Tag Archives: children’s books

Gender Balance in Children’s Literature

Lately I’ve been taking a hard look at what my three year old daughter is reading. I’m especially interested in this for a number of reasons:

1. I UNDERSTAND THE EFFECT THAT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE HAD ON ME.

As a kid I went through a longish phase (directly corresponding to my Enid Blyton Famous Five phase) during which I wished I’d been born a boy. With the clarity of hindsight, I realise this was only because I perceived that boys got to do the fun stuff. Girls, too, got to do fun stuff, but only if they masqueraded as boys (eg. Georgina George).

I don’t want my own daughter to feel, at any stage — not even a little teensy bit — that she is shortchanged by her femaleness. I was a very keen reader as a kid, but I got stuck in ‘the loop’ (whereby I was still reading the books my grandmother had passed on to my mother). The old-fashioned values imparted by those books definitely had an impact.

It amazes me how many people keenly acknowledge the positive effect of literature on their own childhood lives without admitting that books can impart unwelcome messages equally.

It’s not okay to say, ‘As long as my kids are reading, that’s great.’ I used to think that, because I assumed the alternative was watching TV and playing (even more gender biased) computer games.

I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. It’s not okay for parents and teachers to be happy ‘so long as our kids are reading'; it very much depends on what they’re reading — most of all, the balance of it, more so than any individual book. My daughter would be better off watching nothing but thoughtful and inclusive TV shows than reading discriminatory  and thoughtless books.

2. DESPITE THE MISDIRECTED FEMINISATION OF EDUCATION IN RECENT DECADES, RESEARCH TELLS US WE SHOULD STILL BE CONCERNED ABOUT OUR GIRLS.

During study for a diploma in secondary education 10 years ago, I was introduced to a variety of educational studies. The ones that stick in my mind involve gender bias in the classroom, mainly because the conclusions of those studies echoed how I’d felt instinctively during my own time as student of a large, co-educational high school.

My first job was teaching in a girls’ high school, where gender bias is a non-issue. But as soon as I left that environment and started working at a co-ed school, I saw plenty of gender bias — a bias that seemed invisible to my new co-workers — most of whom had never set foot inside a girls’ only environment. The fact that my first, and most formative, teaching job was in a girls’ only school primed me to notice such things whether I wanted to deal with them or not. And like any form of inequality, once you start noticing, you can’t ever become blind again.

One of those studies had put numbers on the very real fact that in a classroom with a 50/50 gender balance, boys will feel shortchanged unless the boys are getting more than 50% of total teacher attention. This perception leads boys to act in ways which ensure they end up with a higher proportion of their teacher’s time. Likewise, when teachers are asked after a lesson to comment on the sum of calls on their attention, they are likely to underestimate how much attention they afforded the boys and overestimate how much attention they afforded the girls. It is expected in our society that male people will get more attention than female people.

Here’s a similar study: The Chilly Climate by Bernice R. Sandler.

See also: Recognizing (Almost) Invisible Gender Bias in Teacher-Student Interactions, a study by Dr. Alice Christie, Arizona State University President’s Professor Emeritus.

AndGender Bias In The Classroom: Do Teachers Give Boys More Attention? from Alas!

Despite these studies, you may have heard about the War Against Boys in education, as expounded by Christina Hoff Sommers. A response to that can be found here.

Yet Boys read for pleasure as much as girls.

It’s worth mentioning here that any observation of this kind involves writing of averages and totals — not of individuals. We all know girls who demand more than their fair share of attention in a group, and of boys who are quiet and unassuming.

There is another common misconception which affects girls. Fluent adult speakers  of English understand that the words ‘he’ and ‘man’ often include both men and women; moreover, we know exactly when the word ‘man’ refers only to men, and when it refers to both men and women. This actually requires quite an advanced command of our native language, and one of the studies I read ten years ago outlined an experiment in a kindergarten which concluded girls of that age do not have the skills to understand implicitly that females are included in a sentence employing masculine personal pronouns. Whenever the researcher said something like, ‘Anyone who wants to go and play on the slide should put his hand up’, no little girls put their hand up.

By extension, little girls would surely exclude themselves from stories making use of ‘he’.

Personally, I find Old Tom hilarious and gender-irrelevant, whilst Fiona’s story was all about breaking down stereotypes about pigs!

- Tiger mother

To a little girl, a rabbit is not ‘gender neutral’ so long as the rabbit is ‘he’. Gender neutrality in animal characters is a common but completely wrong assumption, because related research shows otherwise.

Besides, personified animals in children’s books are not really animals. When  they dress in human clothes, speak in words and feel human emotion, we’re no longer talking about animals.

English is not alone in its absence of a gender neutral personal pronoun (‘it’ does not suffice when speaking of people) but because of this developmental confusion, it really is important that when speaking to girls, especially, that we are hyperaware of the language we are using. When writing books, even more so.

What is mentioned less often, and what concerns me equally, is the message conveyed to our boys. They, too, are likely to interpret female exclusion whenever adults make use of the masculine pronoun. So what’s the result of a corpus of children’s literature whose default setting is ‘he’?

If a boy won’t read a book because it was written by a woman or features a female lead, then Darwinism will eventually take care of him.

- @sarahlapolla

The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them.

- from an excellently sane post by Saundra Mitchell, written partially in response to this uninformed claptrap, published in the very important New York Times. Here’s another intelligent response to that. And another one. Now, let’s hear no more from the old dude.

4. THIS POST BY MAUREEN JOHNSON REALLY CHALLENGED MY OWN ASSUMPTIONS LAST YEAR.

Sell The Girls:

The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

(excerpt)

Like most other people, I’d sort of resigned myself to the ‘immutable fact’ that While Girls Will Read Books With Boy Characters, Boys Will Notand cannot be expected toRead Books About Girls.

(Is this even true? That boys don’t read about girls? Some think not.)

This never struck me as right; it has always made me uncomfortable. But I assumed that it did no real harm, because if girls are reading AND boys are reading good books, what does it matter?

But Maureen Johnson’s post completely changed my view on that. She is absolutely right.

Related: Meryl Streep Says Guys Don’t Identify With Lady Characters, quoted at Jezebel. (And if Meryl Streep is right — about some men, at least — why might that be?)

5. gender bias is true of literature for all ages, and starts with picture books.

This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe,
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books.

Males are present in significantly more books than are females.

When all books are combined, we find 1,857 (out of 5,618) books where males appear in the titles, compared to 966 books with females; a ratio of 1:9.

For central characters, the ratio was 1.6:1.

The greatest disparity is for animal characters (2.6:1).

from the McCabe study.

This podcast, even more than Maureen Johnson’s article, has shocked me. Here’s why. You see, I did know that literature from the early 20th century was sexist. Hell, the entire world was sexist back then. It was quite understandable that Enid Blyton would create the tomboyish character of George during WW2 — back then boys really did get to do the fun stuff. (Also some very crap stuff, but look at what women were doing too.)

I assumed that as long as I introduced my daughter to books which have been published recently — in the last ten years — that I wouldn’t have to worry about gender discrimination. I thought that had been fixed up.

McCabe’s study shows that I was absolutely 100% wrong about that.

Nothing much has changed, and that shocks me. If we want to ensure our children are exposed to a balance of male and female characters, we have to go out of our way to redress the balance, making a conscious effort to choose books about female characters rather than plucking good books at random from the library shelf.

6. VARIOUS DISMISSIVE COMMENTS ABOUT ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’

From the comments section of the podcast mentioned above:

Girls love Hobbs’s work as much as boys, and for very different reasons. He manages to speak to them in ways that no politically correct, officially sanctioned work will.

- rongthing

Hobbs’s books are subversive and wonderful at many levels, and thankfully free from self-conscious ‘correctness’.

- Tiger mother

Notice that the word ‘correctness’ is placed inside quotation marks – the punctuation equivalent of rubber gloves.

But despite its mainly pejorative use, ‘politically correct’ is not a pejorative term.

Just imagine what it would be like to live in a non-politically correct society. You don’t even need to imagine. You can learn about some very non-politically correct parts of the modern world — countries where I doubt the phrase exists in common lingo. I’m talking about countries where men control the wealth while (uneducated) women are forced to stay at home and belong, like chattels, to their husbands.

There are more women living like this in our world than there are liberated people like you and me. (I make an assumption about you, because first you can read, and second you have access to the internet.)

‘Political correctness’ is not an evil thing. It’s a very good thing indeed, but mainly if you happen to be the sort of person who understands that discrimination still exists. If you’re the sort of person who thinks we’re there now, and that everybody should just shut up and stop whinging, then I suggest you’re the sort of person who makes use of phrases such as,’The world’s gone PC mad.” I suggest you haven’t had your eyes opened to it, regardless of which sex you happen to be.

I think what Leigh Hobbs says in that interview speaks for itself, and to me his lack of awareness on this issue is loud and clear. He has no awareness of his very own work, estimating that characters in his own books were be 50/50, yet when the interviewer added up the total, his own work reflected the exact gender discrepancy that was uncovered by Janice McCabe’s research. I’m disappointed he wasn’t challenged on this point, though I suspect the interviewer counted up his characters only after the interview had been conducted.

7. A QUESTIONABLE DEFINITION OF ‘STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER’

What also disappointed me was the fact that Sally Rippin, the other Australian children’s book author interviewed during the podcast, has now bowed to pressure to write a series featuring a boy protagonist, because boys (including her own 8 year old son) won’t be seen dead reading a book with a female character on the front cover.

Previously, Sally Rippin has written a series about Billy B Brown, who is bad at ballet and excellent at soccer.

At first sight, this looks like a wonderful example of a strong, female character in literature, but this description does not sit easily with me.

Basically, Billy B Brown sounds like a boy, bar the fact she was born with a vagina. The fact is, this is not a story about the typical female experience. It’s almost erroneous to count a tomboy figure as a strong female character — and it feels to me as if we’re still stuck on the Famous-Five-George prototype. And why is it mostly females who do most of the crossing of gender boundaries? It’s still harder to find a ‘sissy’ boy than it is to find a strong, ‘tomboyish’ girl. As ever, this feminist issue isn’t just in aid of girls.

To me, a ‘strong female character’ is one who doesn’t have to give up typically female pursuits in order to be ‘strong’. While tomboy girls exist — I was one of those myself — most girls are not. There is certainly a place for Sally Rippin’s books about Billy B Brown, and they are enjoyed by many, but it’s still a mistake to assume we’re ‘there’ when it comes to gender equality.

I’m reminded now of a Quentin Tarantino interview in which QT recommends all girls watch Kill Bill for a wonderful example of a strong female character.

Corollary: Strong female characters = strong male characters.

Note for Life: If you’re going to argue with someone with a cult following like Quentin Tarantino, wear an unobtrusive hat because you do yourself no favours. I don’t feel this woman was allowed to make her point. Also, here’s a nice feminist breakdown of female characters in the work of QT.

In other words, strong female characters hold their own during physical fights (despite the real-life discrepancy in size and strength between the sexes). In this definition of ‘strong’, women will never be the equal of men, except in fiction, and both sexes know it.

Strong women go on missions to kill.

As you might have gathered, I take issue with many examples of ‘strong female characters’ in fiction.

As much as I enjoy the Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman’s character bears little to no relation to my own life. She is not a female role model — the Kill Bill movies are light entertainment, and we’re in serious trouble if we start using Quentin Tarantino’s disturbing tales as models for real life.

We’re also in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals a ‘physically strong, violent character.’ Since we don’t see violence in picture books, that’s not a pressing issue, but what I do see as pressing: We’re in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals ‘tomboyish character’.

If girls are reading books about boys playing soccer, why shouldn’t boys be expected to read about strong girls who happen to dance ballet? Instead of taking for granted that boys will shun these books (and I don’t live in a remote hippie commune, so I happen to know they do), why not open up with boys a discussion about why they won’t have anything to do with what they perceive to be girls’ stuff?

Related Link: Tomboys and Pretty Little Girls: Why Should She Have to Choose One or the Other? from BlogHer

So, what is a strong female? 

A strong female resembles a strong male in most ways: She is honest, caring, considerate, humorous and all those other things we value in our own friends.

But a strong female is not necessarily a ‘tomboy‘ (read: honorary boy).

It is a huge mistake for children’s authors to create tomboyish female characters if the honest reason they’re doing this is to appeal to both sexes. Girls need to see themselves reflected in literature, just as boys do, and stories about ballet-loving girls should not be labeled and marketed as ‘books for girls’, thereby halving an author’s audience and income.

