2014 columns, Young Adult literature

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

by Danielle Binks , June 17, 2014Leave a comment

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll*

UK children’s author-illustrator Jonathan Emmett is concerned about female ‘gatekeepers’ in all aspects of publishing – so much so that he has written a 24-page report for COOL not CUTE! on the topic. His argument boils down to the assertion that ‘the output of the picture book industry reflects girls’ tastes far more than it does boys’ and… this bias is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities.’

Who run the (book) world? Girls! … at least according to Emmett, who talks about how all aspects of the industry are overrun with women: from publishers, to editors, librarians, judges, and reviewers (no mention of how many publishing houses are owned by male CEOs, though, or of the gender ratio of Editorial Directors). As an author-illustrator himself, Emmett has first-hand experience with this gender gap: ‘For the first 15 years, every single editor I worked with was female. In the last two years I’ve worked with two male editors, one of whom has now left the industry.’ He is also concerned about imbalance at the point of purchase, estimating that, ‘95 per cent of picture books were bought for children by women’.

It’s no secret that the publishing industry is largely female-dominated, and in 2010 Publisher’s Weekly wrote a lengthy article questioning the gender imbalance. The article raised similar concerns to Emmett’s – namely, that the perception of various roles in the publishing industry as inherently ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ (this harks back to the stereotype that ‘boys don’t read’) could create barriers which might prevent men from entering publishing. However, Publisher’s Weekly addressed the publishing industry in broad terms, whereas Emmett objects to female-dominance in youth literature.

In Emmett’s report, one very important aspect is not discussed – the acknowledgment of women’s long and illustrious history in children’s literature.

British publisher John Newbery released the first children’s book in 1744, but we wouldn’t even have modern day children’s literature if it weren’t for the 18th century women who helped to shape it.

Women like Anna Laetitia Barbauld – an English poet, critic, editor, and children’s author who changed the way children’s books were printed, giving them wider margins and larger text size so as to be more accessible to young readers. She is also credited with popularising the informal dialogue between a parent and child, and her 1778-1779 book Lessons for Children was one of the first examples of graduated readers; becoming more challenging as the reader progresses.

Sarah Trimmer was a writer and critic of British children’s literature. She released a periodical called The Guardian of Education (1802-1806),which helped to define the readership and was the first publication to write serious reviews of children’s literature.

Ellenor Fenn was inspired by Barbauld’s work, and was one of the first authors to differentiate between reading ages. She also designed toys and games that promoted educational, interactive, child-centred play between mothers and their children.

There are many more to mention, and probably a few women who have been overlooked and their names long since forgotten.

I sympathise with Jonathan Emmett’s arguments and frustrations, which speak to a very real problem (even if it stems from gendered stereotypes). But he fails to acknowledge that historically the gender imbalance in children’s books has been the inverse of what he points to.

In 2011, the most comprehensive study of 20th century children’s books ever undertaken in the United States found a bias towards tales that featured men and boys as lead characters (even animal characters tended to be male). The study found that ‘males are central characters in 57 per cent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 per cent have female central characters’. Though no similar study has been undertaken in the UK or Australia, it is likely similar trends would be found in our youth literature.

So what is the solution to this problem? Jonathan Emmett claims, ‘there’s a lot of ground to cover if picture books are to match the boy-appeal of other media. But they can match it and even surpass it providing they are made a lot less cute and a lot more cool.’ I would hate to see the book industry try to match the ‘boy-appeal’ of, say, the film industry (which has a significant gender problem too, FYI). Instead of trying to tip the scales in favour of one gender or the other, we should strive for gender balance in books for young people (which means no more gender-specific books!).

Rather than blaming the book industry for being so feminised, and wondering why reading is not seen as ‘manly’, let’s acknowledge that a lot of this comes down to issues with perception and adherence to stereotypes. The best way to combat this is for children to be inspired by the gender-non-specific reading habits of their parents. As award-winning children’s author Emilie Buchwald once said, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.’

Danielle Binks is a Melbourne-based blogger, editor and aspiring writer of young adult fiction.

ACO logo


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »