Friday, May 23, 2014

Less snot and froth...

Recently I wrote a bit of a frothing-at-the-mouth reaction to an article quoting Jonathan Emmett in the Times (which turned up in the NZ Herald) about gender imbalance in the children's literature industry. Mr Emmett rightly responded to clarify a few things.

"Hi Melinda.

Sorry that the Times article annoyed the snot out of you. I didn't write it. It was written by two Times reporters in response to this blog post about children's book reviewing which I did write:

You've made a number of unfounded assumptions about my views, some of which are addressed in this post:

I've offered "some practical solutions that might work" under the section headed "Solutions" which starts on page 21 of this essay:

"And all you can say Mr Emmett is that we don't give our sons sufficient books about pirates?"
If you take the time to look at the rest of the essays and blog posts on, I hope you'll recognise that my argument is somewhat more complex and nuanced than that."

Fair enough. Mr Emmett's original article is considerably different to what appeared in the Times/NZ Herald (and I'm a little disturbed by how much the tone has been skewed). And his stats make for very interesting reading and raise a whole bunch of other questions about gender in writing, reviewing and publishing, that should be widely debated. I'm not totally convinced, at the latter end of the article, about how influential the boy-centricity of picture books (or the lack thereof) is on literacy levels. I wonder what contribution other factors like electronic gaming, online activities and television make to boys abandoning books? Do these things appeal more to boys? Here in New Zealand I sometimes even wonder how much the thought of the money to be made in sports (predominantly by men if we are considering gender imbalances) attracts boys away from reading? Plenty of boys I know certainly apply themselves more diligently to sporting activities than they do to academic ones. We are thought of as a sporting nation. Sports gets a lot of press (especially those sports played by men) compared with arts and culture. Sports are cool. Culture, hmm, maybe not so much. Children's book reviews in general are thin enough on the ground here in mainstream media, without considering the gender of the reviewers. This is the environment we are raising our boys in. These are complex issues.

If you are at all familiar with playground chants and rhymes you know how bloodthirsty and combative little children can be. I agree with Emmett that content should not be excessively sanitised. I think it's not necessarily always the publishers or the reviewers or librarians applying constraints (or gender-centric biases) to the content of children's books, but the (adult) consumers. Some adults felt my book The Were-Nana was far too scary for younger children and yet it won children's choice at the NZ Post Book Awards. In the end publishers have to publish what they believe they can sell. And they have to manage the risks of their choices. And how far would we push the content to attract the reluctant boy reader? Is that okay? What should our limits be? I also agree with Mr Emmett's lament about the sorry decline of children's non-fiction. For me this seems a more serious issue. If boys prefer reading non-fiction then this must also make a contribution to literacy levels. 

I still wonder how much our own subtle messages influence what boys think is cool to read. I wish I knew. I think too, some boys are even resistant to boy-preferred content, although this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to change their minds about books. On the flip side should we look at why many girl readers read more widely across a range of content. Is that driven by nature or nurture? Should we be producing more 'boy-centric' picture books or be applying different psychologically to the way we encourage boys to read? Either way we can do better. Mr Emmett, I am sorry I got so reductive. I really should know by now that sometimes the media like a spot of controversy and that some information might have dropped off along the way. 


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