors as well as gender.

      I accept that professional librarians will always take into account different tastes and perspectives from their own but, as I’ve argued later in the August post, being aware of other people’s tastes is not quite the same as sharing them yourself and perspective affects judgment. The difference may be slight, but with the overwhelming majority of the gatekeepers in the world of children’s picture books being female (not just children’s librarians) I think the accumulative effect is significant and consequently male-typical tastes are under-represented.

      I’m well aware of the dangers of drawing “absolute distinctions” and If you read through the three essays I’ve written I hope that you’ll accept that I’ve tried not to do that. I prefaced Part 2 of COOL not CUTE (page 13), which identifies content that’s typically appealing to boys, with the following statement.

      “The word “typically” is important. As I mentioned at the end of Part 1 of this article, I’m making a generalised argument. I recognise 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. A more accurate subtitle for this article might have been ‘What MANY boys really want from picture books’. I hope you’ll forgive me for using the slightly snappier alternative.”

      You finished by saying
      “In my experience of helping children choose books I agree that there are general trends but I'd be wary of drawing strict gender lines. I think both boys and girls need more 'cool' although I agree that the impact will be more dramatic on the reading habits of boys.”
      I wholeheartedly agree with this!

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