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Gender by the numbers

girlsmoviesA poster in our office lobby for the upcoming Simmons International Women’s Film Forum alerted me to the interestingly low–29%–number of female protagonists in films for children.* I guess it ain’t all Disney Princesses after all.

How does this compare with the numbers in books for children? I asked myself. The gender disparity had been on my mind ever since I got sucked into the Bookriot discussion about girls and YA spurred by the Andrew Smith drama of a couple of weeks ago. Somebody on the thread was vociferously decrying the lack of female protagonists in YA novels, which made me think what you all are probably thinking: Wait, wut?

But the poster and the discussion made me think it was a good time to do some arithmetic. Or, more precisely, engage our talented Emerson College intern Mariesa Negosanti in researching the question of gender representation in youth fiction via our ever-handy Horn Book Guide.

Our sample was limited to the Fall 2014 issue of the Guide, which reviewed all hardcover books published in the first six months of 2014 by U.S. publishers listed in LMP. Mariesa coded each fiction review in the Intermediate and Older Fiction sections for gender of protagonist(s): male, female, both, neither. The numbers for Older (books for 12-18-year-olds) were not surprising, except maybe to that zealot at Bookriot: 65% of the protagonists in YA novels were female, 22% were male, boys and girls shared main-character duties in 13%.  I thought the numbers for Intermediate (roughly 9-12-year-olds) would be about the same but NO: 48% boys, 36% girls, 16% both.

I’m guessing the greater numbers of boy-heroes in fiction for these younger readers is probably attributable to our conventional wisdom that pre-teen girls are more likely to read about boys than the other way around, so a book about a boy is more likely to garner more readers. And that–conventional wisdom again–teen boys are less likely to read for pleasure than teen girls are, period, and that those boys who do read tend to prefer nonfiction.

Down at the other end of the age spectrum, we’ve  been thinking about gender from a completely different angle: is it fair to label as male or female a character in a wordless picture book? Because, who knows?


*The poster is actually putting an optimistic gloss on what looks to be the study from which it is drawn. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which conducted the original research, the 29.2 percentage refers to speaking parts, not protagonists!


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Gwynne Ash says:

    I am disappointed by both the scope of this and your word choice. I’m a professor in ChYA, and I would find it difficult to assign this as reading. Could you only access one issue of the guide you publish, or was that all the time available for your intern to do your data collection? Using a six-month snapshot to draw the conclusions that you put forth is like someone bringing a snowball into Congress and claiming that it is evidence against climate change. Further, your use of the term zealot suggests that you already had your thesis in mind (and your POV) before the data were collected.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    To what conclusion do you refer? The part where i said “I’m guessing”? You’re certainly correct that six months of data is just a snapshot, one that would lead to a hypothesis (as in “I’m guessing”) rather than a conclusion.

    I used the word “zealot” to describe someone who, in her eagerness to demonstrate that Andrew Smith was just one example of how anti-female and male-dominated YA fiction was, claimed something that was patently untrue. The percentages shown by the sample we looked at (although not strictly a sample, because it counted every one of a defined set) will vary up and down but female protagonists have always outnumbered male protagonists in YA novels.

  3. Jeff O'Neal says:

    “I used the word “zealot” to describe someone who, in her eagerness to demonstrate that Andrew Smith was just one example of how anti-female and male-dominated YA fiction was, claimed something that was patently untrue.’

    So the standard of usage for calling someone a zealot is that they said something untrue? That is so wildly inconsistent with common usage, and a totally unfair characterization. I think an apology is in order.

  4. Jordan Brown says:

    Hey Roger – I’ve read your post a few times, and I’m curious about the point you’re trying to make here. If your post is intended to angle toward a larger argument, what is that argument? Or, “hypothesis”, to use your words? Is your hypothesis, in citing statistics that there are more female protagonists in YA lit than male ones, that sexism is not quite as pervasive an issue in children’s publishing that those you are responding to say it is? That, where gender representation in YA lit is concerned, everything is much more equitable than people say it is? I find it counterproductive that you would write a post attempting to dismantle claims of sexism in the business based on a single statistical argument, but I can’t see another reason for this post, and so I was wondering.

    I’m especially confused when I consider that citing numbers of female protagonists might begin to formulate a counterargument to one person’s claim about a single statistic, but it hardly presents a counterargument to sexism in publishing. For instance: David Arnold’s MOSQUITOLAND is a highly-lauded book featuring a female protagonist that has garnered a considerable amount of major media attention for a YA novel, and yet I’d hardly call that attention evidence that YA fiction isn’t male-dominated in general–would you? To be clear, I’m making no comment on David Arnold or his book–simply demonstrating how a tick in the “female protagonist” column doesn’t necessarily mean that the conversation around YA literature doesn’t privilege men over women in some ways.

    Or, was your point simply to disprove this one person’s single claim, without a larger purpose? If so, I have to ask the logical follow-up: After considering these numbers, do you believe that sexism is still an issue in YA and middle grade fiction? Would love a clear answer here, because you are quick in your response to Gwynne’s comment to say that you are drawing no conclusions, and yet I can’t imagine another reason for this post than to chip away at larger arguments of sexism in publishing. If this is not your point–if you, rather, do agree that YA does have some problems where sexism is concerned, despite this single statistical quibble–can you make that clear?

  5. Gwynne Ash says:

    The tone that accompanied your word choice continues in your response to me. Your conclusion that the findings “were not surprising” is a conclusion (not a hypothesis).

    I would also respectfully suggest that your comment that “female protagonists have always outnumbered male protagonists in YA novels” goes well beyond your data and is unlikely to stand historical scrutiny (Do you think 6 months in the early 1970s would show the same percentages?).

