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.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

"Fear of sexism has produced a bias against conceding sex differences"

For some people acknowledging innate sex differences is indistinguishable from old-fashioned sexism and so ideologically out of bounds – regardless of the evidence

The title of this post is a quote from a 2011 Slate article by William Saletan. The article was written in response to a panel discussion of “The Promise and Peril of Research on Sex Differences” at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2011 and is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the debate on innate sex differences.

The panel, which consisted of neuroscientist Lise Eliot, behavioural neurobiologist Larry Cahill and psychologists Melissa Hines, Janet Hyde and Maryjane Wraga, represented a diverse range of expert opinions on this controversial subject.

The article notes that the debate “didn’t settle the controversy, because it isn’t binary, and evidence is complex.” So instead of attempting to present a conclusion, Saletan highlights ten pitfalls to be wary of when assessing arguments regarding innate sex differences. It’s well worth reading the whole article, but I’m going to pick out five of the pitfalls that Saletan identifies which are particularly relevant to my experience of debating the issue in relation to the gender gap in children’s literacy.

1. Ideology

In my experience the belief that “there’s no such thing as innate sex differences” is often rooted in ideology rather than evidence. I commented in an earlier post that I suspect that many people who hold this belief are not aware of the evidence that helped establish it – or the degree to which this evidence has subsequently been discredited. For some people acknowledging innate sex differences is indistinguishable from old-fashioned sexism and so ideologically out of bounds – regardless of the evidence. Saletan notes that “fear of sexism has produced a bias against conceding sex differences, which gets in the way of frank discussion and investigation.”

2. Casual Extrapolation

Saletan describes psychologist Melissa Hines recalling “an incident in which, after she had described data on toy preference among girls, a male physicist said she had just explained why it was hard to recruit women to teach physics. The leap from dolls to doctorates was effortless, though groundless.”

Similarly inappropriate extrapolations are often made by individuals on both sides of the innate sex differences debate. One thing that distinguishes Hines’s book Brain Gender from many others on the subject is the way in which Hines carefully avoids such extrapolations.

3. Stereotypes

Saletan notes that “girls differ from boys, but girls also differ from other girls.” And goes on to say that “you certainly can’t infer from a person’s sex how well he or she will do on a test.”

I know from my own experience that no matter how carefully one tries to qualify an argument about sex differences by saying that some girls will have boy-typical reading tastes and vice versa, one will inevitably be accused of stereotyping simply for describing certain reading tastes as boy or girl-typical. In this context “boy-typical” means “commonly associated with boys”, it does not and should not mean “exclusive to boys” or even “better suited to boys”. Saletan explains that sex differences don’t show up as separate clusters, but as “overlapping distributions”, a point I attempted to get across in the “Twin Peaks” section of my essay NATURE and NURTURE.

4. Either/Or

In my experience an Either/Or approach, ranks alongside Ideology as the most commonly encountered pitfall in arguments on sex differences. There’s no reason whatsoever to regard nature and nurture as mutually exclusive factors and yet I’ve heard from several people who seem to assume that the indisputable evidence that nurture influences a child’s reading tastes can also be taken as indisputable evidence that nature has no influence.

The growing number of recent studies demonstrating the influence of nature on children’s preferences are dismissed by the nurture-only lobby as either biased, unreliable or unconvincing. Even if all of these studies were invalid, discrediting the evidence that something is true is not the same as proving it is false. Separate evidence is needed to demonstrate this and no such evidence has come to light.

5. Inferred Immutability

I think one reason many people find innate sex differences difficult to accept is that they associate them with a biologically deterministic view of gender roles. This perception has some justification. In his book The Essential Difference, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen states its central theory thus:
The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.
Saletan comments that “several panelists targeted the word hardwired as a misleading metaphor for explaining the brain”. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who moderated the panel discussion, regards the brain as plastic and susceptible to change. In her own book Pink Brain, Blue Brain Eliot argues that “adults need to be aware of boy-girl differences so that we can help children compensate for them early on”. Instead of a gender-neutral approach to child development, Eliot advocates differing approaches for boys and girls, which reflect their different preferences, but are intended to close the gaps on their differing abilities. As I said in my essay FIGHTER and FASHIONISTAS, I believe that such an approach can be used to close the gender gap in children’s literacy and this is the type of approach I’m advocating in COOL not CUTE.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 2

Further to my last update in June, I’m pleased to report that I’ve made some progress with my proposal to get the Carnegie Greenaway Children’s Book Awards judged by a gender-balanced panel.

To set the record straight, I’m told that the organisers drafted a response to the original email I sent them in March but, due to an oversight, it was never sent to me.

Over the summer I got in touch with Joy Court, the new chair of the Carnegie Greenaway working party, who explained to me that the working party have no influence over the selection of individual judges, who are selected by the Youth Libraries Group members in the region each judge represents. However Joy arranged for me to put the case for a gender-balanced judging panel to YLG members through their October newsletter, which can be read here.

I’m very grateful to Joy and the newsletter's editor Helen Thompson for giving the proposal a fair hearing in this way.

Joy's response to the article will be published in the November issue of the newsletter, along with any responses from YLG members.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Why dads need to buy more picture books

This post was originally published on the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog

Dads don't just need to read to their kids – they
need to start buying more picture books as well.
Books aren’t cool — or so a growing number of children seem to think. A report just published by the National Literacy Trust reveals "children are spending less of their own time reading and are increasingly embarrassed to be seen reading". According to the report, "children who do not think 'reading is cool' are four times more likely to be below average readers". I think the perception that books aren’t cool has more to do with book content than the act of reading. Specifically, it has to do with the first books most children encounter, which are picture books.

When my son was four years old, he and his friends were obsessed with Star Wars, a saga of good versus evil, packed with deadly combat, sophisticated technology, murderous villains and threatening predicaments. The Star Wars films available at the time were all U certificates, showing that — in the BBFC’s judgment — their content was appropriate for four-year-olds. Such content is rarely found in the cosier, cuter world of picture books. Picture books tend to steer well clear of deadly combat, technology is often simply represented, murderous villains are almost nonexistent and threatening predicaments are few and far between. Small wonder then that many children that relish this sort of “cool” content decide that books aren’t for them and turn to other media that reflect their tastes. For such children, the reading habit is broken before it’s barely begun.

The majority of the "below average readers" referred to in the Literacy Trust report are boys. The report shows that “nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all” and “twice as many boys as girls say that they never read outside of class”. And it’s no coincidence that the type of cool content that’s absent from picture books typically appeals to boys.

In a previous piece for the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog, I highlighted the fact that that most of the gatekeepers in the world of picture books — commissioning editors, infant teachers, children’s librarians, reviewers – are women. However the picture book industry, like any other industry, is subject to the rule of supply and demand and the most influential gatekeepers are consumers. The overwhelming majority of picture books are bought by women, consequently the picture book market reflects female-typical tastes far more than male-typical ones. Even picture books that are intended to appeal to boys partially reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually purchase them. This won't change unless fathers and grandfathers start buying more picture books.

The Literacy Trust’s report was published to coincide with the launch of its “Literacy Heroes” campaign celebrating people who inspire a love of books. Dads are always being encouraged to read more to their children at bedtimes; I’d like to encourage dads to go one step further and commit another small act of literacy heroism by going into a bookshop and choosing a really cool picture book to read to their kids.
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