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.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Another all-female Carnegie Greenaway judging panel – but I’ve decided to draw a line under my gender-balance campaign.

I noticed last week that the “Meet the Judges” page of the Carnegie Greenaway site had been updated to show this year’s judging panel. As was the case in 2013, there are no men among the 13 judges.

This wasn't a surprise as the organisers had told me this would be the case last November (the judges having already been selected). Nevertheless, having spent the last year trying to persuade the Youth Libraries Group to adopt a gender-balanced panel, I’m obviously disappointed with this outcome. I’d like to stress again that I don’t question the suitability of any of the individual judges – I am simply questioning the appropriateness of a single-sex judging panel for awards given to books for children of both sexes.

The gender balance of the Carnegie Greenaway and the Man Booker judging panels for the last decade.
Click the image to see a larger version.

I had said at the end of my last post that I intended to keep pressing the case, but having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’ve now decided not to.

I’m still convinced that, given the gender gap in children's literacy, the UK’s most prestigious children’s literature awards ought to have a gender-balanced judging panel. However, the only people that can bring about this change are the YLG members who select the judges. Over the last few months I’ve been able to put the case for gender-balanced judging to YLG members through their newsletter. Having been granted a fair hearing, I accept that it’s now down to the members themselves to decide if they want to make a change. So I’m going to use this post to recap a few key points before drawing a line under my campaign for the foreseeable future.

Here are three things I knew when I started the campaign (but have been told repeatedly) and three things I’ve learnt over the course of the last year.

Three things I knew when I started


At the end of my COOL not CUTE essay about the wider gender-bias in the world of picture books, I concluded that if one demographic group was to blame for this bias, “it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading.” I recognise that the lack of men on the Carnegie Greenaway panel reflects the lack of men among the YLG membership. However I think there is little chance that this imbalance will change unless men that are willing to join the panel are actively encouraged to do so. My suggestion that the regions select judges on an alternating male/female basis is not that different from the approach that the Labour Party now uses to encourage its local parties to select female parliamentary candidates.

2: Even if there is a gender balance problem in children’s books, the makeup of the Carnegie Greenaway panel would only represent a tiny part of it.

I set up this blog to highlight what I believe to be a female bias in the world of picture books. All-female Carnegie Greenaway panels are only a tiny part of this, but they’re emblematic of a wider gender-imbalance among all the gatekeeper groups that judge what's appealing and appropriate for young children to read. By highlighting the lack of gender-balance in two such prestigious awards I hoped to raise awareness of the wider issue. I’ve argued elsewhere for gender balance in other, more influential, gatekeeper groups, such as consumers, and will continue to do so.

3: The awards are judged in accordance with fixed criteria.

It’s been argued that the judging criteria of the Carnegie and Greenaway ensure that the awards are judged objectively. The Greenaway’s criteria relate to a picture book’s artistic and aesthetic qualities, its typography and how the text relates to the illustrations, while the Carnegie’s criteria relate to a novel’s plotting, characterisation and the effectiveness of its writing style. I accept that these criteria provide a focus for the judges’ deliberations, but each individual judge’s opinion of how well a book meets these criteria is still subjective. Indeed if the judges don’t have differing subjective opinions, then why are there thirteen of them? If one reason for having such a large panel is to reflect a wide range of views when making a judgement, then, at a time when children’s books appeal less to boys than girls, shouldn’t that range incorporate male views as much as female ones?

Three things I’ve learnt in the last year

1: The individual judges are selected by the YLG regions they represent and the awards organisers have no influence over their selection.

I initially wrote to the awards organisers to try to persuade them to take a gender-balanced approach to panel selection. However it has since been explained to me that the judges are selected by the YLG members in each of the regions they represent. Once selected, each judge serves two years and there is a rolling programme of changes so that each judging panel includes a mix of year 1 and year 2 judges.

2: There is a gender balance issue with picture book protagonists.

In her response to my YLG newsletter article, awards organiser Joy Court refers to Liza Miller’s MA dissertation “Society and Commercialism: Core Factors in Picture Book Sex Stereotyping” which reveals that male protagonists outnumber female protagonists in Greenaway-winning picture books by a ratio of 2:1. This imbalance could be interpreted as demonstrating a bias towards male protagonists among Greenaway judges, however Miller’s dissertation suggests that it’s a reflection of a bias in the output of the picture book industry as a whole. While the under-representation of female characters is clearly an issue that needs addressing, I don’t think a bias towards male protagonists can be taken to demonstrate a pro-male bias across picture book content as a whole.

3: There are other, equally important, inclusivity issues that should be considered in the judging of children’s book awards.