    Consider when Koss and Teale* (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 2009) looked at 6 years of YA texts (1990-2005), they found that 10% of characters in that 6 YEAR span were LGBTQ (or QUILTBAG as many now prefer). Do you think that means that 10% of characters in YA in 1972 were LGBTQ? Or that any were? What about in 2015? Why doesn’t the sample, regardless of when it was taken represent the entire history of YA book publishing? You can see now why your six month sample is not adequate to draw your conclusions.

    I honestly don’t know what the answer to the numbers of the gender divide is. But I know that it won’t be found in a 6 month sample and personal attacks (which violate your own comment policy, “Be respectful, and do not attack the author or other commenters.”)

    I know that I knew there was a problem with diversity in ChYA publishing before I saw the data that demonstrated how disproportionately White authors and White protagonists were published. But when I saw the data, I was gobsmacked. Maybe you should look at the data, ALL of it, before drawing conclusions with such certainty.

    *Koss and Teale didn’t calculate gender btw (but I’d bet now they are wishing they did).

  6. Gwynne Ash says:

    Koss and Teale’s review years were 1999-2005. I apologize for the typo.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I understand that we can’t extrapolate from the sample anything about anything, really, beyond what publishing is like right now. My statements about the history of YA publishing are from my observations and study of it over the last 35 years. If you think I am wrong, the same data set of Horn Book Guide reviews (going back around 25 years) should be available through your university library or at Dig in.

    I do not know why you think I’m attacking you. I’m not.

  8. Gwynne Ash says:

    I don’t think that you’re attacking me, although, I do think your tone is overbearing (which is what I noted, regarding me). I also think your use of the term zealot as an ad hominem snark was not appropriate for your position as the editor of a major print publication, as well as a violation of your comment policy. One would hope that articles are at least as civil as the comments.

    As I commented, I use HB as an exemplar for graduate students (I have a mere 25 years in ChYA). This piece would not be appropriate for use for these two reasons, as originally noted.

  9. Mike Jung says:

    Put ’em up, Roger, PUT ‘EM UP, HAVE AT THEE…oh hell, I’m just kidding, I’m not a violent man. I also persist in not harboring any actual malice toward you, however advisable that may or may not be.

    I understand that you’re responding to one very specific comment, one which you assert was statistically inaccurate; on the basis of my own entirely unscientific, purely anecdotal impression of MG and YA publishing, I imagine you’re correct. Examining the number of female protagonists seems like one very, very, very, very incomplete measure of gender balance (or lack thereof) in our industry, however. Other people with much more formidable research skills than mine have crunched numbers on gender representation in terms of bestseller status and awards recognition – I’m certain you have at least a passing familiarity with that sort of data.

    To be fair, this post doesn’t explicitly dismiss the notion that there’s sexism in our industry, but of course a lot of readers (including me) are going to barrel right over to that topic. I’m not disputing this post’s statistical accuracy; what I am disputing is its broader significance. It would be bad form of me to say you’re suggesting that an abundance of female protagonists disproves the existence of sexism in the world of fiction for young readers; that would be a rather shameless example of me putting words in your mouth. However, given how inflamed all of our sensibilities are on that topic right now, it kind of sort of LOOKS like you’re doing that. People will certainly interpret this post that way, at any rate.

    So I guess I chose bad form over good here, but the difference in tone between a post like this and Libba Bray’s recent statement that sexism “abso-fucking-lutely” exists in YA is pretty stark.

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Wut? (Again!) No. I was doing three things in this post: giving the Simmons film conference some publicity, looking at how gender disparity in books for kids might stack up to that in films for kids, and putting some numbers to my assertion over at Bookriot that there were more female protagonists than males in YA fiction. There is absolutely a sexism problem in YA publishing, greater, I would venture, than the one in the books themselves. Male authors have it easier pretty much all around.

    [edited to add: male publishers, reviewers, librarians, etc. etc.]

  11. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jeff, I used zealot in the sense of someone so eager to prove her point she overlooked reality. I’ll stand by it.

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jordan, your and Jeff’s comments got stuck in some kind of spam filter and I just found and posted them, sorry. Did my subsequent response to Mike make my point of view more clear?

  13. Mike Jung says:

    I am narcissistically glad to know we agree about the existence of sexism. I’m also pleased by the repeated usage of “wut?” Easily amused? GUILTY

  14. Gwynne Ash says:

    Your definition of zealot seems to be the closest to the second from the OED. (I’m guessing that you’re not implying she’s a member of a first century Jewish sect). Note the “disparaging sense.” Certainly sounds like an attack on the messenger, rather than idea, to me.

    2. One who is zealous or full of zeal; one who pursues his object with passionate ardour; usually in disparaging sense, one who is carried away by excess of zeal; an immoderate partisan, a fanatical enthusiast.

    You may choose to stand by it, but it makes your tone clear.

    I wasn’t a part of the Book Riot discussions (I was a lurker); however, this column alone certainly gives me additional data to evaluate.

  15. Jeff O'Neal says:

    And I’ll stand by the fact that is a complete mischaracterization and wholly unfair. If a zealot is someone who overlooks reality to make their point, then your overlooking of the reality of what zealot actually means (fanatic, militant, etc) to apply it here would mean that you are a zealot as well. Which doesn’t seem applicable to me at all. As you yourself state, you thought that the gender numbers for younger readers were different than they turned out was a mistake, not some evidence of ideological tunnel vision. Even if we assume your data here to be proof that women and girls are not underrepresented, a claim which is specious based on the limited data, simply being wrong does not make one a zealot. This kind of characterization and reaction to what might be a mistake, seems to be a sign of real bad faith.

    It is also worth pointing out that criticisms of women, online and elsewhere, who state strong opinion, are often characterized as irrational, overemotional, and in general unreasonable. I would encourage you to consider your usage of zealot here in this wider context.

