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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era