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.

Val Doone/Getty Images
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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt