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 here.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Is a 'one way' attitude to gender balance hampering efforts to get boys reading?

Gender equality should not be a one way street

I’m aware that some people regard some of the arguments I’ve made on this blog as being anti-feminist. It’s a view I first addressed on this blog back in 2013 in relation to the belief that acknowledging innate sex differences in behaviour was anti-feminist.

The actor Emma Watson recently commented that, "If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist." Whether you accept this or not comes down to how you define feminism. My dictionary defines it as “the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” I support the equality of the sexes and recognise that in most contexts this means promoting women’s rights. Nevertheless, when I’m asked if I’m a feminist, I feel obliged to qualify my answer by saying that I’m an egalitarian feminist, because I think the principal of equality should override the principal of promoting women’s rights. Over last couple of years I’ve come up against several self-professed “feminists” who seem to interpret feminism as simply meaning promoting women’s rights regardless of the context. This group could be characterised as partisan feminists. When the actor and human rights campaigner Susan Sarandon objected to being described as a feminist on the basis that it was an “old-fashioned”, “alienating” word, I suspect that she had this narrower, partisan interpretation of feminism in mind.

While a pro-female approach to gender equality is clearly appropriate for most contexts, I think children’s literature is one context where we need to recognise that we have to redress the balance in the opposite direction if we want children’s books to appeal equally to both sexes. Gender equality should not be a one way street!

Publishing journalist and Associate Editor of The Bookseller Porter Anderson agrees. Addressing the lack of gender balance in the recent shortlists for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in a Thought Catalog article earlier this year, he wrote:
What if the gender imbalance in the Waterstones shortlist released today gave us 15 books by men and only three by women? 
Would we hear any concerns voiced then? Well, of course we would. And rightly so. 
"What if we have confused the need for “gender balance” in our books culture with support for women over men?"
Porter Anderson
Several points are important in the dialog that’s building in urgency among thoughtful, earnest members of the readership and of the publishing community about the trend highlighted by the Waterstones shortlist. 
In a nutshell, it’s this: What if we have confused the need for “gender balance” in our books culture with support for women over men?
“Balance,” after all, means balance. And while we might never achieve perfect equilibrium in almost any aspect of life or work, there seems to be a line of thinking in parts of the publishing industry today that interprets “balance” to mean support and applause for women and girls.
Anderson goes on to say this about the current children’s literature buzzword “diversity”:
Even the term “diversity” itself, when it comes to gender issues, tends to be confused with an automatic reference to female advancement. These terms are so readily weighted, often without our thinking about it. However much I and many others despise the stupid oppression of women by men for such an unspeakably large part of history, can moving forward by creating the opposing imbalance possibly be the answer? Of course not. 
Effects such as those seen in the Waterstones shortlist need not be “somebody’s fault.” Blame is not an issue here. I don’t think that anyone gets up in the morning in books publishing today and says to him or herself, “Here goes another great day of suppressing books by and for guys and promoting books by and for women.” 
But however unintended such constructs may be, their outcomes may be exacerbating a serious and deepening challenge: our men and boys aren’t reading as much as our women and girls.
As I've highlighted elsewhere, this gender imbalance extends well beyond children’s publishers and booksellers into other important gatekeeper groups such as teachers and children’s librarians. Mary Curnock Cook, chief of UCAS the UK Universities admissions service, has suggested that the lack of male teachers may be a result of a one way attitude to gender balance in the UK education system. Her views were quoted in an article in Times Higher Education last year:
Action over gender imbalances at university was “about women who are disadvantaged compared with men”, she said. “Why wouldn’t you set out to make it more socially acceptable for young men to go into nursing and teaching?” she asked. 
"I don’t see anything
happening in education policy
to tackle this issue."

Mary Curnock Cook
“Maybe some of the issues we’ve got with male education would be improved by having more male primary and secondary teachers,” Ms Curnock Cook said. She added that boys being taught English literature in classes with a majority of girls and by female teachers “doesn’t always make for young men who love English literature”. “I don’t see anything happening in education policy to tackle this issue,” she said 
She made the broader point that there was a now a “huge sociological and widening participation issue” because women were so much more likely to apply to higher education than men.
When I set up this blog, I’d anticipated that some people would object to some of the solutions I’d suggested for addressing the lack of gender balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers. I hadn’t anticipated that quite so many people would reject the premise that this lack of gender balance was an issue that was worth addressing. I think this is a partisan response and I suspect that those same people would react very differently if women rather than men were being underrepresented.

