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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle