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.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Should gender balancing the books be for adults only?

Last year VIDA, an American organisation for women in the literary arts, published an analysis that revealed a conspicuous lack of gender balance in book reviewing, prompting The Guardian to observe that “male authors and reviewers continue to take a disproportionate slice of the literary pie”. Most of the publications covered in the VIDA analysis were American periodicals, but The Guardian published its own gender balance analysis of UK publications including national newspapers, counting up the numbers of male and female reviewers and authors under review in March 2013. The analysis revealed a relatively small imbalance in fiction (50% of reviewers and 46% of authors were women) but a strong male bias in non-fiction, with only 29% of reviewers and 36% of authors being female. The conclusion was that “the UK book world still suffers from a sharp divide along gender lines” and the consensus seemed to be that newspapers and literary journals must try harder to gender balance their book reviewing.

The Guardian’s analysis focused on the reviewing of books for adults but, as a children’s author interested in gender bias, I was curious to know about the gender balance of UK children’s book reviewing. So I conducted my own analysis of the children’s books reviewed by five UK national newspapers in 2013. I only counted regular reviews of newly published books in the book sections of the print editions of each newspaper. So blog-only reviews (including reader reviews), author interviews, lists of 10 best genre books and reading advice in The Guardian’sBook Doctor” and The Telegraph’sAsk Lorna” were not included. Picture books were counted as being half-authored by both author and illustrator and the reviews from the Sunday editions were included in the overall count for each paper. A spreadsheet containing all the data can be found at the bottom of this post.
There’s a pronounced imbalance among reviewers, with less than a fifth of picture books and less than a third of children’s fiction being reviewed by men

The analysis is divided into children’s picture books and children’s and teen fiction and encompasses 462 book reviews. It reveals another strong gender bias — only in this instance in the opposite direction, with the majority of reviews and the majority of books being selected for review being written by women. The imbalance is less marked among authors; 47% of the picture books and 41% of the children’s fiction reviewed was by male authors. However there’s a pronounced imbalance among reviewers, with less than a fifth of picture books and less than a third of children’s fiction being reviewed by men.

Click to see larger version

One of the justifications given for gender balancing adult book reviews is that reviewers tend to review books that are written by their own sex. This tendency is evident in the female reviewers in this sample. The bias is marginal for picture books — 49% of the picture books reviewed by female reviewers were by male authors and illustrators — but more pronounced for children’s fiction, with only 38% of fiction reviewed by female reviewers being written by male authors. This imbalance was quite conspicuous in some instances; in The Observer’s summer round-up of children’s books, only one of the twelve books recommended for older children and teens (by two female reviewers) was written by a man.
In The Observer’s summer round-up of children’s books, only one of the twelve books recommended for older children and teens (by two female reviewers) was written by a man.

However the tendency is reversed for male reviewers. The 14 male fiction reviewers in the sample reviewed marginally more books (51%) by female authors. And 60% of the picture books reviewed by The Independent’s Nicolas Tucker (the only man among the 13 picture book reviewers in the sample) were by female authors and illustrators.

The Guardian’s analysis of adult book reviews showed a strong pro-male bias in the reviewing of non-fiction books. Arguably another sign of pro-female bias in children’s book reviews is the scarcity of non-fiction. In the All-Party Parliamentary Boys’ Reading Commission report published by the National Literacy Trust in 2012, Phil Jarrett, National Adviser for English at Ofsted states that: “We know that boys tend to read different kinds of texts from girls — non-fiction, autobiographies, newspapers and so on — yet the English curriculum largely values certain kinds of narrative fiction texts”. It seems that most children’s books reviewers share these same values. While adult review sections can be equally split between fiction and non-fiction, only 2% (10 out of 472) of the newly published children’s books reviewed in this analysis were non-fiction. This is such a small sample it would be unwise to read too much into it, but 9 of these 10 reviews were written by female reviewers and there was an even split in the sexes of the authors and illustrators. 5 of the 10 non-fiction reviews came from The Guardian’s book section and special mention should also be made of GrrlScientist, The Guardian’s science blogger who posted 21 reviews of children’s non-fiction science books in the science section of The Guardian web site in 2013.

This scarcity of children’s non-fiction reviewing is exacerbating a decline in children’s non-fiction publishing that has been happening for some years. In 2012, children’s literature expert Caroline Horn claimed that, “publishers have cut back, partly because of people like Waterstones completely cutting back on non-fiction about six or seven years ago.” There is still a lot of brilliantly written and illustrated children’s non-fiction being published each year, but a parent of a child of either sex with a taste for non-fiction books is unlikely to find out about them by reading the children’s book reviews in the national newspapers.

Of course the dominance of women in children’s book reviewing reflects the fact that jobs that are associated with children, particularly very young children, have long been the preserve of women and many – if not most – men are currently quite happy to leave it that way. One justification that might be made for the lack of men among children’s book reviewers is that women are simply far more eager to review children’s books than men are. However a similar justification has long been given for the under-representation of women in adult book reviewing. Describing her time as a literary editor in the 1970s, Claire Tomalin recalled: "I tried very hard both at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times to find and use more women reviewers — but I also remember being attacked for not doing better. The truth is, there were many more men eager to review”. And in response to last year’s VIDA study The Guardian’s literary editor Claire Armitstead commented that: "We always try to keep an even balance but many more men offer themselves to review books than women, so we have to go out and find them.” I think it’s reasonable to suggest that literary editors might take a similarly proactive approach to gender balancing their children’s book reviews and go out and find a few men.

