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Are Boys Not Reading Because of All Those Women in Publishing?

Are “boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women?,” asks an author for The Times of London.

By Dennis Abrams

Boys reading

Are women to blame for boys not reading?

Writing for The Times of London, David Sanderson and Fiona Wilson report that author and illustrator Jonathan Emmett believes that “boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women.”

Emmett, observing that the majority of publishers, editors, librarians, judges, and reviewers of children’s books were women says that this is the cause for the literacy gap between boys and girls.

Sanderson and Wilson write that he believes that “children’s books tended not to contain the elements many boys were attracted to, such as battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships,” adding that research shows that the majority of children’s books in newspapers, including The Times, were by women.

Emmett noted that for the past two years, all twelve judges for Britain’s most important children’s book awards, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, have been women. “It is a really difficult argument to make because 99 times out of 100 it is women that are under-represented.

“But there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”

The article cites a British government report that found that the gap between boys and girls’ reading abilities is evident by the age of five, and that boy’s reading abilities later lag behind the equivalent of one year of school.

Emmet’s argument was supported by a number of female authors, including the award-winning author of The Gruffalo (PanMacmillan), Julia Donaldson.

“Sometimes I think that publishers make the mistake of never including any bad or violent things being done, even by baddies,” Donaldson told Sanderson and Wilson. “For example, you couldn’t have anyone smoking, even if it is a very bad person smoking and it’s clear that smoking is bad.

“Emmett probably has got a point – he wrote a book where there was some bad character who bashed up people, but a gentle female editor thought we couldn’t even show someone bad doing bad things or doing destructive things.”

The Times reported that Emmet’s study of more than 400 reviews in five British newspapers found that while 47 percent of the picture books and 41 percent of the children’s books featured were written by men, less than 20 percent of the picture book reviews and less than one third of the fiction reviews were by men. Indeed, all of the reviews in The Times and The Sunday Times were by women.

Emmett, a winner of the Red House Children’s Book Award for Pigs Might Fly (Puffin), told The Times that of the 50 editors he had worked with over the course of his career, only two were male. One publishing company, he reports, told him that research seemed to suggest that 95 percent of picture books were purchased for children by women.

“Mums and grans buy books – that’s what is driving the market,” he said. They read the book also and then there’s a tendency for the book to reflect their tastes as well. So there may be a pirate but that pirate will not be engaged in a battle.

“The number of times that I have tried to get technical information into a book and it is deemed inappropriate. It is one of the things that leads boys, and girls with boy-typical tastes, to say ‘I am not really interested in that kind of content. I am more interested in the content of video games.’”

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  1. IOU
    Posted April 21, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    This is ridiculous. Boys read book and saying women will affect the industry is baloney. Yes baloney. Now shut up and listen will ya?
    Yes some female authors have to put their initials to attract the consumer to buy the book but right now you are cherry picking stats and just assuming for a good article. Did you even use stats. Whatever. Go make money off some false story. Oh guess what? NORTH KOREA IS INVADING CANADA AND SWEEDAN IS SUING SOUTH PARK. $$$$$

  2. Pae
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    My first childrens’ book was refused by a series of female editors because its ending had the intrepid boys busting a drug network. It was eventually accepted by a male editor and did well, if not famously (still waiting for Hollywood to call :) . My next three mss. had boys caught up in various complications caused by quantum physics, wormholes, and multiple universes. They never made it to first base with the ladies. Let’s not forget that most female editors are in the literature business because they hated math and science at school. The moral of the story is, either take up illustrating or write about unicorns.

    • Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      As a librarian with a Master’s in Mathematics, I find that comment very offensive. I also am an aspiring writer of children’s books, whose work has not been accepted yet. I always assumed that was because my writing skills aren’t yet up to the level of excellence required, not that the ignorant publishers didn’t recognize my talent or couldn’t handle my plotting.

      *Read* some children’s books! Sophisticated and highly intelligent plotting is not lacking. But it does take some talent for the author to pull it off.

      Interesting also, if the publishing field is so biased toward women — why are Caldecott winners primarily men? Sometimes you can read too much into trends like this.

  3. Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Outside of children’s literature, isn’t the opposite true in that the business is dominated by men?

  4. Mary Smith
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the problem with your “next 3 mss. ” was not the ladies, but the contents of the manuscripts.

  5. SB
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Check out the great riposte by top author for boys (and girls) Joe Craig on his blog http://turkeyonthehill.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/women-getting-in-way-or-getting-boys.html?m=1

  6. Posted April 24, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t buy this at all. It’s not the system, it’s content. Boys need smart, funny & relatable.
    They’re into my Sean Rosen series, which was sold by a woman agent, and edited and published by a woman as well.

