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, 11 July 2014

Another commentator who seems to think they know my views better than I do

I wrote a post back in April in response to some of the articles and blog posts I’d seen rejecting my call for more gender-balance in the world of picture book publishing and in picture book reviewing in particular. I commented then that some of my critics devoted their time to attacking “straw men” misrepresentations of my arguments rather than attempting to address my actual views. I also noted that none of these critics attempted to answer the question posed by the post that prompted the media interest - why should gender-balance be important to adult book reviewing, but irrelevant to children’s book reviewing?

Lefa Singleton Norton wrote a comment piece along similar lines for the news section of Australian broadcaster SBS’s web site today. I don’t respond to every such piece, but this time I took the bait and wrote a response in the comment section which I’ve also posted below. The first four paragraphs will be familiar to those who’ve read my recent posts, but I’ve made some new points in the subsequent paragraphs, which I thought were worth sharing on this blog.

There are so many wrongful assumptions and misrepresentations of my argument in this piece that I hardly know where to start. I’m not at all “put out” by the failure of men “to dominate the modern publishing industry.” I’m arguing for gender-balance and against gender domination by either sex.

On page 15 of my COOL not CUTE essay 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."
I think we need more men in gatekeeper roles in UK picture book publishing, for exactly the same reason that I think we need more women in the UK Parliament and in the UK judiciary - because these groups ought to represent and serve both sexes equally!

I’ve always acknowledged that men are to blame for this problem. Here’s the penultimate paragraph from the conclusion of my COOL not CUTE essay:
"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."
So, yes, men are to blame for the problem, but does most men’s lack of engagement with the problem justify turning a blind eye to it? As Mary Curnock Cook, the head of UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service commented recently, if we want a gender-balanced society, we need to encourage men to get involved in areas traditionally dominated by women just as much as we need to encourage women to get involved in areas traditionally dominated by men.

VIDA's gender analysis of US
Children's Book Awards.
Female authors are shown in BLUE,
male authors in RED.
Singleton Norton’s article mentions my efforts to get the judging of the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals, the UK’s “oldest and most prestigious children's book awards”, judged by a gender-balanced panel. Although the awards are given to books for children of both sexes, for the last two years all 13 judges on the panel have been female. I suspect that Singleton Norton would be less dismissive of my argument if I was calling for more gender-balance in an all-male judging panel. She cites VIDA’s “comprehensive list of awards” as demonstrating that “men dominate the charts and the top prizes”. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page on the VIDA site you can see a set of pie charts showing the gender balance of US children’s book awards. Women are shown in BLUE and men in RED. I can’t help wondering if Singleton Norton has got these two colours confused as the dominant colour in these charts seems to be blue (female).

Yes, there is a gender-balance problem with picture book protagonists, with male protagonists outnumbering females. I confess that I was not aware of the scale of the problem when I wrote the COOL not CUTE essay and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably the one “missing ingredient” listed in the essay that I would omit if I were writing it today. One of the people who brought the protagonists issue to my attention is Liza Miller who wrote a dissertation on the subject and has since become my editor at Walker Books. The under-representation of female characters is clearly an issue that needs addressing, however 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. While I’m sure we might not agree on every detail, Liza and I don’t see our two arguments as being in conflict; we both believe the world of picture books would benefit from being more gender-balanced, both in protagonists AND in gatekeeper roles. Singleton Norton is not the only commentator to rubbish my call for gender-balance and I’m indebted to Liza for voicing her support for my argument in this post on her blog.

Singleton Norton concludes her piece with the claim that my “belief that profits and sales shouldn’t come before gender equality only applies to the one very narrow count where women are statistically overrepresented.” Singleton Norton knows nothing of my wider opinions, so on what evidence is this claim based? Her argument seems to be more rooted in ideology and assumption than evidence.
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