|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.
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.
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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?
UPDATE: I received a response from James Daunt which you can read here.