A guest post by Jonathan Emmett

Jonathan Emmett is a children's author. In addition to writing picture books, such as Bringing Down the Moon, Someone Bigger and The Princess and the Pig, he also writes and paper-engineers pop-up books. He has a website at scribblestreet.co.uk

“Avoid pigs and witches,” — this advice was given to me a few years ago when I was writing fiction for a schools’ reading scheme. Pigs had to be avoided because they could offend Muslim readers and witches because they could offend Christians. The editor that imparted this advice knew from experience that stories that included them were unlikely to be accepted for publication in a schools’ reading scheme.

Picture book publishers are less sensitive about these elements and three of my most popular picture books
are about pigs. When I do a school or library visit, I give the school or library service advance notice of which books I intend to read so they can assess their suitability. I’m rarely asked to change my original selection, but when I am it’s usually on the grounds of religion. On one occasion in 2010 I had to cut my picture book Pigs Might Fly from a visit as the library I was visiting was in a predominately Muslim area and the library service felt that some of the audience might find the book offensive. A couple of years earlier, a predominately Asian (mixed Hindu and Muslim) school I visited in the same city had specifically asked me to read the same book. When I’d mentioned the supposed unsuitability of the book for a Muslim audience to one of the school’s Asian teachers, she’d rolled her eyes and shook her head at the idea that anyone might hold this view.

Although the belief that
Muslims find stories about pigs offensive is still evident among publishers, librarians and teachers, in my experience it’s only non-Muslims that subscribe to it. Indeed, as long ago as 2003 the Muslim Council of Britain appealed for an end to the "well-intentioned but misguided" movement to remove books featuring pigs from primary school shelves so as not to offend Muslims.

The wider point here is that the most reliable way to judge a book’s appeal to a certain demographic group is to get a member of that demographic group to judge it. The judgement of a well-informed outsider will generally be less reliable than that of a well-informed insider.

I’ve been making this point a lot recently, but the issue has been gender rather than religion. I believe that picture books tend to reflect female reading tastes more than male ones and that this is deterring many boys from establishing a reading habit. I’ve written at length about this issue at 
coolnotcute.com and made several suggestions as to how male tastes might be better represented in the picture book world. One suggestion I’ve made is that both sexes be equally represented on the judging panel of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, which also judges the Carnegie Medal for fiction. The Carnegie Greenaway panels have been overwhelmingly female for some time and this year all thirteen judges were women. I’ve suggested that the Carnegie Greenaway should follow the example of grown-up literary awards, such as the Man Booker, by selecting gender-balanced panels from next year onwards.

If we want every child to love books, we have to do our utmost to make sure that every child’s perspective is accurately reflected in them. At the moment I think we’re falling far short of this, particularly in the world of picture books where reading habits are first established. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. If a child does not see their perspective represented in the world of children’s books, they’re less likely to want to enter that world. They’re less likely to read books and less likely to become publishers, booksellers, children’s librarians — or book award judges. And, if they have children of their own, they are less likely to read to them. If we want to break this cycle, we have to make a concerted effort to get under-represented groups directly involved in the world of children’s literature.

While some people have supported my proposal of a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway others have strongly opposed it. The judging panel is made up of children’s librarians and one children’s librarian told me that it was hugely insulting to her profession to suggest that a gender-balanced panel would be a better judge of books for children of both sexes than a woman-only panel.

One justification for a woman-only panel is that any differences between male and female reading tastes are entirely a result of upbringing, so the gender of the panellists is irrelevant. I’m not going to address this particular argument here, but my essay Nature and Nurture 
outlines some of the scientific evidence that contradicts this view.

Other justifications I’ve heard for a woman-only panel are:

  • The judges are representative of the profession, which is overwhelmingly female.
  • It tends to be women that put themselves forward to be judges.
  • The judges are highly trained, experienced professionals who are entirely objective in their judgments.
  • Gender-balancing the panel would mean that some male judges would be selected on the basis of representation rather than merit.

Appropriately reworded, these same four arguments could be used to justify the under-representation of any demographic group, whether that demographic related to religion, class, race or sexuality.  I suspect that some of the people that used these arguments to justify an all-women panel would be less comfortable using them to justify an all-white panel.

These same four arguments have also been used to justify the under-representation of women in the British judiciary. 23% of the judiciary of England and Wales are women compared with 51% of the population. This is
the third lowest figure in Europe — the European average is 48% women in the judiciary. High court judges are highly trained, experienced professionals; I suspect that some of them might find the suggestion that a gender-balanced judiciary would be better than a male-dominated one “hugely insulting”. Nevertheless, there is a growing acceptance both within and without the legal profession that the judiciary ought to be more representative of the population as a whole, not just in terms of gender, but in terms of race and other demographics.

Being of a different sex, race, class, religion or sexuality brings a different perspective to judgment that no amount of training can authentically replicate – and this applies to the judges on a children’s book award panel as much as the judges on high court benches.

The Carnegie Greenaway panel’s lack of inclusivity is only a tiny part of this problem, but it’s not insignificant. The Carnegie and Greenaway awards do a great deal to promote children’s literature and thoroughly deserve their prestigious positions. But their prestigious positions are also the reason I’ve chosen to focus on them. If the Carnegie and Greenaway adopted an inclusive approach to panel selection then other children’s awards might follow their example. The winners of many children’s book awards are decided by children’s votes, but the shortlists for these awards are sometimes selected by a panel of adults — if so, that panel needs to be inclusive! And if book awards became more inclusive, other institutions in children’s literature might follow suit.

Book awards are important. When we give a book an award we’re not just recognising that that particular book is exceptional, we’re sending out a message that books are to be cherished and valued. If we want every child to pay attention to that message, we have to ensure that every child’s perspective is accurately and equally reflected in the judging of children’s book awards.

Jonathan and Inclusive Minds hope you will share your views on this post using the comment option.