I wrote to all the picture book publishers I’ve worked with recently to let them know I was publishing the essay and have heard back from most of them. Most of the publishers that responded acknowledged that the issue was worthy of debate but defended the picture book industry’s current output. Most of them did so by making one or more of the following points.
1. Many picture books currently being published appeal universally to both boys and girls.
2. Many picture books are published each year with themes with boy-typical appeal such as aliens, dinosaurs, monsters, diggers and pirates.
For instance, one picture book theme that’s particularly appealing to boys is pirates. In 2012 Aardman released a U certificate film called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! which includes all of the Missing Ingredients listed in Part 2 of COOL not CUTE. Here are some specific examples:
Combat: Characters are seen fighting with cutlasses, firing pistols and canons and hitting each other with various objects such as frying pans. The violence in the film is generally non-lethal, but one running joke involves a pirate, Cutlass Liz, killing other pirates by running them through with her sword.
Peril: Characters repeatedly find themselves in life-threatening situations and at one point the hero is almost beheaded by an executioner.
Irredeemable Villainy: The film’s villain is an evil, sabre-wielding incarnation of Queen Victoria, who’s last seen swearing vengeance on the hero.
Although many pirate-themed picture books have been published over the last few years, very few of them contain dangerous, exciting ingredients such as these. I accept that some four-year-old boys will find these ingredients unappealing and I’m not arguing that ALL picture books should include them; but in addition to tamer, cuter picture books about pirates, aliens, dinosaurs, diggers and monsters, there need to be many more wilder, cooler picture books for the children of both sexes who are currently rejecting books in favour of films and TV shows which cater to their tastes.
3. Films and TV shows may have different standards of age-appropriateness to picture books, but that’s because picture books have higher standards.
I’ve been using films and TV shows as a measuring stick to judge picture books against. Should it be the other way around? Is it TV and films that are getting it wrong?
The main reason I think it’s reasonable to use film and TV age standards as a measuring stick is that they are judged in a far more impartial manner. TV shows and films have their age-appropriateness assessed by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), an independent organisation that has a statutory responsibility to make such assessments.
To ensure that its judgements reflects public attitudes, the BBFC commissions regular public consultations and revises its guidelines accordingly. A report on the last consultation, comprising of 8700 interviews, can be found here on the BBFC web site. An appendix on page 79 of the report outlines the methods that were used to obtain a demographically diverse sample that represents the public as a whole.
I think this demographic diversity of views, including an equal representation of both sexes, goes a long way towards explaining the differing standards of age-appropriateness between films/TV and picture books. I think the more restrictive standards of age-appropriateness evident in picture books reflect the views of a far narrower demographic, and one that I’ve argued in COOL not CUTE is overwhelmingly female.
What do you think?
Are there any flaws in my arguments?