  16. Oh, but I AM a zealot, a big one, Jeff, when it comes to uninformed people waltzing into discussions about children’s books and figuring that their childhood affection for WHERE THE WILD THING ARE or A WRINKLE IN TIME gives them enough background to get by. We see this all the fucking time with columnists who pick up a YA novel or two and burble on about how dark and depressing the whole genre is; we see it whenever people enthuse about this magic school thing that J.K. Rowling invented. We see it–I will add–when a blogger (and all of Twitter, it seems) takes a comment made by a YA writer expressing thoughts that are as old as Sappho and new as Carol Gilligan and takes him to task for his singular outrage toward womankind (said blogger also not feeling it necessary to have read any of said author’s books).

    It’s interesting to have this come up in the context of this post because what’s at the heart of this indifferent ignorance is misogyny. Children’s and YA literature is largely the province of women and children: women mostly write it, they mostly edit it, they mostly review it, they mostly select it for libraries and classrooms, they mostly give its awards. When it comes to YA, females are not only most of the writers, they are most of the consumers and readers, too. And because it’s seen as a girl thing, not “real” literature, bloviators think they don’t have to give it any kind of concentrated attention before shooting off their mouths.

  17. By your own study in this very post, Roger, in the segment for 8 to 12 year olds, women and girls were indeed underrepresented, which ran counter to your own assumption, as you yourself indicated. I think it is unfair then to call someone else out as a zealot (ie irrational and willfully blind) when a portion of your own data ACTUALLY SUPPORTS the claim (even as you mischaracterize the discussion).

  18. It also seems to me that your word choice (bloviate, shoot mouth off, burble) violates your own comment policy, which asks that comments take on ideas, and not the messenger.

  19. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jeff, I say without snark or sass that you must be new here. And if all you want to do is hand out citations from the Tone Police it’s unfortunate, because the point you bring up about middle-grade fiction is worth talking about.

    While we know that girls (and women) read more fiction than boys or men do, the numbers pre-adolescence are closer. But we also know that boys tend to be shyer about reading something perceived as a “girl book” while girls are more likely not to care. So this is probably why there are more male protagonists in intermediate fiction than they are female. Sexism and money are of course the bigger “whys” behind most of this, but my question is: do we think this is a problem? Is there a lack (or lack of range) of books for or about preteen girls? I don’t ask rhetorically.

    Since 1980 (when i started in children’s librarianship) there has been cyclical debate about getting boys to read more, a concern that of course goes back throughout the last century. But we have largely assumed that the girl reader can take care of herself. I’m wondering if the disproportionate attention we give male authors and boys reading is kind of a dancing-dog thing–because we view them as an elusive novelty, we give them more attention simply for the virtue of showing up.

  20. Can I make a comment that actually relates to the content of this post? K thx.

    Do you think the numbers would be different for literary fiction for 9-12? My totally untested hypothesis is that literary juvenile fiction is heavily skewed towards female protagonists, and that the stuff that makes the guide versus the magazine (including books for reluctant readers, hi/lo, whatever) features more boys.

  21. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Totally could be, Rachael. I wonder if there is an assumption among editors, reviewers, and librarians that girls will be more likely to read literary fiction while boys want to read about farts. So more literary fiction skews female. Has anyone done a gender count of Newbery protagonists? I mean, I know someone surely HAS, but does anyone have any data?

  22. Ok, I just did a super quick tally of the most recent Horn Book Magazine:

    22 books listed as intermediate
    13 with female protagonists
    6 with male
    3 with both


    I think Travis Jonker looked at gender and the Newbery at some point, but I could be making that up.

  23. These numbers are approximate, since I haven’t recalculated for the last two winners, but right around 66% of Newbery Medalists (note: not honor winners) are female. That number is almost exactly flipped for Caldecott Medalists, where approximately 66% are men. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, since neither number gives a picture of the overall gender breakdown in these areas.

  24. Kate Barsotti says:

    This data you have offered tallies with my impressions of children’s literature as a whole. It would be nice to see a renaissance of male protagonists in YA. I am surprised they outnumber female protagonists in middle grade, although your explanation for it seemly likely.

    I have great hopes we will see more diversity in characters and settings soon. Thanks for the article.

    (Sign me up as a zealot, too, although I won’t tell you which flavor of zealot I might be.)

  25. Todd Krueger says:

    I can only speak from my own experience, but each time the acronym QUILTBAG has appeared as a potential substitution or replacement for LGBTQ (or equivalent), the response among members of my community has been overwhelmingly negative. I am surprised to read that “many now prefer” that acronym.

  26. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    “Miss Elson”–Marion Hawthorne was on her feet–“I want to register a protest with the school on behalf of a group which I happen to be president of and which, by general agreement, has decided that this decision is unfair to the class, the great majority which belong–”
    “OF which, Marion,” Miss Elson corrected.
    “–to this club OF which I am president. Now, therefore–”
    “That’s enough, Marion, sit down. I think you have made yourself clear. I would like to know when you have had the time, however, to amass this great tide of public opinion. I didn’t see you asking anyone after I spoke.” Marion sat there unable to think a thing.

  27. As an old friend and a former student of Roger’s, I just want to point out that it is often aggravating but eventually fruitful to engage in discussions over thorny questions when Roger intentionally plays the devil’s advocate and is provacative. But he is not even being his old crotchity self in his original post! Funny how even when he is being factual and mild in tone, his words can still be twisted…. Reminded me of what happened to Andrew Smith.

  28. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Travis, those are authors and illustrators, right? Not protagonists.

  29. Mike Jung says:

    Because I enjoy writing things that start off by saying “to be fair,” I’m going to start off by saying to be fair, the blog post that led to March becoming our industry’s latest illustration of what it’s like to Live In Interesting Times wasn’t focused on either a book or an author’s entire body of work. It was addressing the blogger’s interpretation of a statement as an unconscious, unintended, sexist microaggression, and what it indicates about the continued effects of sexism on a society-wide scale. I don’t believe the ensuing fracas was truly about any one person’s singular outrage toward womankind – I understand that it took that form coming from some (but not all) people, and I don’t believe that characterization is/was warranted, for the record.

    I think it was more akin to breaching a dam. People, in this case meaning women, have clearly been feeling silenced, stepped on, shouted down, and horrendously threatened in ways that I personally never truly understood, and probably still don’t fully understand now. The amount of fear, grief, horror, and rage that’s been forcibly surrounded and walled up…I thought I knew the extent of it, but I didn’t. That’s what I think we’ve been experiencing; not outrage toward one person, but a catastrophic wave of outrage at a systematic brand of oppression that is, yes, as old as Sappho. I googled Carol Gilligan and I now know who she is on a superficial, “I googled her name” way. Hooray for me.

    And to circle back to the actual content of this post, my guess is we’re seeing something similar in the responses here and in the commentary I’m seeing on The Hornet’s Nest of the People, a.k.a. Twitter. Some of us are OKAY OKAY, I REALLY MEAN I AM questioning the reason for focusing your unmistakably high-visibility space on what can easily be (mis?)construed as a subtle attempt to diminish the legitimacy of a much larger, much more important issue.

    I think that is a misinterpretation. However, I find it impossible to shut down my grudging, stumbling, and slowly growing awareness that data like this can be used in a way that bolsters opposition to feminist ideals, or as I (maybe naively) call them, human ideals. it seems like arguments in the vein of “If you just take this chunk of evidence and surgically remove it from the context of actual human reality and present it in a pristine, no-context vacuum it totally shows that EVERYTHING’S FINE” are a damnably effective way of swinging a baseball bat at the head of equality efforts.

    To be fair (again!), I find zero reason to believe you wrote this post with any conscious intent to do that, and of course none of us can say whether any unconscious intent was a-brewing in the back of your mind. But, you know. Rage. Pent-up rage in the face of relentless efforts, big and small, to enforce silence. We can do harm without conscious intent, right? It seems entirely possible that I’m making myself part of the problem by posting these comments and biting off airtime that somebody else deserves to chew and swallow. Le sigh.

    Angry responses to this post may represent some degree of unfairness towards you, and i want to acknowledge that, but my suspicion is that those angry responses are rooted in an injustice that is much larger in scope, more enduring in duration, and much more broadly pernicious in effect. We’re having conversations that tap into vast aquifers of feeling and experience. Maybe we all just need to plan on grabbing hold of something and not letting go for a while.

  30. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    I was appalled to see how Walter Mayes was treated over at the BookRiot site. No one (not Walter, not Andrew, not any of us humans) should be hung as sacrifice for a goal/rage/fear. If we lose our capacity to see & hear one another as living creatures with real experiences — if we fall too far into the virtual reality of scorable hits — then only the mad or cruel will remain on the internet. This would be a tremendous loss for global conversation.

    Returning here… I think one under-thread to your post, Roger, is that “isms” and representation aren’t adequately demonstrated by identity checkboxes, be they of protagonist or author ethnicity, gender, etc. As a feminist, I find books like Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe much more appealing/advancing of my social concerns than the torrent of pink and black supernatural lit that fills so many shelves at the chain stores. (Alleluia for the indies who retain “color” in multiple regards.) If we move to photography for a parallel: women may be the primary image in porn, but I don’t think that many of us would argue that we are well “represented” in or by that media. Simply hiring women photogs would not fix the problems inherent in the form, nor can we stick wide, historical social dysfunctions “over there” with any one group (i.e. men). We must stop scapegoating; and, we must each think about the communities we are trying to create, and consider our own actions in those contexts. (I know, I am talking to the choir here…)

    Your quick survey responded to statements made about a dearth of female characters in YA lit… I think that many folks often assume that having the right box checked (queer, POC, female, etc.) means that good representation will follow. Wouldn’t it be nice if having female authors or protags guaranteed that what was being written reflected a feminist worldview? But it doesn’t, and this is perhaps the most painful obstacle that every movement has to face: simply that a person is a member of a suffering group does not provide that said person will be wise or kind, or illuminated, or pro-said-group… or on the side of overall planetary or social health, etc.

    All that said (!), I do think taking the counts has some value, because they reveal patterns within culture: e.g. if all the books *about* a minority population are not written *by* that minority population, we would want to look carefully to see who those texts serve. But the counts are not enough, and I think we sometimes obscure the point we are trying to observe: do the books that are being written and published serve the societ(ies) that we want to create, and which agendas (we all have agendas!) are being put forward in the texts we hand to our young?

  31. Maia said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if having female authors or protags guaranteed that what was being written reflected a feminist worldview?”

    Yes, wouldn’t it? From earlier March to now, one of my thoughts was: how many women writers who write stories with female protagonists have pretty much “subjected” their main characters to fit the negatively stereotypical young women mold? Vapid, romance-crazed, hyper-appearance-conscious (toward either themselves, their peers, or their love-interest), etc.? I’d rather take Avi’s Charlotte Doyle or M.T. Anderson’s Violet (from Feed) over Stephanie Meyer’s Bella (Twilight Saga) or Cecily von Ziegesar’s Blair or Serena (Gossip Girl) any day.

    So, the bottom line: numbers definitely do not always tell the whole story. If any of us wishes to engage in truly fruitful discussions on these issues, we all have to first do our homework and read A LOT of the books under examination and THINK carefully about our initial, intuitive responses and then THINK again and again about whether these responses have solid basis in reality — and then LISTEN to each other and CONSIDER the many other sides of the same issue.

    And, by the way, as a middle aged woman who has lived in the States for the last 25 years, I must agree with Maia that, to me, rage, pent-up or otherwise, is never a good starting point to initiate a conversation and is definitely not a valid excuse to ignore facts or to lash out at random strangers. I am almost offended by Mike Jung’s sentiment that these women are somewhat excused for their bad behaviors because of their rage — would you excuse men the same way? Can they lash out at women? If not, then perhaps you are still thinking the women are not sensible creatures who should have the ability to engage in logical and reasoned discourses even when they feel wronged? Are we so unreasonably emotional that we cannot be held accountable for our actions?

  32. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Mike, do you want to talk about the implicit homophobia behind the Big Gay jokes you were making on Twitter? Of course you don’t and neither do I–my point is that a person shouldn’t jump to conclusions which are then walked back only as grudgingly as possible when it is shown that the original conclusion was incorrect.

    Sure enough, Maia–the mere numbers of YA books about girls or by women don’t say anything about whether feminist values are on display. But I think it is always best to begin with facts–if we pretend that the problem with the YA representation of women is that not enough women are writing YA, or not enough girls serve as YA main characters, then we can’t solve it.

  33. Mike Jung says:

    Roxanne, respectfully, I don’t believe rage and reason are mutually exclusive. I don’t believe rage is antithetical to sense, logic, and thoughtful discourse, and I do believe there are people who’ve been speaking on the topic at hand in a way that expressed their rage without sacrificing critical, reasoned analysis. However, I agree with you that rage, justified or otherwise, is not a valid reason to ignore facts or lash out at random strangers. I understand that there are people who did that, and I am in a very conflicted place about it – I understand how anger can lead to that, especially when that anger is rooted in a larger issue. At the same time, I’ve also circled around to believing that genuine pain was inflicted upon one person and his family; that is a real consideration.

    Roger, I actually am very open to discussing any implicit homophobia in the #BigGayBooks tweets I made last night. I didn’t intend to express homophobic sentiments, but I’m not any more exempt from unconsciously revealing hidden biases as anyone else. I’ve successfully moved on from the days when I would thoughtlessly and CONSCIOUSLY make homophobic statements, but I have no grounds to suggest I’m free of embedded bigotry. If you ever change your mind and want to discuss any offense I gave, I’m all ears, and while I don’t know if I’d succeed in simply listening without rebuttal – I’m inclined to refutation, obviously – that would be my intent.

  34. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Mike, I think it is a difficult thing to be conscious and thoughtless at the same time 😉

    I don’t think there is any homophobia in your jokes. But do you see how easy it would be for someone to zoom into the red zone on the outrage meter? I am seriously bothered that people are on Twitter today accusing me of having beliefs I don’t have and making statements I didn’t make. But I guess I shouldn’t expect any corrections, should I?

  35. Mike Jung says:

    But you misunderstand the way I’m using “thoughtless,” WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE… *flings gauntlet on ground*

    Ironic, THAT WAS AN IRONIC GAUNTLET FLINGING… Sure, I totally understand how rage meters can go zero to sixty in an eyeblink, and no, expecting corrections is probably not realistic. It would be great to dive deep into these horrifically complicated topics without anyone getting agitated or triggered; it would be much more pleasant to confront these problems in a way that doesn’t involve people feeling hurt, attacked, misunderstood, etc. That doesn’t seem realistic either. I’m not a fan of people martyring themselves; I could easily make choices that make me feel like my writing career is in jeopardy (maybe I should say “in even more jeopardy than it already is,” haha), but I’d like to continue having even the modest career that I have now, of course.

    I don’t know that steeling myself to the idea that I may have (for example) expressed unintentionally (but still harmfullly) homophobic sentiments in a series of tweets is being a martyr, though. Granted, I haven’t experienced a truly vast wave of criticism for such a thing; I don’t know how I’d handle that. A fall from my lofty perch of self-actualization, hashtag #justkidding, seems entirely possible. I’m also doing battle with the egomaniacal impulse to believe that what I do and say means more than it actually does; it means something, I’m sure, but I’m no one’s avatar of enlightenment, and I shouldn’t be. I can be open to criticism, though, especially with regard to psychological and life experiences that I myself haven’t had. I think that’s worthwhile; in fact, I think it’s essential.

  36. Lynn Michaels says:

    “Down at the other end of the age spectrum, we’ve been thinking about gender from a completely different angle: is it fair to label as male or female a character in a wordless picture book? Because, who knows?”

    Is it fair? No.
    Is it going to happen? Yes. We live in a world where we are overwhelmed by data, and sorting items gives us a feeling of control. Also, children want to be able to read about themselves; they want to be able to relate to characters. As much as we try to create gender-neutral or multi-racial characters, the readers will impose their own world into the story.

    I find it fascinating to listen to storytellers choosing voices for their gender-neutral characters. The two examples that are coming to mind are Mo Willem’s Pidgeon and Duckling, and Doreen Cronin’s Duck. These are characters I have heard frequently; they are series of books which are easy to read, appeal to large groups of young listeners, with relatable illustrations. The authors never state the gender of their characters. Both Duck and Pidgeon rebel against expectations; Duckling is a conformist.
    The vast majority of storytellers I have listened to (I’m part of a storytelling group, and I’m a librarian. I’ve heard almost a hundred different reader variations for “Duckling Gets a COOKIE?!” and “Dooby Dooby Moo!”) will read the character of Duck and Pidgeon in their natural voice; the second largest group uses a deeper, presumably masculine voice, with a small but noticeable percentage who read Pidgeon like he was a bombastic comedian doing a standup monologue, with exaggerated emotions and dramatic pitch and volume changes. Duckling is invariably soft spoken, and frequently has a high pitched (feminine?) voice.

    Based on my informal survey (aka, talking with children after I read to them or after they have heard the story by someone else), listeners determine that Duck and Pidgeon are boys, and Ducking is a girl. What does that mean?
    Is it the children’s own gender expectations that are informing their opinion or is it the storyteller’s voice?
    Because those stereotypes do stick with the children. When the listener is used to one version, hearing a different reader will provoke a long suffering “my god, the adults in my life are idiots”-type sigh and a “You’re reading it all wrong!”

  37. Riotously Disgusted says:

    This has been building up for a while and now I have to let it out.

    Roger, your use of the word “zealot” in regard to Book Riot was definitely pointed but completely apt. I am sorry they baited you and made you a target for trolls today. That site and its editors have become a toxic presence in the book world. Please be extra careful and do not allow yourself to be dragged down into their desperate morass. We need you more than we need them.

    I believe in advancing the diversity of voices with all my heart, but I don’t see Book Riot doing anything except exploiting the cause of inclusion as a weapon to threaten and intimidate those who are actually fighting against sexism, racism, homophobia and other important issues of social justice. Look how seldom they attack actual perpetrators of prejudice in favor of shooting in the back those who are on the same side, using whatever twisted numbers or reasoning they can muster. Book Riot is made up of people who stand in the back and yell “not good enough!” to the people working on the front line of advocacy. They are hecklers, not activists for change.

    Although theoretically on the opposite side of the political spectrum, in terms of distortion and ire Book Riot has become the Fox News of books, willing to twist facts and attack indiscriminately for the sake of grandstanding and whipping readers into a fury. Readers who may not be aware of their selfish agenda, deceptive practices, or history of harassment. They are shameless liars. Note how they have bafflingly tried to spin “zealot” as some kind of racial slur. A conscience would prevent most people from heedlessly trying to smear as a racist someone with your history and reputation, Roger, but they are unencumbered by such. Criticism is helpful and important for any industry or community, but it has to be honest, and that’s what’s lacking from Book Riot.

     Note the crass way they treated their readers and commenters, including Walter Mayes, who is never anything but respectful and (as we know) stands as a literal giant in YA literature. They must have really been afraid of the criticism they received to redact so many comments not for being rude or vile but for the crime of reasonably disagreeing. Most egregiously, Book Riot has not yet been held to account for the way they maliciously misrepresented and defamed Andrew Smith. He deserves far more than an apology for the major role Book Riot and its editors played in fomenting a month’s worth of misplaced personal rage against him. 

    We in publishing should always, always and forever be looking for ways to open the world of literature to new voices from all walks of life. However, we should not be paying any attention to these particular frauds and attention-seekers. We need to start talking about this because the minute we do many others who have tasted their poison will come forward and their bullying grip on this industry will be broken.

    Zealots? Book Riot is not only full of zealots, I think it has become a den of hypocrites who dehumanize good people while paying lip service to the fight against dehumanization in our culture. Like Fox News, they poison important conversation. Like Fox News, they never apologize for their mistakes or nastiness. Like Fox News they wrap themselves in the banner of fairness as cover for vindictiveness. But un-like Fox News, Book Riot’s influence is small and should only be getting smaller. They are best ignored and left to wither.

  38. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    PIGEON MAYBE IS NOT A BOY?? Color me guilty of this particular sexist assumption! I would have told you I could practically see his dick. I think I’ll spin this question about picture and wordless books off into a new post tomorrow.

  39. The Fox News of books?! Ludicrous.

    Oh wait… Must remember this is April 1st. Riotously Disgusted is joking. That is the only way that post makes any sense at all.

  40. Gwynne Ash says:

    Roxanne, I would suggest that commenting that someone’s word choice was inappropriate is not “twisting” anything. As a professor, I’m not going to assign a piece of reading that namecalls a person (even someone perceived to be in error).

    I have been a pretty stunned (outside) observer of much of the ongoing ChYA discussion (both the angry outcry and the intense push by others to silence), and in my eyes, this post did nothing to raise the bar, unfortunately. I’m neither Team Andrew Smith, nor Team Book Riot (feel free to investigate), and I found this post problematic. So I posted my response. With my real (full) name.

    For anyone who’s interested in studies looking at gender in Newbery/Caldecott (as referenced earlier).

    Clark, R. (2007). From margin to margin? Females and minorities in Newbery and Caldecott medal-winning and honor books for children. International Journal of Sociology of the Family. 33 (2), 263-283.
    “I find that female characters were highly visible in Newbery and Caldecott books during World War II, became much less visible after the war, became much more visible after Weitzman et al.’s (1972) critique and have suffered declining visibility within the Caldecotts since the late 1980s, while enjoying increasing visibility within the Newberys since then.”

    Houdyshell, M. L., & Martin, C. M. (2010). You go, girl! Heroines in Newbery Medal Award Winners. Children and Libraries: The Journal of the Association of Library Services for Children, 25-32, 8 (1), 25-32.
    (Between 1997 and 2008, 4 female protagonists, 4 male protagonists; they refer to a study of the previous 10 years, but that study identifies Shiloh as the protagonist of Shiloh, rather than Marty, so I question including it here.)

    See also: Crisp, T. & Hiller, B. (2011). Telling Tales About Gender: A Critical Analysis of Caldecott Award-winning Picturebooks. Journal of Children’s Literature, 37 (2), 18-29.

  41. Kristen Kittscher says:

    Another fun Geena Davis statistic: Only 17% of *crowd scenes* in movies are populated by women, and that includes animated films! I’m involved with the Geena Davis Institute Gender and Media here in LA and was shocked when a couple weeks ago the executive director asked me about the firestorm in publishing. It was on their radar! I do hope there’s an increasing push for number crunching. Once GDIGM realized that hard statistics were the single most effective way to help industry decision makers (including women) see the problem, they made research their focus and partnered with USC to do extensive formal studies. In the short time I’ve been in this game, I’ve been amazed by how parallel the conversations I’m hear among female writers/producers/actors in male-dominated Hollywood and my fellow female middle-grade authors are. How is it in that more than half of the Printz winners since the award’s inception have been male, when YA books published are predominately by female authors? How are middle grade panels at almost any festival line-up I see predominately male? It’s really amazing how the actual gender of key decision makers doesn’t seem to influence the system.

