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!

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