Obviously, this issue works its way right up into adult fiction. Books about feminine women are ‘chick-lit’ (when the protagonist is single and in her 20s) and books about grown women managing families is called ‘women’s fiction’, despite the fact that men are members of families equally. Note that books about men doing manly things (like solving crime and making lots of money) is not marketed as men’s fiction. In the local bookstore there is no section called ‘men’s fiction’ — it fits into some other genre like crime, or literary fiction.

In fiction as in real life, ‘man’ is the default setting; ‘woman’ is still the other.*

*Last week, waiting for storytime, I found myself privy to a conversation between 10 or so local librarians who’d gathered for a mini-conference. They were swapping stories from The Lending Desk, and all of them had male patrons who regularly borrowed women’s fiction ‘for their wives’. After the librarians each had a chuckle, one of them pointed out that it’s not for anybody to judge what someone else likes to read, and they all agreed with this. It did make me wonder, though, how many more men would be reading stories about women if they felt they were ‘allowed’ to do so. This issue is not just a women’s issue. Women’s issues never are.

I’ve since written more on the topic of Strong Female Characters.

8. THE IDEA THAT ‘ART IS ABOVE REPROOF’.

Leigh Hobbs’ response to McCabe’s study is lackadaisical, dismissive and shows his own lack of awareness. The idea that ‘books are art, and the artist must be given free rein to do as he or she wishes’ doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Sure enough, in the creating phase of any artist’s work, nothing should be constrained. Nothing at all. It’s during the editing phase that someone, at some point, needs to consider the impact of the story on a young audience (though I hasten to add I’m no proponent of censorship for art with an adult audience). Questions about gender (and ethnic) inclusion should be asked after the creation but before the production phase.

1)    A picture book should have at least two female characters

2)    Who talk to each other

3)    About something other than a male character.

In other words, more picture books with plenty of characters should pass the Bechdel test too.

Max Barry has a great name for books like the one below: Smurf Books. His is a tongue-in-cheek post rather than a frustrated one like this, but his message is the same. (How refreshing to hear it acknowledged by a man. Does it require a man to have daughters before realising this gender bias, I wonder?)

McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.

Running a story past the Bechdel checklist would not hamper anybody’s ‘creativity’*.

*since we all know artistic inspiration is a wild, flighty and ephemeral thing, subject to evaporation when questioned.

It would be a mistake to assume authors are experts in sociology and gender studies. By and large, they are not. Since authors, as much as anyone, are products of a gender-imbalanced society, it’s going to take first acknowledgement, and second deliberate action, before this balance is addressed.

Let us  start first with the denial.

Related And Sort Of Related Links:

1. Most Common Words In Toy Advertisements (for boys and girls)

2. My son is a big reader. How can I tempt his twin sister? from The Guardian, which should challenge us to think a bit harder about why a seven year old girl might give up reading.

3. Art and Adventure: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls, by Mary Pauline Lowry.

4. Games Take The Cake: A Digital Media Industry Report on Girls and Gaming, which explains that females are ignored in the video game market. (But you didn’t need a link to tell you that, did you?)

It’s possible that when it comes to YA, fiction is light on strong male characters.

5. Female authors with feminine given names are still expected to, or are choosing to, use initials rather than their full names on book covers. Here’s some thoughtful musing from successful self-published author, Joanna Penn, or J.F. Penn. I suspect all of this comes down to the way in which we still don’t expect male people to read stories written by… or about… female people. For more on this issue, see No Place For A Woman: Female Fiction, from Beth Carswell at Abe Books, who surmises, as I have, that ‘It started with the children’s books, of course.’

6. Women and Children First! Why anyone who cares about gender and literature should pick up a children’s book. Now, from VIDA.

7. Teaching Kids About Women’s Stories from Don’t Conform Transform

8. Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature.

9. The Title Of John Carter And Why It Has Everything To Do With Gender And Money In Hollywood, from The Mary Sue. This is about a novel turned to film. The novel is called A Princess Of Mars. The film adaptation is called John Carter. So, why did the director change this female-centric title to a man’s name? You may not be surprised at the explanation.

