book covers

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

Another Revamp Hits the Shelves: Alex Rider

1Stormbreaker2Point Blanc3Skeleton Key

Yeah yeah, I thought. I know why the kids like it: boys’ toys and gadgets, action scenes, mystery, slick dialogue, bam bam. Dismissing them out of hand in the same way I dismiss grown men’s love for 007, gladiator movies, Bourne identities, etc. Then my son went to hear Anthony Horowitz talk at the Southbank centre and came back inspired, and Walker Books contacted me about their relaunch for the brand, and I thought okay it’s time I read Alex Rider myself.
Wow! Tightly plotted, niftily written, the first book in the series, Stormbreaker, zooms along like a rocket to its target. I felt compelled from the first sentence. It’s as exciting and unrealistic as you could ask for in this genre. I loved our hero, and how clever and skilful and cool he is. I loved the machinations of the ‘MI6’ set up and the elusive villains. It made me smile, and admire Horowitz’s skilful storytelling. For someone usually disdainful of such spy thrillers, this one was more than a pleasure from start to finish. In this first adventure, Alex Rider is employed by MI6 precisely because he is a schoolboy, and can infiltrate the headquarters of Sayle Enterprises as the winner of a computer magazine competition to discover if there’s anything suspect about the line of computers, the Stormbreakers, which Sayle Enterprises are rolling out free to every school in the country. Of course, there is something highly suspect about Mr Sayle, not least his penchant for keeping a Portuguese Man ‘o War as his pet, and Alex Rider has to stop his deathly plan before it’s too late.

4Eagle Strike5Scorpia6Ark Angel

What’s so pleasing is that the Alex Rider books are exactly what they say on the tin! From the corny filmic staplines on the back cover…”His first assignment may well be his last” to the spy gadgets bestowed upon Alex (the zit cream that melts metal), to the chapter headings, “Double O Nothing” and the exhilarating non-stop action – these are all the right ingredients for this genre of pacey thriller. But it’s the flawless perfection that Anthony Horowitz brings to the genre with his taut writing style and seemingly effortless imagination that make this a powerful and exemplary series. I fully intend to now read the rest.

One keen fan has helped me out this week with my blog – here are his comments. His name is Samuel and he’s 10 years old:

Alex Rider is a good series, which I really like because it is fun and exciting. It follows an orphaned teenage spy, recruited by MI6. Alex was brought up by his Uncle Ian and his housekeeper, Jack Starbright. Jack kept on living with him after Uncle Ian’s death. Alex later discovers that his parents and his uncle were all secretly spies and were all assassinated.
One of my favourite books in the series is “Eagle Strike”. Alex is certain that Damian Cray, pop singer has got an evil plan after finding his phone number on an assassin’s mobile. MI6 don’t believe him and Alex sets out on his own to investigate. He travels to Holland to find Cray’s game console factory and finds out what ‘Eagle Strike’; Cray’s plot; is all about. I like it because it is exciting and there are lots of unexpected turns in the story. My favourite part is when Alex finds himself inside a deadly video game… in real life!
What I like most in this series are the gadgets. They are fun and exciting to have. The gadget maker Smithers is a bald, fat, friendly man who is my favourite character. My favourite gadget is a calculator which can be used to contact MI6 and can also jam CCTV cameras. Gadgets play a big part in the books because they add excitement and help make them interesting and full of suspense.
I love the Alex Rider series and hope to finish reading them all.

 

7Snakehead8Crocodile Tears9Scorpia Rising

For those of you who are yet to discover Alex Rider, luckily for you the whole series has been rebranded with covers designed by a video game designer, Two Dots, the studio who designed the packaging for Ubisoft’s video games Assassins Creed and Far Cry, and they suit the stories well. Clever spines highlight the number in the series, as well as spelling out Alex Rider when they are lined up on the shelf. To buy Stormbreaker, click here.

There is also a new Alex Rider website, www.alexrider.com and you can even go on ‘spy training’ camp with the Youth Hostels Association.