  7. Aaron Wyckoff
    Posted April 25, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I think traditional gender roles and expectations are a larger factor than the books that are being published. There are many books out there that appeal to boys, but by the 4th or 5th grade, which is when reading really starts to drop off, boys are expected to be persuing more athletic activities. Those boys who want to sit inside and read a good book rather than go outside and play football are labeled wimps, sissies, effeminite, etc. Until this practice ends (and I doubt it ever will), it does not matter how good a book is, or how appealing to boys, many boys will simply never read it.

  8. Posted April 29, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s an interesting question, but it’s presumptuous to think that boys don’t read specifically because women edit books. Rather, the industry as a whole might be contributing to the production of a marketplace that favors a female audience simply because of a snowball effect. To put it another way, if a sales team knows that more guaranteed sales are going to come by publishing books targeted more toward girls, then that’s what they’ll ask for from the editing department and that’s what they’ll push out in the field. Bookstores, too, will position and shelve books that demographically seem to work better for them. Meanwhile, the marketing team will see that they get more traction by posting one form of content over another. In the end, no single aspect of the industry is at fault–it’s more that the consciousness to generate sales creates a leaning toward a particular audience. And this could all potentially sway at any moment depending on the next big book. The bigger problem, I would argue, is when books that might appeal to a particular audience are screened and augmented to seem like something different. In those cases, the content of a book does not necessarily match its package or the conversation surrounding it–thereby creating a situation where readers who might enjoy the book either can’t find it or skip it over on the shelf.

    • Porter Anderson
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the input, Zarren,

      Great to have you read and comment, much appreciated!


      On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

  9. Claudia
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Instead of writing this article, the author could (the people who think that boys don’t read beacause of women in publishing could) have posted this: Feminazi stole my ice cream: http://dumbsainthood.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/feminazi-stole-my-ice-cream/

    The message is the same and we wouldn’t have wasted our time.

    By the way, the fact that most classic writers are men, and were published by men does not prevent women from reading and enjoying them.

  10. Posted June 3, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this article.
    Yes, these are tough times for boys generally, in that the marketplace for all things seems to be geared more towards girls in an increasingly guarded and gender-biased society. The trouble is, commercial viability seems to outweigh content, which is constantly scissored to the marketeer’s perceived view rather than the child’s, ignoring the vitality of intuitively written picture books in favour of more calculated publications. Result: no one wins (apart from the shareholders, who choose to take no risks to maximise dividends).
    Girls read more so the industry provides more for girls, but it is the overwhelming presence of women in schools that may be more at fault in the misalignment of learning through books. Men, for all their misgivings, are not just a potential paedophile laying in wait, although from my own experience as a picture book writer, one would have to be pretty thick not to sense politically correct judgementalism on a grand, yet quietly hidden, scale in schools.
    I’ve conducted about seventy school readings across the UK in the last two years, reading to over 7,000 children going from class to class rather than en masse, and I can honestly say that, by and large, I have been well received by teachers. But (big but), I have a feeling of being watched by those in authority while at school. I get the impression they all ask the same question to themselves; ‘Why is this man doing this? He asks only for £75 to be paid to a children’s charity and sells perhaps few dozen books at the best of times after school. That can’t be enough to survive on.’
    To be honest, I don’t blame them. With hideous revelations coming out all the time about Jimmy Savile et al, causing abuse through positions of power, one must be on guard for potential threats to children’s lives. I refuse to be alone in a room with a schoolchild for this reason. So, the fear is twofold in adults; me and the teachers must remain vigilant at all times. It’s a sad state of affairs, drummed up by the media to further demoralise us and reset our emotional value system.
    In most schools visited, there are usually only two male employees; headmaster (or head teacher as they seem to be called nowadays) and the maintenance man. This shows ‘man’ in two extremes to the children; to be either revered and respected (head teacher) or not, as is the case for the general dog’s body that is the maintenance man. All others have been women (bar perhaps a handful), and, while they do a very good job under the skewed eye of Education Minister Michael Gove, I can’t help wondering that the children would surely benefit from a more egalitarian gender structure. After all, the world is half male and half female.
    My two picture books are both ‘daddy and daughter’ stories, but the boys enjoy them just as much as girls. They ask just as many questions as the girls after the reading . That said, parents of girls seem more happy to buy the book after school, and I think this is because girls are generally more receptive to reading at home, thus the parents’ natural inclination to buy the book for them. (Perhaps the problem is threefold.)
    Finally, I would say that it’s sad how schools view men. Children do not judge us for our gender so why should adults, unless there is something very sinister being drip-fed us by the media? Men are being systematically stripped of their place in the family and women are more than happy to fill the professional roles deemed unsafe for men (i.e. schools/ care homes/ anywhere that caters for vulnerable people) so it’s hardly surprising that, as men hobble aimlessly hoping for change and too proud to speak out, the children’s book market is dominated by women. Unfortunately, for the children, all but they are considered.

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