10. A Girl’s Love for Batman from Beyond The Margins, in which a little girl is better off after engaging with typically boyish things. It works the other way too, naturally.

11. Beyond Judy Blume: Books for children of all genders from Bitch Media

Irritated by gendered activity books! Boys get history, robots, maths; girls get dresses, cupcakes, cute animals #kidsbookbuying

I have a real issue with pink glittery books featuring brides, bridesmaids and weddings. But they sell. Ideology vs commerce #kidsbookbuying

- @lilymandarin: author, reader, bookseller, 8 Sept 2011.

12. Ruth Whippman is the first other woman I’ve seen write about the general terribleness of the Mr Men and Little Miss books. A welcome read at Huffington Post.

13. Mrs H, blogger/writer, comments on this very issue after attending a workshop about getting children’s books published. And here is Nosy Crow’s response, with an interesting discussion in the comments section. It even prompted a follow-up post from Nosy Crow. One of the most interesting links I picked out of that discussion was a compilation of books/movies/stories featuring good, interesting female characters: A Mighty Girl. See also Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows

14. My daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists… While both male and female authors are writing fantasy about primarily male protagonists, female protagonists dominate realistic fiction. — from Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction and the Gender Divide at From The Mixed Up Files.

15. Reel Girl’s Gallery Of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2012, and the follow up post. Reel Girl also introduced me to the concept of ‘The Minority Feisty‘.

16. Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages

Highly Recommended: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, particularly page 219, for an amusing take on The Jetsons.

Some More Than Others

One of the most obvious facts about grownups to a child is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child.

Randall Jarrell
US author & poet (1914 – 1965)


It’s difficult to remember what it’s like to be a child, because it’s impossible to undo adult knowledge.

- Alison Croggon, from Overland 202

Don’t do it if you’re not having fun.

“If I don’t enjoy what I’m writing,” she says simply, “I put it in the wastebasket. Because if I don’t enjoy writing it, why would anybody enjoy reading it?”

- Beverly Cleary

On Interactive Picture Books

First: Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson tells why she vetoed ebook.

This is one of those occasions where I’m not sure what I think until I’ve written it down.

This household has an iPad, and a two year old, and a two year old who ‘reads’ books on the iPad. The way I see it, the iPad has saved my sanity somewhat. It has saved me reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears over and over again, because the two year old can put our app on autoplay.

I know she has learned from this experience with the iPad, because she refers to anything in a bowl as porridge (even soup), requests porridge for lunch, refers to Large, Medium and Small size as Daddy, Mummy and Baby size. (This doesn’t come from me – I’m not the mawkish type – so it must come from The Three Bears.)

Our app of that story isn’t especially interactive. In fact it’s underwhelming, and fairly amateurish as far as apps go, and at first I was annoyed to have paid money for it. But it remains one of Hannah’s favourite apps, not because of the app itself; because of the story. (I suspect.)

This particular app annoys me in other ways too:

  1. The pages are slow to turn, which is hopeless for an impatient two year old (though may help them to learn a bit of technological patience, I suppose).
  2. There are prominent buttons on the front page which take her straight to the iTunes store. If I don’t happen to be logged out, she can buy another book app from this company with one click of the button. I don’t like that our kids’ books now function equally as advertisements and books. I don’t like that trend at all.

On the upside, our Goldilocks app features little in the way of interactivity – on the first page Hannah likes to guide Goldilocks down a path, and set a bird flying by touching it, but that’s about it.

Julia Donaldson is right. Just because we can do interactivity now doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Like Donaldson, I have also been underwhelmed by the much-hyped Alice in Wonderland app. I haven’t got the full version because I think it’s overpriced. More to the point, I can’t see that the physics library adds anything to the story at all.

“If I tell you what’s in the box, it would never be as good as your own imagination.”

- Bruce Coville 

The more pertinent question: Does it take anything away?

Quite possibly. Anyone who’s looked after toddlers knows that the best toys are those which are ‘not complete’: Building blocks rather than plastic models; blank paper over colouring books; cardboard tubes, shoe boxes, egg cartons, pipe cleaners and paints.

Books are similar. The Alice app is a stunning looking thing, with professional graphics and programming. For instance, when Alice pulls out a box of comfits and hands them round to the Dodo and others, this page includes a static picture, just like a book, only with a bunch of pills falling down the page and settling at the bottom. These pills can be shaken up if the iPad itself is shaken*.

