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.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 3

I mentioned in my last update that I’d written an article putting the case for a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway judging panel for the October 2013 issue of the YLG newsletter and that Joy Court, the chair of the awards working party, would give her response in the November issue.

Here is my article:

Outside of writing and illustrating them, men don’t seem to be as interested in picture books as women are. There are relatively few men working in the picture book industry and most picture books are bought by women. And most teachers, reviewers and librarians that work with picture books are women too. 
I believe that the scarcity of men in these gatekeeper roles means that picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap in children’s literacy. It’s an issue I’ve written about at length at coolnotcute.com. 
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 four 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. I struggled to find my son picture books with a similar appeal. There were books that featured aliens and spacecraft, but their content was far tamer and cuter than that of the films. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as my son’s enthusiasm for Star Wars grew, his interest in books waned. 
In my experience, a lot of content that’s accepted as appealing and age-appropriate for four-year-olds in films, TV shows and video games is often rejected as unappealing and age-inappropriate for picture books. This rejected content appeals to children of both sexes, but it’s especially appealing to boys, and its exclusion from picture books is one reason that some young boys turn to other media that reflect their tastes more accurately. There are still plenty of picture books published each year that many boys find appealing, but all children are different and picture books don’t reflect the full range of boys’ tastes as effectively as they do girls’. I think the scarcity of male gatekeepers, judging the appropriateness and appeal of picture book content, is the chief reason for this. 
I’ve suggested a number of ways to get male tastes better represented in picture books. It’s generally accepted that more men ought to read to their children, but it’s equally important that more men start buying children’s books, so that the market is influenced by the tastes of dads and grandpas as much as mums and grandmas. I’ve also suggested that the judging of children’s book awards, the Carnegie Greenaway in particular, ought to reflect male perspectives as much as female ones. 
While gender-balanced judging panels are now the norm for prestigious adult book awards such as the Booker, CKG panels are predominantly female. At a time when children’s books appeal more to girls than boys, I think this imbalance is worth addressing. I understand that the CKG’s judging criteria brings consistency to the way the awards are judged and that a panel of professional librarians will be far more objective than an ordinary panel. However each judge will still have some subjectivity, with differing opinions as to which books are best. Shouldn’t that subjectivity represent male perspectives as much as female ones? 
One way to achieve a gender-balanced panel would be to use alternating single-sex shortlists, with each region selecting a male judge one year and a female judge the next. I realise that adopting such a system would mean over-representing the number of male YLG members, but surely it’s more important for “children’s” book awards to reflect the gender balance of children rather than the profession that serves them.

And here is Joy’s response:

I think the majority of the profession would agree that they dislike gender stereotypical publishing of any sort and indeed might contend that the problem is even more severe when children move out of picture books into chapter books and beyond. High Street bookstores can appear almost as colour coded as the clothing ranges available for babies! 
There would also be absolutely no excuse for having a non-gender balanced judging panel if the judges were indeed selected, but as we initially explained, the judges are elected democratically by their regional committee. This means that our panels are at least geographically diverse unlike, I would suggest, the Booker panels etc. They also stand for a two year period and around half of the panel changes each year so that each panel will have a mix of experienced and brand new judges. This would, I am afraid, negate the suggestion of alternating male and female judges from a region each year.

But even if we were to ask each region to alternate the gender of their judges every two years would this even be possible? While we might hope that Jonathan’s piece will make the male members of YLG feel that they should join their regional committee and get actively involved, we cannot force them to do so and therefore we cannot force our committees to do that. But for all that it has been unusual that for the last couple of years there have been all female judges.

However our main point is that, unlike so many of the major awards, we have a published set of criteria and both nominations and judging are conducted solely by reference to those and suitability or appeal to either gender is not one of them. I do not believe that anybody could find any gender bias in the criteria themselves. In the Greenaway we primarily look for outstanding artistic quality and where text exists particular attention should be paid to the synergy between the two. 
Jonathan, in our conversations, has maintained that nevertheless our judgement and taste is still subjective! But the fact remains that of the 57 Greenaway winners 34 have been men and as Eileen Browne quotes in her fascinating article: Two to One - Females Outnumbered by Males in Children's Picture Books, (Write4Children Vol IV Issue II. p 157. ) “Liza Miller, an MA student at City University, London, had analysed the seventy-five main characters in thirty-two Kate Greenaway Medal winners between 1956 and 2010. Her results were the same as mine: Females were outnumbered by males in picture books by about 2:1. Female animal characters were underrepresented by 4.5:1 — less than 20% had female characters.” 
So it would seem that the evidence suggests that female judges over the years have primarily chosen books which are about males. However I realise that Jonathan’s points are more about the plot and style than merely characters. The fact remains that our role is restricted to judging what is actually published. Perhaps his campaigning should be aimed at the editorial and marketing departments of children’s publishers? We would be delighted to publish a response from any of our publisher friends. 
It was disappointing to receive no member responses to this interesting post, but it is nevertheless good that the issue has been raised and hopefully we will see more men responding to the call to arms! Meanwhile it is my job to ensure that the judging will continue to be carried out with the highest possible standards, as objectively as possible and always with reference to the criteria.

Joy Court, Chair of the Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Awards Working Party

Joy has raised a number of new points which I’ll address in my next post, but in the meantime please feel free to post your own responses below.
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