  42. Gwynne Ash says:

    The Printz count, btw is
    11 male protagonists
    4 female protagonists
    1 collection of stories of multiple genders.

    10 male winners
    6 female winners
    All female protagonists were created by female authors.
    Nine (9) male protagonists were created by male authors (Libba Bray and Angela Johnson both created male protagonists.)
    The collection was written by a male author.

  43. Gwynne Ash says:

    Sorry, correction. I hadn’t included Jandy Nelson in the gender of authors, so it is:

    9 male winners
    7 female winners
    All female protagonists were created by female authors.
    Eight (8) male protagonists created by male authors (Jandy Nelson, Libba Bray, and Angela Johnson creating male protagonists).
    The collection was written by a male.

  44. Gwynne Ash says:

    And her (Nelson’s) protagonists should really be mixed as well. So,
    10 male
    4 female
    2 mixed gender
    (Sorry, I would have corrected, but no editing feature.)

  45. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thanks, Kristen and Gwynne. Yes, YA publishing in particular these days is being scrutinized for a bias toward men. Thirty years ago, the bias was celebrated because librarians felt that if we could encourage more male writers to enter the fold we could get more male readers, too. I’m also remembering an odd moment at an ALA conference back then where there was a panel of male YA writers, Chris Crutcher among them. Chris said something about the overly warm temperature of the room and a female voice rang out “take off your shirt!” to general whistles and hoots of approval. I felt like I was at Chippendales!

  46. I posted on my own blog about another blog post on Read Roger called “The other g-word” 8 years ago and the comments — slightly different from this topic but probably still relevant.

  47. Mike Jung says:

    For those who haven’t seen it, Jordan Brown’s guest post at Stacked is a lucid, thoughtful, and superbly articulated exploration of how sexism and gender-based privilege are being discussed in the kidlitosphere:

  48. This discussion may be waning, but I’ll share this anyway.

    I added a new page to my page, the Foul Among the Good. I paused to look at the gender of characters (dressed as Indians). The only reason an item is there is because of the playing Indian part. Right now there are over 20 illustrations from books, arranged chronologically. It begins with Orbis Pictus (published in 1658) and ends with Winnie and Waldorf (published in 2015).

    This is no surprise to many people, but most of the images there are ones in which a character is playing an Indian male. Male characters (be they human or animal) are shown playing male Indians. There’s a few female characters (Grace) playing a male. And there’s one where female characters (rabbits in MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE by Rosemary Wells) are shown as Indian females.

    This isn’t a rigorous sample. I don’t think I subconsciously rule out selection of characters playing Indian women. I could add Wendy (from Peter Pan) in the Disney book, where she’s wearing a headband and feather. I don’t know why that one isn’t there, actually, and will add it today!

    My point is–in this particular set–very few writers or illustrators show characters playing Indian women. Of course, I don’t like any play Indian stuff, so this isn’t a call for that! Here’s the link:

  49. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yeah, Debbie, I have to chuckle at the thought of a headline reading “REESE CALLS FOR GENDER PARITY IN PLAYING INDIAN”!

    I wonder if “playing Indian” is too close a part of “playing cowboys and Indians” that we stereotype as a boys’ activity rather than a girls’. Plus, Cub- and Boy Scouts play (or played, anyway) up the Indian angle hugely, so boys get it from there, too.

    Do you ever look at kids playing WITH Indians? In the 1960s, “action figures” aka “dolls” became a huge toy among boys, G.I. Joe most prominently but we also had Johnny West and Chief Cherokee. ( called them our “Men.” In our games, CC was never the bad guy–perhaps because of the Lone Ranger, we thought of CC as a sidekick, which I understand has many problems of its own. Johnny and CC would usually gang up on our G.I. Joes.

  50. The play Indian activities in Cub and Boy Scout programs are declining, I think, but former Eagle Scouts tell me that it is strong as ever in their rank. And secret. Done at dark.

    Books/stories in which kids play with Indians that come to mind are INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD and maybe PADDLE TO THE SEA, depending on how you define playing. I don’t know what that Indian in DAVID’S LITTLE INDIAN (by Margaret Wise Brown) is supposed to be. But all of those are male.

  51. Maybe everyone’s moved on by now, but I’m chiming late anyway to agree with Maia Cheli-Colando when she said, “Your quick survey responded to statements made about a dearth of female characters in YA lit… I think that many folks often assume that having the right box checked (queer, POC, female, etc.) means that good representation will follow” when this is not necessarily so.

    These counts, while a nice start, can’t answer the thornier questions Kristen posed: “How is it in that more than half of the Printz winners since the award’s inception have been male, when YA books published are predominately by female authors? How are middle grade panels at almost any festival line-up I see predominately male? It’s really amazing how the actual gender of key decision makers doesn’t seem to influence the system.”

    I’m reminded of an article that someone posted on Twitter, “The Glass Escalator,” that includes this paragraph: “Research shows that men in female-dominated jobs tend to fare better even than men in male-dominated jobs, and they typically earn higher salaries, receive more promotions, and achieve higher levels within organizations than their female counterparts.” And this happens not because men are rare—there is no glass escalator for the rare women in tech, for example—but because “Research indicates that stereotypes about what a prototypical man is match with stereotypes about what a prototypical manager is… men more readily fulfill our notions of what a manager should look like. ”

    I’d argue the same is true for the men in YA lit, that, due to structural sexism, both men and women view the writing of men—and stories about boys—as more important and more valuable work, thus the funky distribution of accolades and the marketing dollars. And I think this is the source of the frustration and rage we saw around the interwebs. But I don’t know how we change this unless we discuss it, even when those discussions are heated and painful.

