Attention, dads! Buy your children picture books

A new study reveals an increase in illiteracy among young boys is being caused by the perception books are "uncool". Fathers and grandfathers can change all that.

Books aren’t cool — or so a growing number of children seem to think. A report just published by the National Literacy Trust reveals "children are spending less of their own time reading and are increasingly embarrassed to be seen reading". According to the report, "children who do not think 'reading is cool' are four times more likely to be below average readers". I think the perception that books aren’t cool has more to do with book content than the act of reading. Specifically, it has to do with the first books most children encounter, which are picture books.

When my son was four years old, he and his friends were obsessed with Star Wars, a saga of good versus evil, packed with deadly combat, sophisticated technology, murderous villains and threatening predicaments. The Star Wars films available at the time were all U certificates, showing that — in the BBFC’s judgment — their content was appropriate for four-year-olds. Such content is rarely found in the cosier, cuter world of picture books. Picture books tend to steer well clear of deadly combat, technology is often simply represented, murderous villains are almost nonexistent and threatening predicaments are few and far between. Small wonder then that many children that relish this sort of “cool” content decide that books aren’t for them and turn to other media that reflect their tastes. For such children, the reading habit is broken before it’s barely begun.

The majority of the "below average readers" referred to in the Literacy Trust report are boys. The report shows that “nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all” and “twice as many boys as girls say that they never read outside of class”. And it’s no coincidence that the type of cool content that’s absent from picture books typically appeals to boys.

In a previous piece for the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog, I highlighted the fact that that most of the gatekeepers in the world of picture books — commissioning editors, infant teachers, children’s librarians, reviewers – are women. However the picture book industry, like any other industry, is subject to the rule of supply and demand and the most influential gatekeepers are consumers. The overwhelming majority of picture books are bought by women, consequently the picture book market reflects female-typical tastes far more than male-typical ones. Even picture books that are intended to appeal to boys partially reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually purchase them. This won't change unless fathers and grandfathers start buying more picture books.

The Literacy Trust’s report was published to coincide with the launch of its “Literacy Heroes” campaign celebrating people who inspire a love of books. Dads are always being encouraged to read more to their children at bedtimes; I’d like to encourage dads to go one step further and commit another small act of literacy heroism by going into a bookshop and choosing a really cool picture book to read to their kids.

A family browses among the children's books. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Emmett is a children's author and illustrator who set up the website Cool not Cute to address the gender bias in picture books.

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Why is Disney producing so many live-action remakes of its most popular animated movies?

The Jungle Book, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast are just one small part of the studio’s extensive strategy of live-action remakes.

When Disney’s 101 Dalmatians appeared in cinemas back in 1996, it surprised audiences. With a screenplay and production by John Hughes, and a brilliantly deranged Glenn Close as Cruella, it was in many ways more cartoonish than the stylish Sixties animation it was based on. The film was a peculiar choice from a studio in the midst of an animated renaissance: in the first half of the decade alone the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Toy Story and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, reasserted Disney’s status as the ultimate home of animated family movies.

But it also paid off: 101 Dalmatians broke box office records on the Thanksgiving weekend of release, and was the top grossing family movie of that year.

Fast forward to 2010, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland tells a similar tale. The only live-action remake of one of the studio’s own animated classics since 101 Dalmatians, it was critically panned, but a huge financial success, bringing in over a billion dollars at the box office.

Since then, Disney has woken up to the commercial potential of this formula. Following Alice were The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a 2010 release based on a segment of 1940’s Fantasia), Maleficent’s unusual take on Sleeping Beauty, 2015’s Cinderella, and, this year, The Jungle Book (and an Alice sequel ).

Next month, a live-action remake of The BFG will hit US theatres, to be followed by Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast later this year. Also in the works are new live-action versions of Dumbo, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, The Sword and The Stone, Peter Pan (two, in fact: Peter Pan and Tink), and Chip 'n Dale – as well as a version of The Nutcracker which will be the second live action film modelled on a Fantasia segment.

Like the animated movies of the Nineties and earlier, many of these movies all based on tales as old as time: but the studio is very specifically remaking its own films, rather than working on new retellings of ancient stories. Disney is undertaking a deliberate and extensive strategy of live-action remakes of nostalgic animated successes.

The Disney brand depends on nostalgia to reel in children and adults alike. It’s earliest animated successes, from the Thirties through to 1960, were variations of stories everyone had been told in childhood: Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty.

Their latest formula works in a similar way: take an old story which will appeal to children, their parents, and a generation of adults with a specific, nostalgic connection to one version (in these cases, Nineties babies). Bring a smattering of famous faces on board, plus an extra helping of action, some vaguely cheeky references, and the promise of 3D visuals. Then you have a Disney film that can extend beyond what can be fairly limiting Disney audience.

It will certainly be profitable for the studio in the short term, but by investing more and more into live-action remakes, Disney is moving further and further away from its USP. Arguably, the animated renaissance of the Nineties demonstrates that Disney generates is most iconic (and, in the long-term, it’s most commercial) movies by sticking to its most traditional skillset: hand-drawn animation, original songs, and a childlike earnestness unsullied by considering what might draw in an older audience. Who remembers the live action Disney movies of generations past? We might just about recall 1997’s George of the Jungle, but Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in Popeye, anyone? 1994’s The Jungle Book?

It will certainly bring in big numbers at the box office – temporarily at least. But Disney’s latest strategy won’t result in the production of films that will continue to generate big bucks for the studio via its infamous moratorium strategy, or generations of merchandise. The animations that are already modern classics, from Frozen to Tangled, will be doing that work in the next decades. Disney would be wise to look for its next original movie in order to capture hearts – and wallets – for years to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.