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.’

ACO logo