Thank you to Walker books for a review copy of Eagle Strike

10Russian Roulette

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Children do judge a book by its cover. The children who come to my library sessions tend to look at the back cover blurb only after they’ve decided they quite like the cover art. For younger children of course the picture on the front is everything – they cannot read the blurb yet. Even for adults, the cover picture dictates whether they buy the book for their children – this is particularly true in a gender divisive way – I don’t see many parents even picking up, let alone buying, this for boys:

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that there should be ‘separate’ books for boys and girls, I have lots of girls reading football books, especially the Tom Palmer series, although not so many boys reading Rainbow Fairies. Gender aside, how do we make a judgement on whether a book is right for us?

The emotional pull of the front cover is what draws in the reader at the start, and the artwork nowadays is often stunningly beautiful. The pairing of a good illustrator with the right writer can produce an artwork that is completely indicative of what’s inside. This is particularly relevant in modern children’s literature as illustrations become more and more central to a book’s success. One only has to look at sales of Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates to see that heavily illustrated text is today’s big attraction.

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

I know that Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates is going to be a funny story fully annotated with diagrams and illustrations simply by looking at the busy covers. In the same way I can tell that Skullduggery Pleasant crosses the horror/fantasy lines; The Parent Agency (illustrations by Jim Field) is going to be a comedy; and the Dick King Smith stories (now with rebranded covers by Hannah Shaw) will be gentle, old-fashioned and comforting. Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, even if I was unaware of Neil Gaiman’s style, is clearly going to be chilling. Lorenzo Mattotti’s dark cover illustration reflects those within, which in turn reflect the darkness of Gaiman’s retelling. In fact publishers seem to be taking more time and interest in picking the right illustrator for their covers as bookseller shelf becomes even harder to win.

mr stinkTwits

Some illustrators are used widely and can give the book great appeal – the use of Quentin Blake to illustrate David Walliams’ books gives them a market advantage and immediately allows for comparisons between Walliams and Roald Dahl. On the other hand, it can also be quite confusing for children: Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and Goth Girls titles have similar ‘looks’, but so does Witchworld – which is by a different author – Emma Fischel.

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

Likewise The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket looks vastly similar to The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas – both illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, and yet both completely different books by completely different authors, John Boyne and David Almond respectively. Within the industry we may know what’s going on – but does the consumer?

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

Likewise the choice of Nick Sharratt, illustrator and author of such titles as Shark in the Park, You Choose, and the Daisy picturebooks, to illustrate Jacqueline Wilson books is an interesting one. Whereas the Daisy picture books are aimed at 4-6 year olds, Jacqueline Wilson stories are for 8 years and over – sometimes 10 years and over, because of the issues dealt with in the story, but the covers appeal to the younger end of the age group.

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

When a publisher rebrands a classic book, there’s a collective interest in what they’ve chosen, as we already know the content and so we’re party to the same thoughts as the publisher. When Bloomsbury rebranded Harry Potter with Jonny Duddle covers (see Harry Potter blogpost), the publishers knew they had to please the people who had already read the book, as well as appeal to the new young readers who hadn’t. Personally I feel they got it right. One Hungarian student decided to design her own Potter covers – they glow in the dark. You can read about it here.

Sometimes the rebranding of the cover is an update, sometimes a publicity stunt. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in August 2014 took many by surprise, but was defended as being aimed at the adult market. Here are some of the Charlie covers through the ages.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

But how else can we judge a book? The book cover and blurb aside, Chickenshed publishers and Little Tiger Press often give a page number on the back of a book, almost like a film preview – indicating that you should read that page as it will give you the clearest insight into what the book will contain, or as the most enticing and intriguing part of the story, ensuring you want to read more.

When you’re buying online there’s a tool on many sites to ‘look inside’ the book, or view a couple of sample pages. More often than not it’s the contents page or endpapers, neither of which give much of an idea as to what’s inside. Some publishers and sites are more generous, giving the whole first chapter, although this is impossible with picture books, and rare with non-fiction titles.

On e-readers, samples are usually available to download before buying, but once the book is purchased, I find the most frustrating element of the e-reader is that you never see the cover or title again. Research shows that you’re more likely to forget a book having read it this way –is that because we need a more visual element with which to connect? Personally I find I can remember a book by its cover, even if I don’t always judge the book by it.