  52. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    One thing I’d be interested in seeing now is a comparison of starred reviews (say) to the baseline numbers the HBG can give us for genders of authors and main characters for a given year. Can anyone point to any analysis of marketing budgets? (We know, anecdotally, that most authors believe they don’t get nearly enough!) I suppose we could look at advertising pages in print publications (I’ve been surprised about how much I’ve learned from ads gone by) but that’s a pretty small slice of the pie these days.

    The problem Maia suggests is far more difficult, involving not only consensus on what we think is a “good representation” either individually or collectively, but the whims of public taste. We might cringe at E.L. James, but her success came neither from good reviews nor marketing budgets; it came because lots of people like her books. And marketing budgets (if not good reviews) will follow that money.

  53. Mike Jung says:

    Maggie Stiefvater posted on the topic of rage today:

  54. Just wanted to second Laura’s comment, and Debbie, think gender is a really interesting component of “playing Indian”. Know you’ve discussed this in relation to Mark Twain as well, and think this is very much related to the discussion as a whole.

    I’d also be curious about starred reviews…etc. (does the VIDA count include this?) and would love to see how those statistics have shifted and tracked over time, too. Kelly Jensen’s analysis of recent NYTimes bestseller lists also fits here. Regarding characters, there was a broader study published in Gender and Society, which looked at 100 years in children’s books (limited to British and American literature) I think it does look at some trends, but I haven’t spent much time with it– and it both has a funny time frame (1900 to 2000) and also leaves out upper ages.

    For myself, I have a *completely* unsubstantiated theory that there have been demographic shifts after breakout, commercially successful books like Harry Potter and Twilight/Hunger Games (which I might interpret as financial success bringing more mainstream cultural recognition to a profession lacking in it because of its association with women… and this mainstream recognition then being more readily available to some– white cishet– men entering the field.) As others have said, this may not necessarily relate to characters but to authorship. Or both.

    Think there are also maybe some interesting differences and parallels between middle grade and YA. Again, this is based purely on observation, not at all on empirical data… but think in middle grade, gender can relate to a divide between books that are seen as “literary,” as someone mentioned above, and those people view as books boys want to read. Do think “literary” used have a cultural equation with importance in the profession (and is maybe still associated with awards) and for periods this has skewed towards female authors more generally. But as you and many others note, there’s also been a shift tied up with (valid!) concerns about boys and reading, so that books seen as encouraging boys to read now have a greater association with mainstream cultural importance? And maybe these are posited as being in opposition? With all of the concerns that relate to and stem from this, including which/whose books are seen as (appropriately) engaging to whom, and whose engagement is valued… including which boys’. Can’t help seeing a connection between this and some of what Debbie’s discussing regarding ideas about gender and “civilizing” boys vs. “wildness,” too.

    In YA, think popularity is of course broadly associated with teen girls, and teen girl enthusiasm has to be one of the most derided sentiments in our culture. Lots to say about how an author like John Green brought this under the rubric of “nerd,” or intellectual culture, and the dynamics and Effects thereof. (And also think there’s a vital conversation to be had here about the commodification of teen girl audiences. Have long been frustrated at the lack of traction for that discussion– a shout out to Liz Burns for keeping it at the forefront.) I can never quite get a handle on the ways teen boys are imagined as audiences for YA more generally, which also maybe feeds into recent discussions, and would love to hear more about that, too.

    And of course there are also picture books, illustration, nonfiction, graphic novels, histories of kidlit written for adults…etc, which have been discussed here and elsewhere…

    Anyway, as usual this is already way too long, but also wanted to emphasize (especially since I was the one who brought up research into the glass escalator phenomenon!) that in looking at studies and statistics and cultural trends, it’s of course impossible to separate male/female from other variables like race, sexuality, inclusive gender identity, physical ability, class, religion…etc. As with the overall US pay gap, where a general comparison of wages for “women” and “men” obscures the fact that white women earn more on average than black men, for example, I think there are complexities in these studies and arguments that also need to be kept at the forefront.

  55. Sorry, hadn’t seen the link to Maggie Stiefvater’s post. What she said.

  56. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thanks for that VIDA report, Sarah–I hadn’t known about it. It’s at I think a crucial number missing there is the number of books published, so I’ll plug again for, which reviews every hardcover book published by publishers listed in LMP for the past twenty-five years. You can search by year, but then you would have to do a hand count, as we don’t have fields for gender of author or characters. But doesn’t CCBC also keep a count? They might have some numbers.

  57. Roger, you asked way up there about gender of protagonists in Newbery winners. I did statistics on this a few years ago:

    I post this with several caveats. I was just beginning my foray into the world of serious children’s literature scholarship and was naive about a lot of things. My original audience was a bunch of friends on my livejournal (the post was copied to my blog from there). I might have said things very differently even a few months later, but I’ve chosen to leave it as it is. I also have chosen not to update the statistics every year, though I do it in my head with each new winner. Not long after, someone else published a more scholarly take on the matter which was picked up by the Boston Globe or something, but it was FULL of factual errors; the author had not actually read all the books. I stand by my statistics, which I fact-checked many times, though of course there’s always a possibility of error. There’s also disagreement about some books; some of them are maybe reasonable, such as where I classify The Westing Game as a book with multiple protagonists and was surprised to hear others reading it any other way, others classify it as a book with a female protagonist (Turtle). But there’s no question about, say, Criss Cross in my mind (ensemble book, and I think attempts to classify it as “female protagonist” are rooted in sexism, i.e. “it feels like a girl book”).

    Last caveat: several times people have discounted these statistics because they look at the entire history of the award. I prefer to take a long view. I don’t think looking at only the last few years says anything particularly meaningful other than “lots of girls in the last few years”. Anyone who whines that all the Newbery winners are “girl books”, without a qualifying range of years, is going to get called out.

    tl;dr: contrary to popular assumption, by 2008 53% of Newbery winners had male protagonists, and 34% had female protagonists. Since then I count four male protagonists (including Ivan) and three female.

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