*The first time you set eyes on an iPad this is something that wows you – that and the way the image rotates as the tablet rotates – but is it just me, or do you get sick of that mighty quick? I’ve locked my screen so it can’t turn around when I don’t want it to.

With that sort of interactivity, the publisher of the Alice app is offering something a little too complete. That kind of ‘interactivity’ looks fairly impressive, though I’m told by someone who knows that it’s easy to program that if you’re a programmer. Besides, it misses the point.

Here’s the point of children’s literature:

  1. Develops literacy
  2. Teaches children about the wider world
  3. Fosters empathy in others by encouraging them to put themselves in characters’ shoes
  4. Gives the gift of a wonderful inner life. A.K.A. imagination.

The danger of turning books into apps is that the apps will resemble television, and plenty of research has been done on the effects of too much of that.

That said…

Tablet computers do have a place in children’s literature.

The Mercer Meyer and Dr Suess books have been converted well.


In those apps, when the child taps on a picture, they see an image of the written word. A voice tells the child the name of that item. And like all of the children’s book apps I have seen, there’s the ‘Read to Me’ option on the welcome screen.

There is plenty of research about the benefits of read-alouds, which I used to do every morning as part of form teacher duties, at the recommendation of literacy experts who had been trained in such things. This was high school, but all students can improve their reading skills during read-alouds, right up until they reach adult reading age. Even after that. I reached adult reading age years ago, but every now and then I’m listening to an audio book or a podcast and I think, ‘Aw, so that’s how you say that word.’ (Because I’d only ever seen it written down.) Does that ever happen to you? That’s the sort of learning experience a toddler gets when we read a book aloud to them, only on a much grander scale, because they know far fewer words.

For toddlers, the best person to read aloud is a significant adult, not a voice coming out of a computer. But as I already mentioned, looking after toddlers all day can be a brain numbing experience for an adult, because cute as they can be, toilet training, conversations about clouds and reading the same favourite book over and over and over and over… is akin to psychological torture by, oh, about 5:31 pm.

What I’d Like To See From Children’s Book Apps

  1. No advertisements. This is idealistic of me, I know. But if there must be advertisements, the button that buys your other apps should not be in such a prominent place that the kid keeps clicking on it thinking they’re going to the next page or whatever. This is very annoying and I won’t buy more of your apps on principle.
  2. Font which is meant to be read. I know that you offered the read to me option, but don’t assume the kid isn’t going to read along with you. The font needs to be big enough to bloody well read. If the font is black, don’t put it on a dark background. This completely misses the point.
  3. Don’t let the interactivity compete with the story. If you’re really into that, you’re better off coding a computer game. I’d like to see a distinction maintained between children’s books apps, computer games and TV, even though those lines are naturally blurred.
  4. If you’re going to highlight words as the voice reads, the highlighting needs to coincide with the words. Otherwise it’s worse than useless. I personally prefer that apps don’t do this at all. I think there’s enough flashing on screen without that function. Better to highlight a block of text at once rather than the individual words. For me it’s almost headache inducing.
  5. Don’t include too many words on one ‘page’. This means that interactive apps have a best-fit with easy readers. Once children get to the point where they are reading books with a significant number of words on one page then they should be reading books (or eBooks, perhaps). That said, don’t push kids away from picture books. Picture books continue to be enjoyable right throughout childhood life.
  6. By all means, experiment with pop-out windows and what have you, but the book must still feel linear. I mean, I need to feel like I’ve gone from page one right through to the end, without too many diversions. Pick a path apps are different again, but I think for toddlers, the linearity is important, in the same way toddlers require an ending which is safe and ties up the story.
  7. The story must be priority. The story is not an add-on to showcase your wonderful programming and artwork. Good children’s writing has been undervalued for a long time, and I can’t blame apps. Apps are only exacerbating the issue.

To end, I happen to know a two year old who can read. Yes, I do. Until I saw it for myself, I didn’t think it possible that kids that young could read; I thought it was simple word recognition. But he can actually read, at two and a half. When we were in the library together, I pulled a random book off the shelf and asked him to read it for me. He read it, until his attention wandered. (About page two.)

I asked his mother – my friend – what she did to get him reading so early. She insists she does nothing at all. I know this isn’t entirely true. Her two year old asks her to read him books and makes her sit with him and recite the alphabet over and over again. My two year old hasn’t the slightest interest in that. My friend is pretty sure that several hours of TV per day hasn’t harmed him, and she’s also pretty sure his early reading had something to do with an interactive reading toy he’s got.

Sometimes you’ve just got to let kids develop at their own pace. And if toys can help get them there, they can’t be bad. Same goes for apps.

Related Links: My Kid Can Read And Now My Life Is Ruined; The Printed Book Is Doomed and Here’s Why from The Telegraph.

On Children’s Writing

That Dickhead who said he might become a children’s writer if he had a brain injury — you know, the one who doesn’t need to be any more searchable than he already is — is only saying what lots of people already think. So it’s kind of good he said it, because those of us who know differently now have motivation to offer two sides of that story.

I suspect the sentiment that children’s writing requires no talent comes most often from the mouths of those who’ve had very little to nothing to do with children. I suspect people who look down on children’s writers also look down upon those who care for children. There’s a widely held belief, which has done women in particular no good at all over the centuries, that looking after children — engaging them and educating them — is unskilled labour.

This is reflected in pay. Here in Australia, preschool teachers are paid the same rate as unskilled manual labourers. Yet these women — and they are overwhelmingly women — do the most important job in the world.

So this idea that children’s books can be written by unskilled people is a very dangerous idea indeed. It’s one step away from assuming that people we pay to look after our children don’t need to be engaging or talented in what they do. This will be reflected to some extent in the value attributed to childcare workers, and mothers, and fathers, who choose to stay at home and care for their own kids.

The thing is, I think this idea might even be shared by certain publishers.

No, I’m not going to name any books in particular, because if you walk into a book store you’ll find them yourself: Children’s books which have been written for purely commercial reasons. The writing is formulaic, the story is hackneyed, the pictures uninspiring. Children may enjoy those books once or twice, but most adults reading those stories aloud are overwhelmed by the urge to flip to the back of the book, and are reluctant to read it again. You can find such books given away as promotional products, or featuring heavily promoted goods, or written as an afterthought as part of a larger merchandising plan. Perhaps the books are based on a popular children’s show, or perhaps the publisher hired a writer to spew out some simplistic drivel to fill some perceived gap in the market.

Perhaps Dickheads look only at these mass produced children’s books and assume all children’s books are like that. They’re not. Dickheads wouldn’t know that, necessarily, because they haven’t even looked.

If you care for a toddler, you’ll be well aware of the difference. You’ll appreciate the genius of a well-written children’s book. The genius is masked by simplicity. The genius is in its simplicity.

In this household we own the complete works of Dr Seuss. We also own other books, written in Dr Seuss style, which feature very similar rhyming features, similar artwork and identical font. These books are written by other authors, but they are marketed under the ‘Dr Seuss’ brand.

My two year old has no idea what the authorial difference is — the books are the same size and feature identical logos on the spines. They look as if they have been written by the same person.

Yet our two year old insists I read her the original Dr Suess books. Every. Single. Time. She doesn’t know the others are pastiche. She’s not influenced by any marketing. For her, Dr Suess isn’t a ‘tastier brand’. She simply likes Dr Seuss stories more, because Dr Suess was a genius. The pastiche writers are good, but they don’t have what Dr Suess had. Who can even define it? I’d say it’s easier to define what makes an adult’s book good than to define what makes a children’s book good. I bet Dickhead himself can’t explain it either.

Mem Fox, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, Mercer Meyer, Shirley Hughes and Eric Carle are also genius. There are many, many others.

Now that children’s stories are entering a new phase of publishing — many will be ‘apps’ rather than hardcover books — I would like to see more weight on the genius of storytelling. Not less.

Yet that’s not what I’m seeing so far. I’m seeing emphasis on the whirly gigs, the pushy things, the bells and the whistles. I’m buying iPad books which are all about marketing, which feature advertisements to buy more stuff in an easy-clickable place. I’d hate anyone to assume that writing for children is child’s play. This may lower the overall standard of children’s writing, especially if Adult Literary Dickheads actually have any sway.