Liza Miller’s dissertation touches briefly on racial representation, stating that “not a single Asian or African character has ever featured in a Kate Greenaway-winning picture book.” Again, it should be stressed that this under-representation reflects the output of the picture book industry as a whole. Having said which, there has only been one non-white judge on the Carnegie Greenaway panel in the last eight years*. I have tried to make the case for wider inclusivity in the judging of children’s book awards in this blog post.

The Greenaway and Carnegie have always made an invaluable contribution to raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes. If only one YLG region decides to take gender balance and wider inclusivity into account when selecting their judges, it will help make these two great awards even greater.

*Judging by the photographs of each year's judges on the Carnegie Greenaway web site. I was only able to obtain complete sets of photographs from 2007 onwards.

Read all the posts on gender-balancing the judging of the Carnegie Greenaway

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 6

Following on from my last post, here's my response to the points raised by Ferelith Hordon and Clive Barnes in the December edition of the YLG Newsletter.
Thank you to Ferelith and Clive for taking the time to address my comments. 
My main argument is that the content of picture books is generally less appealing to boys than the content of children’s TV, films and video games and that this difference is exacerbating the literacy gender gap. Ferelith agrees that we need to see a much wider range of content in picture books, but argues that the problem lies principally with publishers and not with book awards such as the Carnegie Greenaway. At the end of my “COOL not CUTE” essay I provide a long list of suggestions as to how this content problem might be addressed. Gender-balancing the judging of children’s book awards is literally the last suggestion on that list, which starts with suggestions as to how publishers might address the problem before going on to suggest ways in which other gate-keeper groups including booksellers, teachers and parents, can help.
While individuals in each of these gatekeeper groups might recognise the difference in content I’ve outlined, they’ll often claim that the problem lies elsewhere. For instance, some picture book publishers will acknowledge that “Star Wars” style combat is very appealing to many four-year-olds, but will tell you that this sort of content is not suitable for picture books, because parents won’t buy it or that it will stop schools buying the book or that it will prevent the book from being bought by a US publisher (which can make or break a picture book deal). Conversely, parents have told me that this is exactly the sort of picture book that would appeal to their child, if only publishers were to make them available. The Literacy Trust’s 2012 report on boys' literacy acknowledges that "some boys are not getting access to materials which interest them" and notes that "some teachers and librarians asserted that it is a supply issue and linked it to the female bias of the publishing industry”. The reality is everyone involved with picture books is in some small way responsible for this difference in content and everyone needs to take the initiative to address it. 
Supporters of children’s literature are always arguing that it should be regarded as a serious art form in the same way that adult literature is. However it’s difficult to think of another prestigious mainstream art award that pays so little regard to gender-balance in it's judging. The 2013 Carnegie Greenaway panel was judged by an all-female panel of 13 judges. Imagine the fuss if next year’s Turner prize for art or Booker Prize for adult literature were judged by an all-male panel of industry professionals instead of the gender-balanced panels that have become the accepted norm for these awards. I think that most people would accept that it was not “inappropriate, impractical” or “insulting” to suggest that a mixed sex panel was the best way to judge art forms that are intended to appeal to both sexes.
Clive is right to say that societal attitudes towards boys reading have a huge influence on the literacy gender gap. However I’d take issue with his claim that availability of appealing content has no influence; I think there’s an interplay between the two. I agree that men and women don’t have “entirely different” reading tastes; the same diverse range of tastes is evident in both sexes. However there are clear differences between the two, with certain content types being more popular with more individuals of one sex than the other. Whether these differences are caused by a combination of nature and nurture or by nurture alone is a contentious issue, but – whatever their causes – the differences are still evident. 
There are many books, such as “Zoom!”, published each year that are particularly appealing to boys. However there’s a big difference between the relatively safe and cosy sort of content that’s found in books like “Zoom!” and the dangerous and exciting content found in children's TV shows such as “Ben 10” which many children of picture book age are watching. Some children might prefer Zoom’s content to Ben 10’s and vice versa, but picture books need to accurately reflect both sets of tastes if they are to compete with the appeal of television and other media.
Newsletter editor Helen Thompson has decided to call time on the debate as far as the newsletter is concerned and I understand that the email above is the last response from me that the newsletter will publish on the issue. I'd like to thank Helen again for giving me the opportunity to put the case to the YLG membership.

While the both the emails the newsletter received have dismissed the case for a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway panel, the response I've had elsewhere has been more encouraging and I intend to keep pressing the case. So if you'd like to continue the debate, please get in touch or post a comment on this blog.

Read all posts on gender-balancing the judging of the Carnegie Greenaway

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