The lack of gender balance among children’s book reviewers isn’t difficult to recognise and anyone familiar with the world of children’s literature will be well aware of it. So why doesn’t it draw the same level of media coverage and righteous indignation as the lack of gender balance in adult book reviewing? I think there are three assumptions that explain this, all of which need challenging.
Surely we ought to be applying as much care and attention to the reviewing of books for children as we do to the reviewing of books for adults.

The first assumption is that children’s literature is less important than adult literature, so the manner in which it is reviewed warrants less care and attention. Is this really true? Children’s books, and picture books in particular, are where we take our first faltering steps into the world of literature. First impressions are important and unappealing children’s books can give children the impression that all books are unappealing. The books we read as children, when we’re still developing an understanding of the world, can be hugely instrumental in shaping that understanding. Surely we ought to be applying as much care and attention to the reviewing of books for children as we do to the reviewing of books for adults.

The second assumption is that gender is entirely irrelevant to reading tastes, so it does not matter if one sex is disproportionally represented among reviewers. I doubt that many people would take this same argument seriously if it were used to justify the disproportionate number of men in the world of adult book reviewing. All children are different and reading tastes can’t be neatly separated according to gender but, whether through nature and nurture or nurture alone, some tastes are clearly gender-typical.

The third assumption is that gender balance is less important when men are in the minority. It may seem inappropriate to be highlighting the under-representation of men in a society in which the under-representation of women is a far, far greater problem. However equality ought to work both ways and I believe that the lack of gender balance in the world of children’s books is a key factor underlying the growing gender gap in children’s literacy. Boys do not find books as appealing as girls currently do and this is reflected in the fact that boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year's schooling. The growing gender gap in literacy is linked to the growing gender gap in academic achievement as a whole; the number of girls applying for university in 2014 was more than a third larger than the number of boys.

I’m a picture book author and evidence shows that the literacy gender gap takes root at picture book age. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the same age at which female reviewers are most dominant. While the gender balance of picture book authors and illustrators matches that of the intended readership (roughly 50:50 male:female) the chain of gatekeepers that link these two groups is far from gender-balanced. In this 2013 sample, female picture book reviewers outnumbered males by a ratio of 12:1. Similarly overwhelming female to male ratios can be found among picture book publishers, infant teachers, children’s librarians and, perhaps most significantly, picture book buyers, the majority of whom are adult women. Whether a picture book is being accepted for publication, selected for use in a school or library, purchased in a bookshop or recommended in a newspaper, the people judging its appeal are overwhelmingly female.
Whether a picture book is being accepted for publication, selected for use in a school or library, purchased in a bookshop or recommended in a newspaper, the people judging its appeal are overwhelmingly female

For this reason the relatively even gender split of authors and illustrators in the analysis should not be taken as showing that the range of picture books reviewed will appeal equally to both sexes. As a male author, I’ve learnt to write for a market that is dominated by female gatekeepers. Even picture books about pirates, dinosaurs, aliens or vehicles that might be characterised as having boy-typical appeal, partially reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be purchasing them. As a consequence, elements such as combat, technology, peril and villainy are often toned down or omitted altogether. A lot of content that’s commonly found in children’s TV, films and video games watched or played by 4-6 year olds is often deemed unappealing or inappropriate for picture books. This rejected content appeals to children of both sexes but it’s particularly appealing to boys and I think this is one reason many boys reject books in favour of these other media. I still love writing picture books and feel privileged to be able to make a living doing it – I just wish that the stories I’m able to get published could respond to boy-typical tastes as uncompromisingly as they do to girl-typical tastes. And it’s not just boys that are missing out; there are plenty of girls with boy-typical tastes who would enjoy reading these stories too.

Studies have shown that male protagonists outnumber female protagonists in picture books by a ratio of 2:1 and this is clearly an issue that needs addressing. This imbalance could be taken as demonstrating a pro-male bias across the picture book industry as a whole, similar to the pro-male bias evident in the male-dominated Hollywood film industry. However anyone familiar with the demographics of the UK picture book industry ought to appreciate that the situation is more complex than that. It’s overwhelmingly female publishers that are choosing to publish more books with male protagonists and overwhelmingly female picture book buyers that are choosing to purchase them.

Gender balancing children’s book reviewing would not require existing women reviewers being replaced by men. The most appropriate way for books editors to even out the numbers is to supplement their existing children’s team with additional reviewers. On her final day as Children’s Laureate in 2013, Julia Donaldson highlighted the fact that while children’s books account for a quarter of all UK book sales, less than a fortieth of the review space in UK newspapers is dedicated to them and contrasted this situation with Germany and the US where children’s literature is given far more attention. We excel at writing and illustrating children’s books in this country, so let’s get a few more men in to bolster the ranks of children’s reviewers and help highlight what’s best in children’s literature. And let’s start giving the best of our children’s non-fiction books the attention they deserve as well.




The data from the analysis is available in both MS Excel and PDF format below. If you spot any errors in the data, let me know and I will endeavour to correct them.

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