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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage