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.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Four clarifications in light of last week’s media hoo-ha

I’m still catching up on some of the media coverage that came as a result of this blog post about the need for more gender balance in children’s book reviewing and the associated article in The Times

While some commentators took the time to look beyond The Times article's provocative headline to discover my actual views, others wrote articles or blog posts attacking claims that they imagined I was making.

STRAW MEN: Some commentators wrote articles and blog posts attacking imaginary arguments.

So here are four clarifications concerning my actual views:

1: I'm NOT claiming that “women are to blame” for the literacy gender gap!

Here's the penultimate paragraph from the conclusion of my COOL not CUTE essay which contains my main argument and has been on this site since it went online.
"Over the 17 years I’ve been working in the industry, I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people in schools, libraries and publishing houses who are doing their utmost to engage children of both sexes in reading picture books; many of them do so on a voluntary basis. The overwhelming majority of these “wonderful people” have been women. As I said earlier, outside of writing and illustrating, few men seem to want to be involved with picture books. So let me make this clear — if one demographic group is chiefly to blame for the state of affairs I’ve outlined, it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading."
I’ve stressed this point repeatedly since I began addressing this issue and it’s the very first point I made in this recent summary of my campaign to gender balance the judging of the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals.

Some of the pieces I’ve read give the impression that I think that men ought to be running the picture book industry instead of women. On page 15 of COOL not CUTE I wrote this:
"I’d like to stress that I don’t believe that men are any more suited than women to these gatekeeper roles. If anything I think men are generally less suited, for reasons I’ve outlined in my separate article, NATURE and NURTURE. Individuals of both sexes inevitably bring some degree of subjectivity to their selection of reading material; it’s simply that male gatekeepers would generally bring a more boy-centred subjectivity."
And on page 13 of my NATURE and NURTURE essay I wrote the following:
"If the tables were turned and the UK picture book industry was dominated by men instead of women, I suspect that girls would be getting a far rawer deal than boys currently are."

2: My argument is about gender bias in PICTURE BOOK content - I'm NOT claiming that it also applies to children’s fiction or YA fiction

I believe that the failure of picture books to match the content appeal of children’s films, TV and video games is helping to drive many children of both sexes away from books and towards these other media at a very early age, but the boy-typical appeal of this missing content means that the effect is particularly pronounced in boys.

I don’t have a great deal of experience working with fiction for older children, but what experience I have had suggests that attitudes to content are relatively liberal in comparison to picture books. If anything, I think that fiction for older children and young adults can often contain edgier content than can be found in films and TV shows targeted at children of the same age. This edgier content appeals to many (not all) children and helps to keep them engaged with books. However for many children the reading habit is being broken long before they get to fiction, which Is why we need to start matching the content appeal of children’s films, TV from picture book age.

3: I'm NOT claiming that “girls and boys don’t have overlapping interests”

Here’s what I wrote at the beginning of Part 2 of my COOL not CUTE essay.
"This second part of this article highlights several ingredients that typically appeal to boys, which in my experience are commonly diluted or excluded from picture books. 
The word “typically” is important. As I mentioned at the end of Part 1 of this article, I’m making a generalised argument. I recognise there will be girls who find all the ingredients I’ve listed very appealing and there will be boys who find none of them appealing."

4: I'm NOT citing a study that shows 95% of children's books are bought by women

This statement was made at the top of a Daily Mail article, with which I had no direct involvement, and was picked up and repeated elsewhere. The Mail article appears to have been based on the early editions version of the Times article. I was told about The Times article as it went to press and, having read the text (without the provocative headline), requested a number of changes, most of which were incorporated into the later London editions and the online version.

Here’s what I wrote on page 9 of COOL not CUTE*
"A recent US survey revealed that 70% of all children’s books are bought by female customers. I haven’t been able to obtain a figure for the UK market, but I suspect it is similar. I also suspect that if you looked at picture book sales separately, the percentage would be significantly higher. When I suggested a figure of 90 to 95% to one publisher, they confirmed that this was in line with their in-house market research, which also showed that most of these customers were mothers or grandmothers."
One of the changes I requested for The Times article was that the 90 to 95%* figure be clearly presented as MY estimate.

This estimate applies to PICTURE BOOKS ONLY and NOT, as the Mail article suggests, ALL children’s books.

In addition to an article dismissing my call for more gender balance in children’s publishing, last week’s
Bookseller Bulletin contained another article calling for more gender balance in adult publishing

The blog post that started all the fuss posed the question “Should gender balancing the books be for adults only?” None of the commentators attacking my views (or their imagined versions of my views) have attempted to answer this question. Many have argued that gender is entirely irrelevant to reading preferences. I suspect that few of these commentators would be happy to see the same "gender is irrelevant" argument used to justify the dominance of men in adult book reviewing. If gender is truly irrelevant to reading tastes, then surely it does not matter if men dominate the world of adult literature?

I think it does matter – and gender balance should matter for children’s literature too.

* UPDATE October 2015:  I've now replaced this 90-95% estimate in the essay with a specific figure, 84% female, from a 2013 Bowker report for the UK, US and Canadian children's book market.


  1. Thanks for speaking up Jonathan. I concur with most of your thoughts. Before I became a male children's book writer I was a young male reader who was very aware of who literature's gatekeepers were. Choosing to read a comics or anything featuring speech bubbles was a cardinal sin during school library time in the 70's. I think the grouchy old librarian's comments were something like 'boys are dumb because they read comics and girls are smarter because they read proper books'. Non-fiction reading didn't qualify as worthy either. That was just 'playing' rather than exercising one's literary muscles.

    Fast forward to 2014 we now have a generation of middle aged women who successfully proved that girls can do anything during the late 80's' and are now the gatekeepers for what the next generation of boys will digest. I constantly find that my smelly boy-friendly projects are looked down upon and have way too much of their content changed after editor's make comments like 'will boys really find that funny?'

    So, here's to more male authors writing more male characters for more boy readers to enjoy and relate to. And hopefully, one day, we can prove that boys can do anything too.

  2. The Bookseller article in your screen-shot is about the fact that the top roles in publishing are rarely occupied by women. This is not a question of whether an editor or publisher's gender is relevant to what he/she publishes. It is a question of whether a particular rung of the ladder is closed to one gender. I do hope you can see that there is a significant difference.

    1. There is a significant difference, but the merits of gender balance ought to be recognised at all levels within the publishing industry, whichever sex is underrepresented.

      I included the screenshot to highlight the polarised nature of The Bookseller’s coverage. While the case for gender balance was outlined impartially in the first article, it was largely ignored in the second which focussed on the arguments against. Although the journalist who wrote the second article appears to have approached several publishers, authors and reviewers to present arguments against gender balance, she did not approach me to get my views first hand.

      The essence of my argument is that a lack of gender balance in gatekeeper roles in the world of picture books is exacerbating the literacy gender gap. The blog post that prompted the media coverage highlighted the under-representation of men in children’s book reviewing and compared this with the under-representation of women in adult book reviewing.

      I hope you can see that there is no “significant difference” in the case for gender balance in both these instances.


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