Thursday, November 24, 2016

The 'stigma' of being a 48-year old male children's book reviewer - A ReadItTorial

This week's ReadItTorial was partially inspired by Keza McDonald's musings on being a videogame reviewer as detailed on Kotaku a few weeks back.

The article was, overall, a bit of a "New Games Journalism" style article,  stating a fairly obvious point (no one over a certain age will ever 'get' videogames, ho ho ho) but I wholly agreed with the core point of the piece.

Writing about videogames (which once upon a time I did for a couple of websites) for a living and telling people that you do so is akin to the subject I'm rapidly trying to get around to here.

Now, fellow book reviewers, you may have encountered this too but without meaning to draw some ridiculously sexist statement out of thin air to completely undermine this piece, you probably get this happening to you a lot less if A) you're female and B) have children so bear with me as I only tick one of those boxes.

Writing about children's books as a 48 year old dad (with no discernible hipster cred other than a straggly beard) is a tough gig.

I don't think it has anything to do with personal aesthetics per se (though obviously the prettier you are, sadly the more marketable you also are and it's pretty obvious that if you're a YouTube Makeover Sensation or - you know - a proper 'celeb' whatever the heck that is these days, with a zillion Twitter followers you can turn your hand to reviewing books in the time it takes for a marketing executive to draw up a contract).

It does have a lot to do with the perception that if you're a 'grown up' man (and I use the term 'grown up' very very loosely in my case) who fesses up to being passionate about, talking about, and writing about children's books, to put no finder point on it you're going to be seen as being a bit bloody weird in most people's eyes.

I've made a habit of collecting and counting and mentally documenting those weird sideways glances, the uncomfortable silences or the stilted fake laughs you get as if you've just politely informed the person you're conversing with that you like to wear cats on your head and have a penchant for rubbing your chest hair with squirrel oil.

At Charlotte's school, I get the thousand yard stare from Charlotte's teachers when I try to talk about her reading achievements through the blog, and the way we write reviews - not to mention the sheer volume of books Charlotte reads (which of course doesn't cut any kind of credit when it comes to her having to read some of the utter bilge she's given to work her way through at school, having to write a reading diary about books she'd never touch in a million years off her own back even though she's long been a 'free reader').

Likewise at hometime I get the two-thousand-yard stare from other parents every time I bring the blog up. Some are mummy bloggers who don't think it's odd to review juice boxes, beauty products or bottle warmers, yet reviewing children's books seems to be a subject they just can't wrap their heads around (though as soon as they hear the idea it's amazing how quickly they start covering books on their own blogs themselves!)

At my largely male-dominated workplace I once mentioned the whole blogging thing to my line manager who was asking what I do in my spare time before uncomfortably shifting in his seat and giving that polite little nervous half-laugh once more. I'm not really sure that the reaction would've been that much different if I'd fessed up to blogging about funicular railways or the mating habits of Venezuelan Fruit Bats, blogging is unfairly still seen as something that people do when they've got verbal diarrhoea with no outlet for it.

Friends and family are a little better though this may be largely because they see the direct results of this blog in Charlotte's reading abilities, and the way she reading enhances her curiosity and knowledge, so perhaps they understand it and tolerate it more because of that.

I think the only people I don't get weird reactions from are other booky folk, who (thank goodness) really do not give a tinker's fig what you are, what you look like, what your social standing is, whether you're male or female, what you do for a day job or (most importantly) how big your knockers are so long as you can talk good book.

I sometimes wish I'd masked my identity a lot better though, perhaps even pretended to be a gorgeous slim yummy mummy with acres of cleavage in my profile pic (hah!) - part of the reason I don't go to a lot of book events is partially because A) I have massive anxieties and shyness when it comes to getting out there and meeting folk anyway and B) I'm secretly fearful of getting that double-take reaction at book events where I'd already be way outside my comfort zone.

I wonder if other book bloggers feel the same way sometimes. I guess I really can't wait until Charlotte's properly old enough to either take the blog on and write more articles herself, or just decides that social media, mobile phones and boys are better than books (grud forbid that day ever arriving!)


  1. Timely, thought-provoking and welcome piece! All power to you, RID, it's wonderful that you are a male role model in the world of children's books when they are so very hard to find (and needed more than ever). Those thousand-yard stares say so much about the lack of understanding there is out there regarding the importance of children's books and the need to promote reading for pleasure. I personally am full of admiration for you and your blog - oh how much we need people to show that males value reading and that books and boys need to be brought together.
    So, don't be put off by the glances, the uneasy smiles, the furrowed brows - and please do get yourself out there to events (overcome that shyness by tackling it head on) - we need more men to shout about kids' books, say how much they love reading and be an inspiration to boys as well as girls. Stare back, bro!

  2. Cheers Andy! I guess it must be pretty similar for artists and authors who work in children's books - it sometimes feels like the parallels with the game industry carry across there too, in that there's a weird in-built perception that children's books are an 'easy option' for an artist or author when they're anything but. Personally I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who can not only impress a kid once, but continue to impress kids, build a following, build an admirable reputation within children's books and publishing and really show that it's a hugely worthwhile thing to be involved in (and it is, it so is - anything that gets children reading is worth its weight in gold).

  3. RID if the cat fits, wear it! Nicely said and thanks to Andy for directing me to it. I do my fair share of illustrating for kids, but every children's book gathering photo I see tends to be all women, with maybe a token man. It's still heavily weighted that way. In fact I think it's maybe getting worse now that kids and men instantly raise suspicions these days. It helps having two young boys of my own, but I'm glad you have voiced something of it.

  4. I think it is great you write this blog. I am so sorry you get this reaction. I know that children's books in general can be underestimated and that sometimes, as a writer for children, I do get the reaction from non-children's book people that what I do is somehow 'sweet' or easy, and that is depressing - but I can see that being a male openly interested in children's books is even harder, and I think that is so odd and unfair. You do a great job and it must be wonderful for your daughter to to have a dad who is so knowledgeable and passionate about children's books. It is also great for boys to see a man so involved - if we want boys as well as girls to read we need men as well as women to be sensitive and openly supportive of the reading and writing of children's books - thank you for all you do.


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