There is a problem with boys and books - and all-female prize panels aren't helping

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 fe

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. I believe this difference in appeal is partly due to a bias towards female tastes in children’s literature and in picture books in particular. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Boys Reading Commission Report notes that the gap between boys’ and girls’ reading ability is already evident at age 5, which suggests that the problem starts at picture book age.

Although there are plenty of men such as myself writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female. 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.

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. 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. Elements of danger and threat are tamed or omitted altogether on the grounds of being unappealing or inappropriate. In short, picture books with boy-friendly themes tend to be cuter and tamer than similarly themed TV shows, films or video games.

I think the failure of picture books to accurately reflect the full range of boys’ tastes is deterring many boys from developing a reading habit. 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 believe that one reason many children, especially boys, reject books in favour of films, TV and video games is that these media reflect their tastes more effectively.

I’ve written at length about this issue at coolnotcute.com and made several suggestions as to how male tastes might be better represented in the picture book world. One suggestion is that both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal, the high-profile UK children’s book award that usually goes to a picture book illustrator. The award is organised by CILIP, the professional body for UK librarians and the winner is chosen each year by a panel of CILIP members who also chose the winner of the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction.

The Greenaway and Carnegie Medals are (to quote their website) “the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards” and widely regarded as children’s literature’s equivalents of the Man Booker Prize. However, while the Man Booker’s judging panels have been consistently gender-balanced since 1997, the Greenaway and Carnegie panels have for some time been overwhelmingly female. Last year there were twelve women and one man on the panel; this year all thirteen judges are women.

The Greenaway and Carnegie have always made an invaluable contribution to raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes and I don’t wish to detract from this achievement. However, 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?

I wrote to the awards’ organisers on 19 March to urge them to adopt a gender-balanced panel for future awards, but have yet to receive a response. I realise that adopting a gender-balanced panel would mean over-representing the number of men working as librarians, but surely it’s more important for “children’s” book awards to reflect the gender balance of the books’ intended readers rather than the profession that serves them? If there aren’t enough male librarians to balance a panel of thirteen, men from related professions such as teaching could be included. Or the size of the panel could be reduced until it could be balanced; a panel of five, like that of the Man Booker, would only require two men to balance it.

I recognise that, as professional librarians, the judges will do their best to be objective and take the reading preferences of both sexes into account. But no judge can be entirely objective: two librarians working in the same library might have differing opinions on the best children’s books published last year. Given that there’ll always be some degree of subjectivity, shouldn’t that subjectivity reflect the tastes of both sexes?

I don’t deny that previous year’s panels have sometimes selected books that have been very appealing to boys. And I can’t claim with any certainty that this year’s panel would select different books if it had been gender-balanced rather than women-only. However, I’d maintain that by consistently selecting panels made up overwhelmingly or exclusively of women, year after year, there is likely to be some overall bias in favour of female preferences. And at a time when we are struggling to make books appealing to boys, it makes sense to address this bias.

The Greenaway and Carnegie are wonderful awards and whichever books the judges pick this year will no doubt be worthy of the recognition that the medals bring them. However, these awards would be even more wonderful and the winning books even more worthy of recognition if both sexes were equally involved in choosing them. Such a change would also help to send out the message that books are for boys as much as girls.

At the Frankfurt book fair in 2012 - sadly, not all boys are so keen to read. 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.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution