A few thoughts on gender and the literacy gap

As a feminist, I was delighted to see the Bookseller champion gender equality in publishing earlier this week. However, as a feminist – which is someone who wants equality – I was dismayed and not a little confused by how – in the same week – they rubbished a call for gender equality in children’s publishing.

Bookseller

I first came across Jonathan Emmett, who kick-started the debate on children’s publishing diversity, on Twitter, and we’ve had numerous debates over the past couple of years given our mutual interest in gender and children’s books. It was a surprise, though,  to arrive at Walker Books last December to discover I was now his editor. He’s been a delight to work with, and since then we’ve had even more opportunities to debate what we each feel passionate about.

There is plenty for us to discuss. We each believe that both nature and nurture impact a child’s identity and the extent to which they conform to certain gender stereotypes – but I think nurture plays the bigger role, whilst Jonathan would probably say the opposite. My particular bugbear is the representation of girls and women in picture books – making sure that they even appear at all, and that when they do they are represented well. Jonathan cares deeply about the gender gap in childhood literacy, and champions the creation of picture books that encourage boys to keep reading, rather than risk permanently losing them in the more boysy worlds of television and video games. These are two flipsides of the same coin – we both want a variety of books available for children to enjoy, with well-rounded characters, some gentle storylines, some rowdier ones, all helping kids to fall in love with reading. Believe me, Jonathan is no sexist – just this morning we discussed a manuscript of his, because he was worried about the depiction of one of the female characters.

BattleBunny

If there is one book to perfectly demonstrate Jonathan’s argument, it is Battle Bunny. It published late last year in the US, but hasn’t appeared in the UK yet. It’s a terribly saccharine book about a bunny who has a birthday but, as the inscription on the title page reveals, the book was a birthday present for a boy called Alex who clearly found the story very dull – so the illustrations have been added to and the text scrawled over with black felt tip, turning it into a death match between bunnies and the President. It’s absolutely hilarious, and the perfect illustration of Jonathan’s feeling that boys don’t always find sweet picture books that interesting.

In the Bookseller, Barry Cunningham argued that women editors are equally good at publishing books for boys as they are for girls. Jonathan doesn’t necessarily disagree – he doesn’t believe the literacy gap exists because there is a cabal of women strategically rejecting more boysy books, nor that women are the majority in our industry because of sexism in the recruitment process. Instead, he argues that a lack of gender diversity in children’s publishing partially contributes to the literacy gap – and moreover that to fix it, men need to become more involved in children’s books by applying for jobs as librarians, booksellers and publishers of books for kids.

Jonathan is being overgenerous here, I think – women in children’s publishing need to be aware of the gender bias in our industry and thinking about how to fix it. As I said earlier, I believe both nature and nurture impact a child’s identity. Those children grow up to become adults, some of whom go to work in children’s publishing. My department is 100% female – whilst we are a mix of ‘girlsy’ and ‘boysy’ characteristics and personalities (evidence of the impact of “nurture”), we nevertheless all come with some of that female “nature stuff” built in. The obvious flipside is that we don’t have some of that “nature stuff” that a male editor or designer would have. I’m not really able to identify the ways in which our female gender bias impacts the books that we make – that’s the privilege of being in the majority – but I’m absolutely certain it does. For that reason, Jonathan is completely correct to start the conversation he has.

Download the dissertation here

I’m a picture book and novelty book editor working in London. In 2011 I wrote a dissertation for my Publishing MA: Society and Commercialism: Core Factors in Picture Book Sex Stereotyping.

If you’re interested in the topic of gender visibility in picture books, you can read about the dissertation and download the PDF below.

Abstract

The following research uses content analysis and interviewing techniques to ascertain current and past attitudes towards gender depiction in UK children’s picture book publishing. It hypothesises that, in line with previous research, female characters are underrepresented – but that whilst females are gradually being depicted with a wider range of characteristics, male characters continue to conform within traditional gender stereotypes.

Qualitative findings confirm the first hypothesis, whilst the latter two theories are disproved. However, interviews with industry experts highlight the narrow portrayal of male characters as a major issue in picture books today.

The study also provides an overview of gender development research, and compares data about child gender representation preferences with outcomes of real world commercial decision-making. It also examines the factors influencing gender attitudes in the publishing chain, from author to end user.

It concludes by arguing that more needs to be done to provide both boys and girls with varied gender depictions, and that meaningful debate about gender in children’s publishing is crucial.

PDF available at: Society and Commercialism: Core Factors in Picture Book Sex Stereotyping.

N.B. This is a public version where names of publishers and agents have been removed to protect their privacy, and where the major statistical analysis has been removed to prevent readers from dying of boredom. If anyone is particularly keen for that level of detail, feel free to email me at lizacmiller@gmail.com.