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.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 5

In addition to my own email, included in my last post, the December edition of the YLG Newsletter included two other emails from YLG members responding to my call for the Carnegie and Greenaway to be judged by a gender-balanced panel. Both emails are shown below.

I understand why Jonathan Emmett makes his "complaint" and I agree that we need to see a much wider range of material in the picture book boxes. I had sons who would have loved a "Star Wars" content but they didn't get turned off other material. However, this is not a simple matter to unravel. In particular it partly stems from the British attitude to picture books which firmly places them at the youngest - and I mean youngest - end of the spectrum. By four, I suggest children are being consciously steered away from books with the type of pictorial content that is the norm in a picture book. And this happens both in school and the home. Does this mean that illustrators do not think to choose such content. I am sure there are plenty of young illustrators who would love to create stories of derring do - are they then firmly directed to the "graphic novel"? (There is a body of work devoted to Star Wars et al in this area which would attract young children - though not the parents) 
I suspect content in picture books is often a publishing decision - is Jonathan suggesting publishers monitor the gender of their commissioning editors? Surely that would be the first place to start. The publishing decision is then tied into the marketing decisions - and here we are into a "chicken and egg" situation. Is publishing responding to demand? Is demand shaped by the market? There are quite a number of areas that are not adequately represented in picture books which one is given to understand is because they would not sell. 
When we come to the Greenaway, I think Jonathan has not clearly taken on board what the Greenaway is. He certainly realises that there are criteria. But the nominations come from the grass roots, public librarians and school librarians, looking at picture books of all types; looking at the illustration - not the "story" as such. It may be that the library profession has an imbalance, though I do not think this is particularly relevant. I think the problem arises when we do not have enough qualified librarians in our Children's Libraries and Schools. I would suggest if the material was there to nominate it would be. The judging committee can only select from those nominations and whether it is a thrilling adventure or a reflective look at death, if the illustrations have the quality demanded it will get shortlisted. Of course, we want our committee to be representative of all views and a mix is very welcome and the ideal - but can girls not respond to adventure as much as boys? Jonathan's solution is interesting and radical, but I feel both inappropriate , impractical - and, dare I say, somewhat insulting to both sides. However, his comments are salutary, reminding us that judging must be done against the criteria and that personal views and taste must take a backseat. I would like to point out that the last three winners have all been male, each demonstrating very different approaches to illustrating. The Greenaway is one prize - a very important one - but the illustrations have to be there for the judging committee to judge. There is clearly a gap in the market - the Greenaway cannot fill it just like that. Authors and illustrators get writing; publishers, publish - then we will see.

I think Joy has made the main point that needs to be made in regard to the make-up of the Carnegie/Greenaway panel: it’s a panel of practising children’s librarians and there is nothing to prevent men from serving on it, it’s just that, as in many professions dealing with children, particularly young children, children’s librarians are mostly female. And, if Jonathan believes that gender imbalance is playing a major role in retarding boy’s literacy, then it needs to be pointed out that it’s an imbalance right across the education sector in pre-schools and primary schools, an imbalance that’s related to gender roles throughout society rather than to one book award panel. 
Perhaps, to look at it slightly differently, the problem with boy’s literacy may actually be related to the very kind of sexual stereotyping that seems to form the basis of Jonathan’s argument: that boys prefer space, fighting and machines; and girls like, well, something else, which Jonathan leaves unspecified, but probably has to do with caring, sharing and, possibly, reading. 
A long time ago, when I was a boy, my father left me in no doubt, through many hints and wry comments, that my love of reading was rather peculiar. Surely I should be out kicking a ball with my mates or making something with Meccano (so long ago that it’s unrecognised by spell checker)? Would I not end up a friendless mother’s boy? And you know the implications there. 
Although I was happy to read anything, Little Women included, I was reading a lot of stuff about war and fighting that had hardly any girls in it at all. This was just the sort of book that Jonathan might assume I would be reading, and you can still find them today, although, granted, not for four year olds. But that didn’t make the slightest difference to my dad. It didn’t matter what I was reading, it was the fact that I was so keen on reading that didn’t seem natural to him. That, as I’ve said, was a long time ago, but I think that attitude is still out there and it’s tied up not only with the kind of expectations we have of boys and girls but also with class background and attitudes to education, all of which feed into publishing for children. That, I feel, is what is behind the lower literacy rates among boys. Not that we don’t provide enough of what they would like to read but that we imply in so many small but telling ways that reading is not something that boys do. I don’t think changing the make-up of the Carnegie/Greenaway judging panel would make much difference there. 
Nor do I think a gender balanced panel would necessarily choose different books. There’s no reason to think they would unless you are convinced that men and women have entirely different reading tastes or can’t put aside personal preferences in favour of more objective criteria. I’ve served on one or two judging panels (not the Carnegie) and on library book selection panels with a roomful of fellow professionals who were women and never felt I had to act as a spokesperson for male tastes. Finally, of course, the Carnegie and Greenaway awards don’t make that much difference to what gets published, especially since library book funds have shrunk, however happy the recipients and their publishers are to get them. 
Finally, just to remind Jonathan that he was twice the winner of an award that I was associated with: The Southampton Favourite Book to Share Award for a pre-school title. His winning picture/pop up books in 2003 and 2006 were Turtle in the Toilet and Zoom, both books which I’m pretty confident he would agree have boy appeal, and which were initially selected by female library staff and promoted and voted for mainly by female pre-school staff and mums, as well as the kids themselves. It goes to show that women can recognise a good book when they see it.
I've written a further email (which I'll include in a subsequent post) to the YLG Newsletter in which I attempt to address some of the points made by Ferelith and Clive in their emails above.

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