Unless we’re prepared to recognise that gender balance ought to be as important to children’s literature as it is to areas such as science and engineering, we have little hope of closing the literacy gender gap. We have to start being proactive about engaging men in children’s literature in the same way that we are already proactive about engaging women in science and engineering. Sitting back and claiming that 'we have to accept that they’re just not as interested as the other sex are' is no excuse. We have to go out of our way to get them interested! 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

James Daunt's response to my open letter on gender balancing the Waterstones Children's Book Prize

Here is James Daunt's response to the open letter I sent earlier this week regarding gender balancing the Waterstones Children's Book Prize.

I think the first paragraph may have been a result of a misunderstanding. I was not suggesting that there should be an equal number of male and female authors and illustrators on future shortlists. I was suggesting that future shortlisting/judging should be done by a reasonably gender-balanced group of booksellers. I clarified this to Mr Daunt in a subsequent email.

Dear Mr Emmett 
I agree with the general argument you make but not with the conclusion. The prize should go to the best books irrespective of the gender of the author: in short, I do not believe there should be gender-balanced shortlisting. The prize is aimed at celebrating new and relatively unknown authors which reinforces a central commitment to intrinsic quality. 
The question for us then is whether the judging is fair or is, as you intimate, skewed in favour of female authors. Certainly I have believed it to be fair. We have a longlist from which the shortlist is decided and, having been personally involved in the reading and discussion of these, detected no bias in the judging. 
You are right to suspect that there is a strong female bias to the Waterstones children’s bookselling cohort, as there is also in senior and editorial positions within children’s publishing. At the most senior level within Waterstones we are alive to the importance of encouraging boys to read and generally I think this is appreciated at the shop level. The Book Prize is an important promotion but sits within a schedule of equally visible promotions within our shops. Many are within the control of the individual shops, but there are also centrally dictated offers such as a Book of the Month. Overall, we try to promote a fair proportion of books at boys 
Your letter is interesting and provoking, and I will bear it strongly in mind not only when we come to the prize again next year, but also in how we run promotions in the meantime. It is, as you argue, important. 
With kind regards 

I am grateful to Mr Daunt for taking the time to address my argument. However, he has since made it clear that he is currently not willing to commit to any change in how the prize is run.

I still maintain that gender-balanced judgement is every bit as appropriate to children's literature as it is to adult literature, regardless of which sex is predominant, and will continue to campaign for it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Gender balancing the Waterstones Children's Book Prize: An open letter to James Daunt

Should the scarcity of men on Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlists be a cause for concern?

Following on from my comments last month about the conspicuous lack of gender balance in recent Waterstones Children Book Prize shortlists, I thought it was worth trying to encourage Waterstones to give some consideration to gender balance in the shortlisting and judging of future prizes. So I’ve written the following open letter to Waterstones CEO, James Daunt.

Clarification: In case it's not clear in the letter, I'm NOT suggesting that there should be an equal number of male and female authors and illustrators on future shortlists. I am suggesting that future shortlisting/judging should be done by a reasonably gender-balanced group of booksellers.

Dear Mr Daunt

As a children’s author, I’d like to applaud Waterstones for helping to raise the profile of children’s literature through the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. When the shortlist for the 2015 prize was announced last month you said that, “children are our most valued customers here at Waterstones as we strive to nurture the next generation of readers.” I’m sure that the prize is helping to achieve this goal. However I’d like to suggest one way in which it might do this more effectively in years to come.

You’re no doubt aware of the current gender gap in children’s reading abilities. The 2012 OECD Council report on gender equality in education, states that in reading skills “boys lag behind girls at the end of compulsory education to the equivalent of a year’s schooling, on average, and are far less likely to spend time reading for pleasure.” It’s not a problem in every school, but 76% of the UK schools surveyed for The National Literacy Trust’s 2012 Boys’ Reading Commission Report, reported that “boys in their school did not do as well in reading as girls”.

