Statistically Speaking

There have been several recent news stories and associated twitter and natter about the subject of children's books from a statistical standpoint.
  • A study of children's picture books shows that the main character is male two times out of three.   (from New York Times Arts Beat)
  • In a recent UK study three out of ten children (aged 11 - 13) did not own a book.  And that was the girls.  With boys the number rises to four out of ten.  (from The Guardian)
Frankly,  it's that second story that seems to me to carry real meaning.  The discussion surrounding gender in children's books has been ongoing and most people associated with children's publishing know that girls will happily read books with male protagonists while the reverse does not hold true.  Would publishing more books with females in the leading role make any difference to this bias?

Some time ago The Guardian published a fascinating little piece by the novelist Ian MacEwan, in which he describes a day spent with his son, attempting to give away copies of novels to passing strangers.

Every young woman we approached - in central London practically everyone seems young - was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, "Read that, read that, read that ..." before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.
The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. "Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no." Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

It's really that "not for me" attitude that needs to be addressed in boys.  There are any number of ways this is being addressed at the publishing level - from high interest novels for reluctant middle grade readers to books geared to boys more interested in sport than literature - but the study linking literacy levels to ownership of books seems highly relevant to me.

Libraries are fine - fantastic, in fact - but children need to own books.  Kim Beatty, founder of the Toronto Children's Book Bank (an absolutely marvelous innovation) as quoted in article in The Toronto Star on this very subject:
I think ownership is essential to lifelong learning. You have to be able to pick up the book and when you want you read it over and over.  Every parent remembers reading the same book over and over for three weeks until you were sick of it. That’s how you build readers.
If you are in Toronto you can donate "gently used" children's books to the Book Bank, but what I think we really need is a book bank in every city and a book in every child's hands. Whether that book's hero is male or female really doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me.


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