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.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

What Kids Are Reading Report 2015

The 2015 What Kids Are Reading Report
acknowledges a possible gender-bias in the
selection of children's books available in UK schools.

Following on from the comments of literacy consultant Sarah Threlkeld-Brown and editor Alison Sage quoted in my post earlier this month, I’m heartened to see that a growing number of people are prepared to acknowledge that there may be a pro-female gender-bias in the world of children’s literature that is influencing the literacy gender gap.

The 2015 What Kids Are Reading report, published this morning, analyses the reading habits of over half a million children in over 2,700 UK schools. Here’s a quote from the report’s website that’s in keeping with my own comments in the “School” and “Library” sections of my COOL not CUTE essay.
Professor Keith Topping, who wrote the What Kids Are Reading report, suggests that the reading preferences of teachers and librarians could be influencing the book choices children make. Worryingly, this trend could be disadvantaging boys at the expense of girls.
And from the report itself:

Page 16
It will not have escaped the reader’s attention that almost all the books in these lists are fiction – storybooks. Children like fiction, but they also like non-fiction. We know that boys in particular are interested in non-fiction. So why is it that so many fiction books are chosen? Is it something to do with the reading preferences of school teachers and librarians, who might tend to encourage pupils to read fiction but not non-fiction? This is likely to result in higher performance by girls, who are known to favour fiction. Is this a gendered preference, so that the predominantly female primary school teachers and the half of secondary school teachers who are female prefer fiction and are unconsciously promoting fiction at the expense of non-fiction and disadvantaging boys?
Page 26
Teachers should be aware of the very different student preferences for reading over time and the marked differences in preferences in secondary between boys and girls (although not necessarily encouraging them!).

The report includes statistics on the most read and most loved books (the two aren’t necessarily the same) and a “Most Popular Authors” chart can be found here. Following on from my comments about the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in an earlier post, the chart shows that, while male children's authors may be increasingly out of favour with the booksellers that select the Waterstones shortlists, they are currently very popular with children of both sexes, with 7 of the 10 most popular children’s authors being male.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

COOL not CUTE – revised and updated!

UPDATE: This post has been updated with the following new content:
October 2015: "Picture Book Consumers" section added

This site has now been online for two years, during which time I’ve had a lot of feedback both supportive and critical. While some of this feedback is reflected in my blog posts, I thought it should also be reflected in the COOL not CUTE essay at the top of this blog, so I’ve now updated and revised this.

Here’s an outline of the significant changes:

The subtitle

The essay’s original subtitle was “What boys really want from picture books.” All children are different and in the original version of the essay I acknowledged that some boys might find none of the boy-friendly ingredients I’d identified appealing and that “What many boys really want from picture books” might have been a better subtitle. The essay also acknowledged that, while these ingredients might typically appeal more to boys, there would also be some girls that found them equally appealing – so “What many boys and some girls really want from picture books” might have been even more appropriate.

The site/essay's subtitle has been changed to something a little less reductive.

While I had taken care to make these qualifications in the essay itself, I now recognise that the subtitle gave some readers a simplistic impression of my argument that may have deterred them from examining it any further. So I’ve now changed the subtitle to one that, while far less snappy, will hopefully be less off-putting to such readers.

Picture Book Consumers

In the original essay I’d estimated the gender balance of picture book consumers based on data for the US children's book market (including books for older children). I've now repalced this estimate with specific figures (84% female 16% male) from a 2013 Bowker report on the UK, US and Canadian children's book market.

Children’s Book Awards

In the original essay I’d suggested that the organisers of the Carnegie and Greenaway Book Awards might consider adopting a gender-balanced judging panel for future awards. I subsequently campaigned for such a change but was unable to convince the Youth Libraries Group that runs the awards that gender-balance judging was either practical or worthwhile. So I’ve revised the relevant sections of the essay to reflect this.

Children’s Book Reviewing

In the original essay I mentioned the lack of gender-balance among children’s book reviewers and supported this with statistics taken from reviews of my own picture books. I’ve now replaced this with the results of a gender analysis of picture book reviews published in UK national newspapers in 2013, which I carried out subsequently.

A Male Protagonist

The original essay included “A male protagonist” in the list of “boy-friendly ingredients commonly missing from picture books”. Having been made aware that male picture book protagonists outnumber females by a ratio of two to one, I accept that this particular ingredient can't reasonably be described as "commonly missing" from picture books and have now cut it from the list.

I’ve also made some minor revisions to the NATURE and NURTURE and FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS essays. These are chiefly to maintain consistency with the revised COOL not CUTE essay and there are no significant changes to their content.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Some like-minded views and my issue with the Waterstones shortlist

Having neglected this blog over the winter, I’m intending to do a few more posts in the coming months. Among other things, I’m planning to produce a revised version of the COOL not CUTE essay which contains my main argument. I’ve had a lot of feedback both supportive and critical in the two years since it first went online and I want to make some changes in response to this. I’ll be cutting “A Male Protagonist” from the list of “boy-friendly ingredients that are commonly missing from picture books”, having been persuaded that that particular ingredient can't reasonably be described as "commonly missing". And I’m also planning to update the sections relating to the lack of gender balance in children’s book reviewing and children’s book awards having now spent some time researching these areas in more detail.

In the meantime I thought I’d highlight a couple of articles written by others with like-minded views that have recently become available online.

