There has been a lot of talk within the book industry over the past week or so about gender within the publishing industry both in terms of differences in reading habits between boys and girls, and in the gender balance of people who work in publishing.
My interest was sparked initially by an article written for The Bookseller by Nosy Crow business development manager, Tom Bonnick, who tackled the issue of encouraging boys to read. Prompted by the announcement of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist which features only 3 male writers out of the eighteen shortlisted authors, Bonnick discusses the statistics which show that boys do not read as much as girls. I have to say that these statistics did surprise me a little, but there are so many factors involved that I think it’s difficult to draw solid conclusions from such limited data.
I was most interested in looking at how these figures had changed over the last year and one statistic really stood out for me:
68.7% of parents of boys said they read with their child daily whereas the figure for girls was 75.3%. This survey was carried out on parents of 3, 4, and 5 year old children. Surely, if by the age of 5 there is such a discrepancy between parents’ attitudes towards reading, dependent on the gender of their child, it is no wonder boys read less than girls as they grow into independent readers.
When we break this statistic down further, it is seen that the real difference comes at the age of 5 where the percentages of boys who read every day drops to 62.1% from 72.1% for 4 year olds. Although there is also a drop for girls, their figure remains at 73.5%, higher than the highest percentage for boys across all three years. Perhaps this shows that at the time when children are just starting to read independently, we need to be encouraging and supporting them more rather than letting this reading habit slip away.
This means supporting them in reading across all platforms however. Nobody is trying to pretend that reading on a touch screen in the same as reading a printed book. It’s not. It’s a different kind of reading that involves different processes in the brain but, as Bonnick states, we won’t encourage boys to read “by categorising some forms of reading as more valid than others”.
Perhaps one of the most important things Bonnick said with regards to this discussion of gender is that “Male authors and male readers are not the same thing”. We have thankfully moved past the time when authors such as J. K. Rowling were encouraged to use initials instead of a first name to make sure boys weren’t put off by their books. Now we have authors such as Liz Pichon, Francesca Simon, and Julia Donaldson, all of whom have been highly successful with girls and boys alike.
Returning to the issue of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist, I would argue that, although the majority of the authors on this list are female, the target audiences of their books are not necessarily solely female. People seem to have taken issue with the teen shortlist most of all, so I’ll use that category to demonstrate my point here. In case you’re not aware, the shortlisted books in the teen category are:
- Half Bad by Sally Green
- Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
- Dead Ends by Erin Lange
- The Apple Tart of Hope by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
- Smart by Kim Slater.
Of these, I would say that only one (Only Ever Yours) has a gendered cover with a picture of a girl on the front and a title that could reasonably be mistaken for a romance novel – although that is the furthest thing from the truth.
Half Bad looks to me as if it’s being targeted at a male readership, or at least a gender-neutral readership, with a neutral colour palette, a male protagonist, and the promise of adventure.
The other four titles fall somewhere in between, and although I have only read half of this shortlist at the moment, I would not say that it is unbalanced in terms of its readership, only its authors. As we delve deeper into these issues of gender, we find ourselves caught up in all sorts of other debates. Are there as many men writing YA as women? In my experience, no. Perhaps this is coincidence, or perhaps it has something to do with the general outside opinion of YA as the home of frivolous, morally simple books. We also get caught up in the gendered cover debate (one of my favourites to rant about) and can consider things like Maureen Johnson’s coverflip challenge.
It’s clear that this is a debate that spans so many areas and isn’t going to find a fix-all solution any time soon. In the meantime, all we can do is keep talking about these issues in an open and honest way. The NLT statistics showed there was an overall improvement in reading levels from 2013 to 2014, and however small it is, that’s a step in the right direction.