Thursday, 30 March 2017

The world needs rebel girls but it does not need misleading marketing - A ReadItTorial

Watch this video if you will, as prep for today's ReadItTorial...

This is a promotional video for "Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls" which is an upcoming anthology of children's stories, based around some of the most inspirational and fantastic women you could ever delve into a history book and learn about.

Normally this is the sort of book I'd be cheering in the loudest voice possible for (in fact I do still want to see a copy regardless of the tone of this article).

However, I have some serious issues with the promotional video and it seems quite a few others do too (and not just males, so just stop right there if you think this is some sort of mysogynistic rant about what's essentially a brilliant feminist book idea - and furthermore, if you think that's how things go down on this blog written by a dad and his daughter, you really need to check through our post history a few thousand times - or let the door hit your ass on the way out, kthanksbye).

If you're still reading (thank you!), the issues I had with the video were that right off the bat it just did not represent our experience of 7 years and 4000 or more books read, reviewed and critiqued. Not even close. So we ran a little experiment at home, taking one of our bookshelves as a sample just like in the video - and tackling each of the video's statements in turn:

1) "Male characters feature in up to 100% of books". (FSU Study finds 100 years of gender bias in children's books). 

FSU (I'm assuming Florida State University but that could mean anything really) study actually is worth a read, clearly states that male 'central' characters did (in 2011) feature in 57% of books but nearly all books polled (with no specifics on titles, nor how these were picked) featured in up to 100% of children's books.

We have so many books at home, we just randomly picked on one of our bookcases. Our findings were that in titles published in the last 20 years pulled from our shelves, the gender bias was actually so near-parity as to be negligible, with an equal amount of male / female characters featuring in 100% of books and closer to a 72% majority for central female characters in the books on our shelves.

2) In a study of 5000 children's books, 25% had zero female characters in them (again figures culled from the same report). 

Again we drew from our own collection - out of a random selection of 200 titles culled from our children's picture book collection, only 3 had zero female characters in them (less than 6%)

(Notably, of he three that had zero female characters two were, interestingly, written and illustrated by women).

3) "Time Magazine listed the 100 best books of all time. Only 53 had females that speak". 

We always have an issue with any list (particularly those by newspapers and magazines) that list the 100 best anything of all time, but again the number here suggests that better than half had females that speak.

Once again we looked at the same stack of books from our own shelves. Only 4 featured female characters with no dialogue or 'lines' and one of the books was wordless anyway (but featured both a strong female lead and matriarch figure).

4) "Across children's media, only 19.5% of female characters hold jobs or have career aspirations vs 80.5% of male characters ( occupational aspirations figures 2013)

 This was actually the toughest to distil as we found that around 30 to 40% of books we pulled from our stacks featured stories where career aspirations were not part of the narrative for either gender. Of books where jobs or services formed part of the story, again the balance was closer to parity 47% female vs 53% male - but not an exact balance if that was what was being looked for in the study.

5) "Excuse me sir, I want to go to mars, do you have a book for that?"

The video rounds off with a very empty bookshelf, and a simple question from the girl in the video. Does the world of children's publishing have space books for girls? Does the children's publishing industry have fictional storybook titles that would inspire a space-loving gal with a love of flight and science perhaps? We'd like to think so

"Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls" has raised a lot of questions - whether children's publishing is truly making progress and leading the charge when it comes to addressing gender bias in any form of media, not just children's stories.

In our few years of reviewing children's books, certainly compared to what things were like when we first started out, we've seen a massive surge in the number of books we've received for review that feature mighty girl main characters, that aren't just written to stick a girl in a normally male dominated role but are written BECAUSE that mighty girl character fits that role perfectly regardless of gender.

Female authors, illustrators, editorial staff, designers, marketers, PR folk - again we see an industry where it's actually quite rare to see a month where we get to review more than a handful of titles written by men or solely written for boys.

There are plenty of male illustrators and authors working in the industry but in general it's hugely female dominated and so the Rebel Girls video feels like it's suggesting that in a female-dominated industry, we're somehow still allowing there to be a clear state of play where males 'rule the roost' in children's books.

There are some things that still drive us utterly potty about children's stories and gender - and not just gender, but diversity so there's no denying that there are massive improvements to be made.

I could moan that there are still way too many children's books that show dads (for example) as being the slightly dozy / lazy / greedy / comedic prat-falling / less intelligent partner in a couple if a book features a family. Male characters are also more predominantly depicted as bullies, criminals, miscreants or pains-in-the-ass for their female siblings than female (though we do love a good cracking female villain).

It's very easy to spin something to fit a certain idea or agenda, or to promote a particular (mis)conception. The craziest thing of all is that we would have bought the HELL of this book (and we probably still will) purely because we love books that celebrate famous female figures from history, science and art or just about anything else you'd care to mention (and we've already had an utterly perfect book like this from none other than Kate Pankhurst - "Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World" - a former Book of the Week and a book we tirelessly campaign folk to buy for their kids.

We'd love to hear your opinion on the promotional video, and whether you feel that the figures reflect your experiences in children's books - and in fact we'd love to hear from people with boys who can see the flip side of the coin and really struggle to find great quality children's picture books where boys are more than just the annoying twerp next door who is always getting into trouble or scrapes.

Edit: Worth reading this article about the Rebel Girls video / book from The Guardian that does indeed suggest that the bookshelf video was 'set up' to reflect the figures as a visual demonstration - something that really should have been made clear from the outset in the video and on the website (Thanks to Catherine Friess for pointing out this link)