Generally speaking, children’s literature currently appeals more to girls than boys. A similar sex difference in preferences for other children’s media, such as film or TV, might not be worth addressing, but children’s literature goes hand in hand with children’s literacy, an essential life skill. The gender gap in children’s literacy is linked to the gender gap in academic achievement as a whole. UCAS chief Mary Curnock Cook has warned of a “disquieting” gap between men and women going to university, which is continuing to widen. This year, the number of girls applying to universities in England is more than a third higher than the number of boys.

Given this problem, I’d like to suggest that you address what appears to be a pro-female gender-skew in the shortlisting and judging of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

Click image to see a larger version

Since the prize was set up in 2005, shortlisted female authors and illustrators have outnumbered males every year except 2007. This tendency has become particularly pronounced in recent years with only 3 men among the 19 authors and illustrators on both the 2014 and 2015 shortlists. While I don’t doubt that every one of these authors and illustrators created books that thoroughly deserved shortlisting, I do doubt that such a gender-skewed shortlist is the best way of nurturing a love of reading in both sexes.

Obviously the gender of a book’s author or illustrator does not directly equate to the gender of a reader that might find that book appealing. There are plenty of children’s authors and illustrators whose work appeals equally to both sexes: Dahl, Donaldson, Rowling and Pullman to name but a few. However the gender analysis published by Goodreads last November based on the data from 40,000 of Goodreads’ most active readers (20,000 readers of each sex) shows that both male and female readers have a strong preference for books written by authors of the same sex. 90% of the 50 most-read books by male readers were written by male authors, and an identical 90% of the 50 most-read books by female readers 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 readers generally “don’t set out to read a male author or a female author. It’s all about the book.” If this is the case, then the analysis suggests, perhaps not surprisingly, that most authors are particularly good at writing literature that appeals to readers of the same sex.

I’m told that Waterstones has not responded to requests for a gender breakdown of the booksellers that compiled the 2015 shortlist. I don’t imagine that any of these booksellers were deliberately discriminating in favour of female authors and illustrators. Like the Khuri Chandler’s readers, I’m sure that their choices were “all about the book”, but if the Goodreads analysis is anything to go by, I’d guess that these booksellers were predominantly female.

The 2015 What Kids Are Reading report, published last month, analyses the reading habits of over half a million children in over 2,700 UK schools. Professor Keith Topping, the report’s author, suggests that the reading preferences of teachers and librarians could be influencing the book choices children are given in school. The report’s website notes that “worryingly, this trend could be disadvantaging boys at the expense of girls.” I think it’s reasonable to suggest that a lack of gender balance among the booksellers selecting the prize’s shortlists might result in a similar lack of gender balance in the shortlists’ appeal.

A strong predilection for same-sex reading could be seen as a problem that needs addressing. The current Waterstones Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman commented recently that “reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else's shoes for a while,” and argued that certain books should not be written for certain people, “they should be read by everybody." This is a compelling argument for encouraging boys to read more books by female authors. However, given that female readers show an identical predilection for same-sex reading, shouldn’t we be encouraging girls to read more books by male authors as well? And, if that’s the case, shouldn’t the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize be highlighting the best of those male-authored books?

One justification that I’ve been given for the lack of gender balance in the prize’s shortlists is that there are relatively few men writing or illustrating children’s books. I know from my own experience of almost 20 years working in children’s picture book publishing that there are plenty of men writing and illustrating picture books, and about half of the fiction my wife and I read to our son and daughter at bedtimes was also written by male authors. I’m not so familiar with the demographics of the teen market, but have been told by several people, including The Bookseller’s Charlotte Eyre, that there are “lots of men” writing for this age range too. Despite this, there have been no male authors shortlisted in the Teen category for the last two years and only two male authors have been shortlisted in the four years since the category was established.

Another justification I’ve been offered for the lack of shortlisted men is that most of the best children’s books have been written by women in recent years. This echoes the most of the best films have been made my men claim that’s sometimes used to justify the lack of female directors and screenwriters shortlisted for the Academy Awards. The Academy has acknowledged that the lack of female nominees reflects the lack of women among its members (who select the shortlist) and their president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has said that the Academy is committed to addressing this.

