no boys allowed

UPDATE: Here is the latest hand-wringing on boys and books, this time from Jonathan Emmett.

 

The New Statesman has published an article by Jonathan Emmett who points out that the picturebook world is dominated by women. I’m simplifying here, but basically he argues that this is one problem with picturebooks today, and the feminisation of picturebooks explains why boys aren’t reading as early as girls are.

I feel very uneasy about this article, but I’m just going to respond in bullet point form, because I haven’t worked up my thoughts into a paragraphably coherent state.

All thirteen judges on this year’s Greenaway and Carnegie Medal panel are women. Last year there was only one man. Although there are plenty of men writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female.

I agree that this is a problem. I agree with the author’s suggestion further down: fix it with quotas. I also like the idea of gender quotas for the big, important, financially significant book prizes for adults. Perhaps the picturebook world can lead the way. Part of me is glad that this imbalance is being noticed and talked about. Because that, folks, is what it feels like to be under-represented in the literary world.

There is a problem with boys and books — they don’t seem to want to read them as much as girls do. As a result, boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year’s schooling.

Is the problem instead that we’re expecting too much of our kids too soon? I hear that in America, what used to be taught in the first year of elementary school is now taught in pre-schooling.

“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years.

Scholastic, What Happened To Kindergarten?

Is it such a problem that boys are lagging behind? The reason this doesn’t concern me too much is because (speaking of large numbers, obviously) boys catch up in their own time. By the time students graduate from university (for instance) men will walk straight into higher paying jobs than their female classmates who did exactly the same degree. Did picturebooks really let those young men down?

One year after college graduation, men and women have much in common. In 2009, most women and men who had earned bachelor’s degrees the year before were young, single, childless, relatively inexperienced in the workplace, and working full time. We might expect to find little or no gender pay gap among this group of workers at the start of their careers. Yet just one year after college graduation, with their newly printed degrees in hand, men already earn more than women do.

Graduating To A Pay Gap, from AAUW

It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.

The picturebook world is indeed becoming a pink ghetto. That happens with any industry which women join in great numbers. It happened in the 1980s with teaching, when a great number of men turned away from teaching as a desirable profession after increased awareness and concerns about child protection. Since the picturebook world requires an understanding of children, and since it’s still women who are doing the majority of childcare work, it’s no surprise that picturebook gatekeeping has likewise been left to the women. Julia Donaldson has also pointed out recently that children’s books get very little media coverage in the UK, especially considering how many people are buying children’s books. This surely reflects a general disregard for this form of literature. If men aren’t waving their hands in the air wanting to be picked as gatekeepers of children’s literature, might lack of status have something to do with it? We should fix that.

Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for.

Note to society: stop spreading the message that childcare, including the organisation of birthday parties, preparation of school lunches and buying of presents are women’s work. Note to fathers, uncles and granddads: buy picturebooks. Where money appears, product will follow. (Only one in eight dads take the lead with reading to their children.)

Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed.

I’ve noticed the same thing and I agree that picturebooks are becoming too tame. Nothing annoys me more than a classic fairytale which has had its ending ameliorated. Those little pigs got et, dammit. But this isn’t actually a boy thing. I’m pretty sure that well-loved little girls are just as capable of processing frightening monsters and aliens as well-loved little boys. I suspect this trend is in response to an increasingly frightening and busy world, in which picturebooks are thought to be a refuge.

Elements with strong boy-appeal such as combat, peril, villainy and technology that are abundant in U certificate films like The Incredibles are rarely found or diluted in picture books.

I don’t want to see The Incredibles held up as a model for picturebook action. In case it’s been a while since you saw that film, here’s one scene, as explained by the F-Word:

Mr Incredible, who believes his wife and children are dead, is hanging sobbing in a torture device. Mirage, who has seen the light, sneaks into the room, turns off the machine and tries to tell him that they are in fact alive. Before she can get the words out, however, he picks her up by the neck, chokes her and starts shouting at her. At this point his miraculously still-alive Elastigirl enters the room and, noticing her, he is so delighted he forgets all about Mirage and drops her in a retching, gasping heap on the floor.

Why does violence have ‘strong boy appeal’? Well, that depends on which side of the nature/nurture debate you subscribe to. But here’s one thing that makes logical sense to me: If we expect that little boys like ‘combat’ (also known as violence and fighting), and put it into picturebooks at every opportunity, little boys are indeed more likely to like combat.

both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal

Yes, I agree, but while we’re on the topic of equal representation, I’d like to see as many female characters as male characters in modern picturebooks. I haven’t done a count, but Janet McCabe has, and if you guessed that the ratio is about 2:1 male to female, you’d be right. Here’s the full paper. I’m all for gender equality, but personally, I think that ratio is more in need of urgent correction. On the other hand, if picturebook creators (writers, illustrators and publishers) weren’t consistently being told that there’s a boy problem, we might not see such a gender imbalance. There’s an old chestnut doing the rounds that ‘While girls will read anything, boys won’t read about girls.’ This isn’t actually backed up by evidence. This very article provides the counter evidence: Apparently boys aren’t reading even though picturebooks are heavily populated with male characters. Meantime, girls get annihilated. Not the answer.

if we want books to appeal to boys as much as girls, shouldn’t the UK’s “most prestigious children’s book awards” reflect male tastes as much as female ones?

There’s a few unspecified assumptions here. First, we’re starting with a gender binary. That is never good. Gender is better thought of as existing on a continuum, with the acknowledgement that differences between individuals are far more significant than generalised differences between different genders. We’re assuming that little boys and little girls are different creatures entirely. Maybe. But how? How are they different, exactly? Tell me how they’re inherently different and then we might be able to make a start on fixing this boy problem. Perhaps my own stance on this is starting to become clear. Write good picturebooks and they will come. Boys AND girls. Be aware of your own gender biases, but write first and foremost for ‘children who live in the same diverse and complicated world’, not for ‘boys’ or for ‘girls’, in order to fix some perceived gender problem. We should no more write for boys/girls than for blacks/whites, aboriginals/immigrants, men/women. It seems ridiculous to say of an adult novel, ‘This is for women aged between 25 and 30’, yet this is what marketers seem to expect of picturebook creators.

men from related professions such as teaching could be included [in the judging panel]

I’m not on board with this at all. Being good at one doesn’t make you good at or knowledgeable about the other. If there are indeed plenty of men in picturebook world itself (as pointed out in the article), recruit them.

 

An Interesting Thought: I Can Completely Understand Why Parents Spend More Time Teaching Girls Than Boys, from Mommyish

See also: BEYOND BOY BOOKS AND GIRL BOOKS by Lea Kelley at The Nerdy Book Club

An interesting piece about why men say they prefer non-fiction from TOC Reilly

ALA 2013: Attracting Reluctant Male Readers from The Hub

National Literacy Trust Report on Boys’ Reading at GMP

Boys Now Reading As Well As Girls, Study Suggests, from BBC