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.

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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