A third argument I’ve heard is that, after centuries of pro-male bias, we ought to welcome instances like this where the tables have been turned. I’ve heard this same argument used to dismiss the need to address the gender gap in literacy and wider academic achievement. The problem with this argument is that it treats children as members of two competing gender tribes, rather than individuals. Children don’t choose their gender and have had no part in making the world they’re born into. So, regardless of whether they are a girl or a boy, they should be offered the same advantages and opportunities. While we should do all we can to discourage our sons from perpetuating the pro-male inequalities of the past, they should not be expected to contend with pro-female inequalities in reparation. We should be striving to offer equality across the board as a birthright to both sexes.

Mr Daunt, I hope that I’ve convinced you that gender-balancing both the shortlisting and judging of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize would be a great way of making your admirable award even more commendable. Gender balanced shortlisting and judging panels are already commonplace among grown-up book awards such as the Man Booker, which has produced an equal number of male and female winning authors since the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize began in 2005.

If Waterstones wants to give equal encouragement to young readers of both sexes, doesn’t it make sense for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize to give equal encouragement and recognition to writers and illustrators of both sexes as well?

Yours sincerely

Jonathan Emmett
Children’s Author

UPDATE: I received a response from James Daunt which you can read 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!

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.

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.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

How picture books can compete effectively with other children’s media

In July this year I gave a COOL not CUTE themed seminar at the UKLA International Conference in Brighton. Having spent quite a lot of time putting it together I thought I’d share a transcript of it here along with the video clips and some of the slides from my presentation.

The seminar got a polarised response from the small group of delegates that attended it. While several commended me on a persuasive argument, another told me that she had disagreed with almost every word I’d said.

Click on the small slide images to see larger versions


How picture books can compete effectively with other children’s media

I’ve called this session COOL not CUTE which is also the title of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between picture book content and the literacy gender gap. Most of the points I’ll be making in this seminar can be found in Part 2 of that essay.

I’m going to set aside the gender element of the argument today and focus on the differences in content between picture books and other children’s media. I think these differences are helping to drive children of both sexes away from books and towards TV, films and video games at a very early age.

I’m a children’s author and most of my books are picture books. I’ve been working in the publishing industry for 19 years. During that time I’ve had picture books published by 11 different publishers, so I’ve a fairly broad experience in picture book publishing.

I try to write picture books that appeal to a wide range of tastes. There’s no question that we publish a great many picture books in this country that a great many children find appealing. But there are also a lot of children that don’t find picture books appealing. And it’s those children I want to talk about today.

Research shows that a growing number of children regard reading as as “uncool”. Here's a couple of quotes from the Literacy Trust web site.

First impressions are important – and the first books most children encounter are picture books. I think the picture book industry’s current standards of age-appropriateness are a lot more conservative than those of children’s films, TV and video games. As a consequence a lot of the content that children regard as “cool” that’s found in these other media is missing from picture books. I’m going to highlight some of this missing content and offer an explanation for these differing standards of age appropriateness.

Picture books are read by a wide age range; they are read TO children who are only a few months old and read BY children up to the age of seven or eight.

The nub of the problem is that standards of age appropriateness that are suitable for preschool children are routinely applied to all picture books, including those read by school age children.

Four is the age that most children start school in the UK. I think we need to recognise four as a watershed age for picture book content and I'm going to be focussing on the sort of content that's age appropriate for four years and over.

Four years and over is also the age range that the BBFC has in mind when assessing the age-appropriateness of U certificate media. As well as films, the BBFC certify children’s TV shows when they’re released as DVDs or downloads. There’s now a separate certification body, PEGI, for video games, that operates on similar lines.

While I think it would be unreasonable to compare picture books with anything other than U certificate media, it’s worth pointing out that many picture-book-age children are watching PG and even 12 certificate media.

There are many differences between the content of picture books and other children’s media, but I’m going to focus on four elements today – COMBAT, PERIL, VILLAINY and TECHNOLOGY.

All four of these elements are abundant in films, TV shows and video games watched or played by many four-year-olds, but are rarely found in picture books. I’ll illustrate this missing content with examples from four U certificate films.

All 4 of these films were the most popular U certificates in the year they were released. 3 of them were THE most popular film of any certificate in the year they were released. So they are all very mainstream examples. The last 3 films we'll look at were all released in the last 10 years, but I’m going to start with a film that was released 36 years ago.

