|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.