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.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

A plea for inclusivity: shouldn't the Greenaway & Carnegie reflect male opinions too?

I’d intended to take a break from banging on about gender bias in picture books to concentrate on writing stories for a while, but I felt compelled to return to the issue after last week’s 2013 Greenaway/Carnegie announcement.

Both this year’s shortlists are as impressive as ever. Although I’m only familiar with a few of the books listed, I’ve no doubt that all of them are excellent and worthy of recognition. What is less impressive is the lack of gender-balance on this year’s judging panel; all thirteen judges on the 2013 panel are female.

In Part 1 of COOL not CUTE I wrote this about the 2012 Greenaway/Carnegie panel.
Neither award is gender-specific; they are supposed to recognise excellence in books for children of both sexes. There are thirteen librarians on the 2012 panel; only one of them is male. If this male to female balance reflects that of previous panels, it can be assumed that no one has ever won either the Carnegie or the Greenaway Medal by appealing to the little boys that the panellists once were.*
And in Part 2, I made the following suggestion.
One simple thing that CILIP could do to demonstrate its commitment to encouraging both boys and girls to read is to ensure that both sexes are equally represented on the judging panel for the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie Medals. As the most prestigious book awards in the UK, this would set a fine example to other awards. I realise that this would mean over-representing the number of men in the profession, but what is more important — reflecting the preferences of the profession or of the readership it is meant to serve?*
I recognise that all the judges on this year's panel are experienced children’s librarians that understand the sort of content that appeals to boys, but surely it would have been better to include some male judges who could offer a genuinely male perspective?

As the most prestigious UK children’s book awards, the Greenaway and the Carnegie Awards are the junior equivalent of the Booker Prize. The panel for the Booker has always included judges of both sexes and since 1997 the panel has been made up of either 3 men and 2 women or 3 women and 2 men. Imagine if the Booker’s organisers selected a men-only panel, offering the assurance that all five men had a good awareness of what appealed to women. I suspect that few people in the world of grown-up literature would accept this as an adequate substitute for a gender-balanced judging panel.

If we want to persuade boys that books are for them as much as girls, shouldn’t prestigious book awards such as the Greenaway and the Carnegie give male opinions as much recognition as female ones?

I think they should, so I sent the organisers the following email.

Dear Greenaway and Carnegie Awards Organisers

As the UK’s most important children’s book awards, I recognise the invaluable contribution that the Greenaway and Carnegie make to raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy. However, I’m writing to express my dismay at your selection of a women-only judging panel for this year’s awards. 
I’m particularly concerned about the judging of the Greenaway award. I believe that one of the reasons so many boys are turned off reading at an early age is that the first books they encounter, which are usually picture books, tend to reflect female preferences far more than male ones. The overwhelming majority of picture books are both published and bought by women. And it’s usually women teachers and librarians that select picture books for schools and libraries. I believe this has resulted in a female bias in picture book content that’s exacerbating the gap between boys' and girls' reading abilities. I’ve written more about this issue on a blog at coolnotcute.com. 
I don’t doubt the suitability of any of your individual panelists and recognise that as experienced children’s librarians they will understand the sort of content that appeals to boys, but surely it would have been better to have some male judges who could offer a genuinely male perspective? A judge of either sex will inevitably bring a degree of subjectivity to their judgement. They will tend to favour books that reflect their own tastes, that appeal to the child they once were. In a women-only panel, those children will all be girls 
I accept that it’s too late to do anything about this year’s awards, but I urge you to follow the example set by other literary awards, such as the Booker, by selecting a gender-balanced panel from next year onwards. If you can’t find enough male librarians to balance a panel of thirteen you could include men from related professions, such as teaching. Or you could reduce the size of the panel until you can balance it; a panel of five, like that of the Booker, would only require two men to balance. 
I recognise that the organisation of the awards requires a tremendous amount of effort on behalf of yourselves and other individuals and don’t wish to detract from this or undermine the credibility of the awards in any way. I’m sure that whichever books win this year will be worthy of the recognition that the awards will bring. 
However, I think this effort would be even more commendable and the winners even more worthy of recognition if both sexes were equally involved in choosing them. 
Yours sincerely 
Jonathan Emmett

If anything comes of it, I'll post an update on this blog.

Update Feb 2015
* These two paragraphs can no longer be found as shown in the essay, as the essay has been revised and now includes a reference to this campaign.

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