Between the ages of 4 and 7 my son and most of his friends were obsessed with Star Wars. The original Star Wars film contains an abundance of peril, villainy & technology, but I’m going to use it to remind you of the sort of combat the BBFC deems age-appropriate for a four-year-old viewer.

There are about 20 minutes of combat in the film. I’m going to show you just 60 seconds taken from various scenes. This sort of content would be considered “cool” by many young children. As you watch this I want you to think about how often those children are likely to find similar content in picture books.

That film is 36 years old, but I could have shown you similar clips from U certificate films and TV TV shows that are showing in cinemas and on children’s television this weekend.

When I saw how enthusiastic my 4 year-old son was about these films I thought I’d try to channel some of that enthusiasm into reading by finding picture books that contained similar content – but there weren’t any. That was 14 years ago and there are still very few. And yet Star Wars is as popular as ever with young children and Disney have just begun making a new series of Star Wars films.

I mentioned this disparity to a picture book publisher last year and she told me that – despite it’s U certificate – she would not let a 4-year-old child watch a film like Star Wars. This attitude is not uncommon within children’s publishing. I think that one of the assumptions underlying it is that “depictions of combat in children’s media could make children more aggressive.” I’ll come back and address that assumption later.

I’m going to use a clip from Toy Story 3 to illustrate how peril is often depicted in children's films and television. The poster describes this film as a comedy and it is very funny in places, but it also contains scenes of peril that are played absolutely straight. I’m going to show you a particularly intense example. To put this clip in context: it comes at the end of a 20 minute sequence which starts with the toys breaking out of a kindergarten that’s run like a prison camp. Throughout the sequence the characters narrowly escape from a series of increasingly perilous situations. As the clip starts, they’re in a rubbish dump and have just avoided being torn apart by a mechanical shredder.

I think you can see that that’s a genuinely scary moment. Young viewers are left in no doubt that the characters are facing what seems like certain destruction.

There’s a very fine line between what’s thrilling and what's upsetting for a four-year-old. Filmmakers like Pixar are very adept at judging exactly where that line lies, so that they can thrill young viewers by taking them very close to it without crossing over. In my experience, most picture book publishers prefer to play safe and to keep well away from that line. Scary scenes like the one we’ve just watched are relatively rare in picture books and I think that’s one of the things that gives many young children the impression that books are less cool than other children's media.

And that’s a shame because I think picture books are the ideal medium for presenting scary content, since they’re often read to children, particularly younger children, by an adult who's able to moderate the storytelling experience. If an adult comes across a scary scene, such as the one we've just seen, while reading to a child, the adult can say “this is scary” to let the child know that they’re not alone in there fears. And they can ask the child questions like, “Do you think they will be rescued?” to help the child anticipate a positive outcome. And yet children are far more likely to encounter content like that on a screen, than on a picture book page.

The next content element I’m going to highlight is villainy – to be more precise it’s irredeemable villainy. There are plenty of villains in picture books, but they tend to be relatively tame compared with the deadly villains children frequently encounter in other media. And very often picture book villains are obliged to see the error of their ways and redeem themselves by the end of the story. Picture book villains rarely meet a sticky end in the way they do in film or television.

The Incredibles is another film that has all four of the content elements I'm highlighting today. The villain in The Incredibles is called Syndrome. I’m going to show you two short clips. The first illustrates that not only is Syndrome a deadly villain, but that he has no qualms about killing children – something which is very rare in picture book villains. And the second shows him meeting a sticky end.

Again, as you’re watching this, I want you to think about how often a young child that thinks this sort of content is cool would come across scenes like these in a picture book.

I think one reason a lot of publishers are averse to including intense irredeemable villainy in picture books is that they are worried that “depictions of villainy in children’s media could make children more immoral.” That’s another assumption that I’m going to address a little later.

The final content element I want to look at is technology. This is a bit different from the other 3 elements we’ve looked at in that there’s no ethical aspect. But technology has a high cool factor for a lot of children and there’s a big difference between the way technology is commonly depicted in picture books and in other children’s media. I think that difference also reflects differing standards of age appropriateness.