Sarah Threlkeld-Brown is the lead education consultant for reading at Andrell Education and the co-creator of Big Reading and The Reading Criterion Scale. A former primary school teacher, Sarah describes herself as being passionate about “‘hooking’ reluctant readers into reading through fantastic texts.” As well as helping schools to develop reading strategies, she is a Reading Expert for Oxford University Press, whose levelled reading schemes are widely used in UK primary schools.

Sarah shares many of my views about the current disconnect between what boys want to read and what reading material is readily available to them and wrote an article on this theme for Teach Primary magazine which is now available online. The article references some of the arguments found on this blog but also touches upon Sarah's experience of trying to keep her own son engaged with books. I recommend reading the whole article, but here’s an excerpt relating to that.
“And herein lay the problem. The books being sent home were not the books my son wanted to read. They did not appeal to his inner speed-demon or his passion for all things mechanical and gadget-driven. They did not push his adrenaline buttons in the same way as reading books about trains, planes and automobiles, or watching programmes such as Top Gear or The Incredibles. He would not read his school books; he could not see the point. I was at my wits’ end.”
Fortunately the story has a happy ending, partly because Sarah recognised that the problem lay with the content rather than the medium and helped her son find other reading material that matched his tastes more accurately. However she acknowledges that not all parents will have the time, inclination or in-depth knowledge of children’s literature to do this.
“He [now] enjoys reading, whether it’s Dirt Bike, Moto X or the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. He reads for pleasure and for information; however, this has little to do with the early reading materials he was given by his school. I had the wherewithal to encourage and develop his reading outside school, but many parents of the boys we teach will not.”
Alison Sage has been working as a children’s book editor since 1971. She’s worked with a variety of publishers including Random House, Oxford University Press, Harper Collins and Hodder and has also written many children’s books of her own. She is the only editor I know who routinely takes stories into schools to test their appeal on children before accepting them for publication. Alison has edited nine of my books and when I first wrote my COOL not CUTE essay, she was one of the people working in children’s publishing who gave me feedback on it before I published it online. She generously agreed to act as editor for the three essays that can be found at the top of this blog and – as always – left my writing in a much better state than she found it in!

Porter Anderson has just included several comments from Alison in a wide-ranging article about the need for gender-balanced publishing for US website Thought Catalog. Again I strongly recommend reading the whole article as Anderson makes many strong points, but here are some excerpts from Alison's contributions. Like Sarah, Alison draws on her own experience as a parent as well as a professional and has this to say about trying to get her own son to read.
“I realized that my younger son would do anything, anything at all, rather than “read a good book” – and his friends were the same. They had no physical problems I could see (although sometimes their parents said they were dyslexic) but their reading ages were low and their comprehension of what they had read even lower. I went into schools and talked to teachers, read with children and talked to them, trying to find out what was going on — and found that my son’s attitude was repeated up and down the country. 
At that time, I had been asked to work on some reading books for a new series. The publisher wanted to know why their previous reading series was not popular, even though it was written by some of the best children’s authors — classics, in fact. The reason I discovered was that children, especially boys, love strong plots with lots happening. They aren’t so interested in the subtleties of human behavior in the abstract. They want to see it in action – quickly.”
And she goes on to say this about the conversations she and I had about the scarcity of picture books which appeal uncompromisingly to boy-typical tastes.
“We talked about what children liked to read about, especially when he had children of his own, and agreed that a few publishers’ editors were not happy with some of the ideas we felt boys would love. 
Maybe — and just maybe — this was related to the fact that as small girls, they had enjoyed girls’ books and been praised for preferring cleaner, quieter play-times.”

The top of a Waterstones Children's Book Prize winning traits infographic from 2014

If you read the rest of Anderson's article you’ll see that, given the problems with boys’ reading, both he and I were taken aback by the lack of gender balance among the authors and illustrators shortlisted for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. While I don’t doubt that all of the shortlisted authors and illustrators deserve recognition for their work, I do doubt that there are so few male authors and illustrators who are equally worthy of recognition. Only 3 of the 19 authors and illustrators on both the 2014 and Waterstones 2015 shortlists are male. This pronounced gender skew seems particularly inappropriate given the evidence of the Goodreads reader analysis that was published last November.

Based on data from 40,000 of Goodread’s most active readers (20,000 female, 20,000 male) the analysis shows that both male and female readers have a strong preference for authors of the same sex. 90% of the 50 most-read books by men were written by male authors, and an identical 90% of the 50 most-read books by women were written by female authors. Goodreads’ editor in chief Elizabeth Khuri Chandler has said that responses to the analysis suggest that “most people were unaware of the gender breakdown of the book they were reading” and that “for the most part, people are saying that they don’t set out to read a male author or a female author. It’s all about the book.” From which it seems reasonable to conclude that GENERALLY female authors are particularly adept at writing books that appeal to female readers and male authors are particularly adept at writing books that appeal to male readers.

Given this evidence, if we want to encourage children of both sexes to read, it seems reasonable to expect high profile children’s book awards like Waterstones’ to highlight the best books written by both sexes. Grown-up book awards like the Booker are reasonably gender-balanced in both their shortlists and judging panels. Shouldn’t we be trying to replicate this in the world of children’s literature?

The issues Anderson raises in his article are among those being discussed in FutureBook’s #FutureChat on Twitter this Friday at 4.00pm UK time*, so if you’re on Twitter and have an opinion on this, he’d love to hear from you.

* Friday 20 February, 4 pm London time, 11 am New York time.

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