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.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 4

Joy Court's reply to my YLG article, which I included in my last update, raised a few points that I wanted to address, so here's my response which can also be found in the December issue of the YLG newsletter.

I’d like to respond to some of the points Joy made in her reply to my article.

I’m afraid I don’t accept that the CKG judging criteria ensure objectivity as many individual criterion, such as “the overall impact of the book on the reader”, are open to subjective judgement. Children’s literature is an art not a science; is it really possible to judge objectively that the characters in one book are more “believable and convincing” than the characters in another? Indeed if the judges don’t have differing subjective opinions on which books best meet the criteria, then why are there so many judges? I imagine that one reason for having 13 judges is to reflect a wide range of views when making a judgement. If that is the case then, at a time when children’s books appeal more to one sex than the other, shouldn’t that range incorporate male views as much as female ones?

While I accept that some regions might reject the idea of selecting judges on an alternating male/female basis, I hope that others might recognise some merit in doing this. If only one region were to adopt such a system, it would be a step in the right direction.

In the last decade female CKG judges have outnumbered male CKG judges by a ratio of 10:1. A similar female to male ratio can be found across all the gatekeeper roles in the world of picture books, from commissioning editors through to the adults that purchase the books. Given the overwhelming number of female gatekeepers, it is odd that so few picture books feature female characters. Nevertheless, this is an issue that needs addressing.

Having a male protagonist is one of several ingredients that I think is likely to make a story more appealing to boys. The point I make about male protagonists in my COOL not CUTE essay is that picture books are more likely to cater to girls with boy-typical tastes than they are to cater to boys with girl-typical tastes. In the same essay I mention that Eileen Browne’s technology themed picture book No Problem was a big hit with my three-year-old son and cite it as an example of a book with strong technological appeal. Although books about technology typically appeal to boys, all five of the book’s characters are female. Similarly, although pirate stories typically appeal to boys, there are a growing number of picture books featuring female pirates, such as Peter Harris’s The Night Pirates in which all the pirate characters are girls. The situation is very different for picture books that have content that typically appeals to girls; can you think of any ballet or princess/prince themed picture books in which all the dancers or glamorous royals are male? As I’ve argued in another essay, FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS, it’s just as important to cater to boys with girl-typical tastes as it is to cater for girls with boy-typical tastes. Personally, I think a gender-balanced approach to casting is preferable to replacing a single-sex cast with a single-sex cast of the opposite sex. That way children of both sexes will be able to find characters that they can readily identify with, whether the book is about technology or ballet-dancing.

Having said which, the central argument of COOL not CUTE is about the sort of content that is generally deemed appropriate and appealing for picture books, regardless of the sex of the protagonist or the authors and illustrators that create them.

Despite our differences in opinion, I’m very grateful to Joy for giving me the opportunity to publicly debate this issue with her and would like to state once more that I recognise that the Greenaway and Carnegie both do a tremendous job of raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes.

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