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.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Protagonist Problem

I mentioned in an earlier post that, with the benefit of hindsight, the one missing boy-friendly ingredient I should not have included in my COOL not CUTE essay is “A Male Protagonist”.* I still stand by the points I made under that heading – many children find it easier to relate to protagonists that are the same sex as them, and publishers are generally far keener to publish picture books about female pirates than male fairies. However, given what I’ve since learnt about the pro-male imbalance in picture book protagonists, I now recognise that it’s inappropriate to include “A Male Protagonist” in a list of boy-friendly ingredients that are commonly missing from picture books.

I also recognise that — like the pro-female imbalance among children’s book award judges and children’s book reviewers — this pro-male imbalance needs addressing.

One of the articles that brought the issue to my attention was Two to One: Females outnumbered by males in British (and North American) children's picture books by children’s author and illustrator Eileen Browne. Browne argues that since half the UK’s population is female, half of the characters in UK picture books should be female too. In reality, male picture book characters outnumber females by a ratio of two to one. Browne explains that:
“Picture books help children reinforce their sense of place in the world around them. If the picture book world is dominated by males, then girls and boys can get a false view that males are more important and have more worth than females. If children hear the word 'he' twice as often as 'she' in the stories they experience, they are hearing that males have priority over females.”
Browne backs up the two to one statistic with evidence from various sources including an analysis of the main characters of Kate Greenaway Medal winning picture books between 1956 and 2010 carried out by Liza Miller, who is now my picture book editor at Walker Books. I must admit that when I first heard about Liza’s analysis I doubted that it was representative of contemporary picture books. Society has changed a lot in the last sixty years and there is far more gender equality in the Britain of 2014 than there was in the Britain of 1956. By including picture books from earlier generations in her count, I thought Liza might be presenting a distorted picture. One might expect, as I did, that the Greenaway-winning picture books from the late fifties and early sixties would be far less gender-balanced than those of the last decade. One might expect this, but in fact the opposite is true.

Click the image to see an enlarged version. Click here for a pdf of the data.

When I analysed the gender balance of the Greenaway award winning books from these two decades I discovered that exactly 50% of the main characters featured in the 1956-1965 books were female, compared with a mere 15% for the winners from 2004-2014.

Although the Greenaway Medal is awarded to an illustrator, character gender is usually determined by the book’s author (who may or may not be the illustrator as well). So I also analysed the gender balance of the authors from these periods. Between the two decades the proportion of female authors grew from 33% in 1956-1965 to 50% in 2004-2014. This last result also surprised me as I’d assumed that female authors might be more likely to write about female characters than male authors.  However when I separated the books according to author gender, I discovered that the even gender balance of main characters in 1956-1965 was equally reflected in the output of both the male and female authors from that period. And in the last decade there have been more men writing Greenaway-winning books with female main characters than there have been women.

It’s not wise to read too much into results from such a small sample size and it should be borne in mind that Greenaway-winning picture books may not be representative of the output of the whole picture book industry. An analysis using larger, more representative samples, such as the 50 bestselling picture books from 1956 compared with 2013, would present a more accurate picture if someone has the time to do it. However, if we assume that this sample is roughly representative, then it raises an interesting question. Why are picture book authors of both sexes less likely to create female main characters today than they were fifty years ago?

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it has something to do with the belief that, while most girls are willing to read books with protagonists of either sex, most boys want to read books with male protagonists. So, in an attempt to appeal to both sexes, authors tend to opt for a male protagonist.

Although I think it’s true that boys tend to be more picky about protagonist gender than girls, I suspect this particular sex difference has more to do with nurture than nature. As I've commented before, modern society is “a lot more comfortable with girls being masculinised than boys being feminised”. In the last fifty years we've put far more effort into telling girls it’s OK for them to model themselves on male characters (real or fictional) than we have into telling boys it’s OK to model themselves on females.

While I share Eileen Browne’s view that the protagonist problem needs addressing, I suspect we may have differing views on how best to address it.

In COOL not CUTE I mentioned that Browne’s No Problem was one of my son’s favourite picture books when he was three years old. My son was fascinated by machines at this age and the story is about a group of animals who assemble a construction kit into a variety of vehicles. Although vehicle books typically appeal to boys, all five of the characters in the story are female. Another of Browne’s machine-themed picture books, Tick-Tock, also has an all-female cast. There are countless picture books about machines and vehicles that feature all-male casts and I assume that Browne deliberately gave these books all-female casts in an attempt to redress the balance and to encourage girls to take an interest in technology. However if, as Browne argues, picture books with all-male casts present children with a “false view” of the world, then surely picture books with all-female casts present an equally “false view”.

I must have read No Problem to my son more than a hundred times. Although the text makes it clear that none of the characters are male, my son persisted in referring to all of them as "he”, despite my equally persistent corrections. While some might claim that this showed that my three-year-old was already prone to gender-stereotyping, I think he did this because it was easier for him to relate to characters if he assumed they were the same sex as him. When writer Michelle Nijhuis’s five-year-old daughter responded similarly to The Hobbit, insisting that Bilbo was a girl, Nijhuis re-gendered the character, changing Bilbo from a “he” to a “she” for the rest of the book. While I didn’t re-gender any of the characters in No Problem or Tick Tock for my son, his response to these books made me think that their tit for tat approach, countering exclusion with further exclusion (albeit of the opposite sex), was less than ideal. As my mother often told me as a child, "two wrongs don't make a right".

The gender ratio of the main characters in my own picture books is only slightly better than two to one. 36% of the main characters in my 30 published picture books are female. This is clearly an area in which I could do better. However, I’ve always made a conscious effort to make the worlds of my stories gender-balanced and 46% of the wider casts** of my picture books are female. It’s not a rigid rule and there are exceptions; my picture book Pigs Might Fly was written as a sequel to The Three Little Pigs and features the same all-male cast of characters.

If we want picture books to reflect the gender balance of the real world, then we need more stories that feature BOTH sexes. That way both boys and girls will be able to find characters they can readily relate to, whether the story is about machines or merpeople, building sites or ballet-dancing.

* This ingredient was cut from the list for the revised essay published in February 2015
** including main characters


  1. Jonathan I love this informative and thorough research.
    I have a two year old with a huge appetite for books and really struggle with the imbalances I witness in Children's literature.
    My daughter learns so much about the way the world works from books. Highlighting these disparities and requesting the industry take use its enormous power for improved equality is truly important work!