Technology has a prominent role in many popular children’s films, TV shows and video games. Star Wars is brimming with sophisticated technology — spacecraft, vehicles, robots, weaponry — but I thought I’d bring things right up to date and looked at some of the technology from Despicable Me 2, which was THE most popular film at UK cinemas last year.

There are picture books that feature technology, but they tend to represent technology in a simplified way. You rarely see the attention to technical detail that you see in a Star Wars spacecraft or a Despicable Me gadget and technology tends to be less prominently presented in picture books. And it’s not just about visual detail, technical language, even simple words like “piston” are often deemed age-inappropriate for picture book texts.

So why are these four content elements, which are abundant in children films and TV shows, rare in picture books? The first reason is very straightforward – rejection. Many publishers don’t regard this content as appealing or age-appropriate for picture book readers.

The other thing that happens is “Bunnification”. This is a phrase I’ve borrowed from an illustrator who used it to describe how the scary, dangerous, technologically-sophisticated content found in children’s films and TV is often made safer, simpler, cuter or more whimsical for inclusion in picture books. While the cute, whimsical aliens and spacecraft found in books like Aliens Love Underpants are very popular with many young readers, they may seem tame and babyish to a child that prefers the more sophisticated aliens and spacecraft found in films like Star Wars.

There are some exceptions: my 4-year-old son would have adored Jonny Duddle's The King of Space had it been published a decade or two earlier, but picture books like this are still relatively few and far between.

If we want to create picture books that can match the mainstream appeal of the films we've looked at today, we have to be prepared to “cut out the cute”. While many publishers see cuteness as adding to a picture book’s appeal, many children see cuteness as making a book more babyish and uncool. We have to stop using “cute” as a default setting for picture books.

Before we go any further I’m going to address those two assumptions I mentioned that explain why many people are averse to including combat and irredeemable villainy in picture books. I’ve combined them into this statement:
Depictions of combat and villainy in children’s media will make children more aggressive and immoral!
So how does the BBFC justify the inclusion of combat and villainy in U certificate children's films and TV shows? This quote from the BBFC’s web site explains their approach:
‘U’ films should be set within a positive moral framework and should offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror”. 
Essentially what they’re saying is that this sort of content is OK for four-year-olds, providing it’s carefully framed. Is that true? Or is this content likely to have a detrimental effect no matter how carefully it’s presented?  I’m a picture book author - I’m not qualified to answer that question, but I have a friend who is …

Claire Laurence is a psychologist at the University of Nottingham who specialises in the study of aggression and specifically in the factors that trigger aggression. When I first started looking at this content issue a couple of years ago, Claire helped me to write an essay called NATURE and NURTURE. The first two thirds of that essay is about sex differences in children’s preferences. But the last third deals with this question of whether or not depictions of combat and villainy in children’s media are likely to encourage aggressive, immoral behaviour in children.

Claire explained that it does depend on how these depictions are framed. There is a lot of evidence that depictions of aggression that encourage the individual to identify with the aggressor, where aggressive behaviour is rewarded or depicted in a positive way can have a priming effect. For example, first person shoot-em-up video games, where aggressive behaviour earns higher scores have been shown to increase aggressive tendencies.

On the other hand, depictions of aggression that encourage the individual to identify with the victim, where aggressive behaviour is penalised or depicted in a negative way can have an inhibiting effect. And that’s why Claire felt that the BBFC approach to depictions of combat and violence in U certificate media was not only reasonable, but could be beneficial. While this distinction is widely recognised in other media, it’s not widely recognised in picture books which tend to avoid depictions of aggression altogether.

So why do picture books have differing standards of age-appropriateness to films and television? Age-appropriateness is a subjective judgement and I think these differences reflect who is making that judgement.

In the case of films and television, age appropriateness is determined by the BBFC who carry out public consultations every five years to ensure that their judgement reflects the view of the UK population as a whole. As well as consulting existing filmgoers, they carry out a "General Public Sample". As a statutory body, the BBFC is obliged to ensure that these consultations are demographically representative of gender, race, age, social class and regional differences in the UK population.

The age appropriateness of picture book content is largely determined by publishers. And while publishers' judgements are also informed by market research, that research tends to be based on the existing picture book market which is not demographically representative of the population as a whole.

As such, the standards of age appropriateness used in picture books tend to reflect the judgement of a narrower demographic. Both picture book publishers and picture book buyers are predominately white, predominately middle class and – and this is bit I usually get into trouble for - predominately female. The vast majority of picture book publishers and picture book buyers are women and I think that’s why a lot of the missing content I've highlighted today typically appeals to boys more than girls.

If we want every child in every home to engage with books from an early age, picture books need to follow the BBFC's example and adopt standards of age appropriateness that reflect the judgement of the population as a whole.

I started this seminar with these quotes about how children are increasingly embarrassed to be seen reading. As I said then, first impressions are important. I think picture books are giving many children the impression that books are a safe, tame, uncool alternative to other media.

Obviously one size does not fit all. Every child is different and there are many children that won’t find the sort of content I’ve highlighted appealing.

I’m not arguing that we need this sort of content in ALL picture books! I am arguing that we need this sort of content in some picture books, if we want picture books to appeal to ALL children.

If we want all children to recognise that reading can be cool, we need many more picture books that are COOL and NOT CUTE!

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 no longer feel it’s appropriate to include “A Male Protagonist” in a list of boy-friendly ingredients that are commonly missing from picture books.

I also feel 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

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Some words of support

I was heartened by Jon Scieszka's comments
on the Playing by the book blog.
It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. In my last post I wrote that I was “arguing for gender-balance and against gender domination by either sex.” With this in mind, I’m planning a future post about the pro-male bias in picture book protagonists which, as I’ve previously acknowledged, is an issue that needs addressing as much as the pro-female bias in other aspects of picture book content.

In the meantime, having focused on the critical responses to my call for gender balance in my last two posts, I wanted to highlight a few of the more supportive responses.

I’ve commented before that many people within the world of children’s literature are reluctant to speak publicly about a possible pro-female gender bias in picture book content. Some of the vitriolic responses my arguments have provoked in the last few months make this all the more understandable. In the week after The Times article was published, I received the following comment in an email from a picture book editor:
"This is such an interesting debate. I think you have raised so many good points, which makes it frustrating that so many people – the media, authors on twitter – seem to jump to such extreme or polarised positions on the matter. It would be great to be able to have a sensible, more nuanced discussion about it all without people ‘shouting’ so much! The points you have raised really deserve to be discussed properly."
And, as I mentioned in my last post, another of my editors, Liza Miller, voiced her support publicly on her blog, for which I’m extremely grateful.

The blog post that provoked the media interest focussed on the lack of gender-balance in children's book reviewing, so I was also grateful to Spectator reviewer Melanie McDonagh for beginning her summer round-up with some words of support. And – although he didn't take sides  – I’d also like to thank publishing journalist Porter Anderson for taking the time to understand my argument and outline it accurately and objectively in this article for Publishing Perspectives.

US novelist Elizabeth Spann Craig (who writes for adults) wrote a blog post acknowledging that my observations about gender bias in picture book content reflected her own experience of trying to find books that appealed to her son, commenting that it was "much, much easier" finding books that her daughter enjoyed. However, apart from a few comments on Twitter, the children’s authors and illustrators that expressed their support for my arguments have, until now, done so privately.

So I was heartened to read the comments of US author Jon Scieszka on Zoe Toft’s Playing by the book blog yesterday. As well as writing numerous children's books, Jon is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (the US equivalent to the UK’s Children’s Laureate) and the founder of the Guys Read literacy programme. Zoe asked Jon several questions relating to boys' literacy, including this one about the arguments I've made on this blog:
Zoe: Recently there was a lot of debate and even anger here in the UK about the gendered marketing of books, a debate sparked by the author Jonathan Emmett, who argues that the UK “picture book industry reflects girls’ tastes more than it does boys’ and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities.”

To what extent do you think the same could be said for the US market?
Jon Scieszka: I think Jonathan Emmett made a very thoughtful, considered, statistical, and careful presentation about the realities of children’s publishing. The statistics and challenges he mentions for the UK are very much the same in the US. Here elementary school teachers, librarians, children’s booksellers, and children’s book prize committee members are mostly women. It is not unreasonable to wonder if this gender inequality might influence what is produced and bought and awarded in children’s books.
And I think the anger this question provokes is more about gender inequality in the wider world at large than just about kids’ books.
It’s well worth reading the full interview over on Zoe’s blog.