EVENT REPORT: The Great Gender Debate

Louise Kelly explores gender stereotyping in children's literature after attending The Great Gender Debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival never shies away from topical debate, and this year is no exception. The Great Gender Debate tackled not only the role the publishing industry plays in gender stereotyping, but how far authors are complicit, or whether and in what ways they should be championing better gender representation and equality in books for young people.

For the fourth year in a row, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators have been involved in an industry panel event at the EIBF where hot topics in the children’s book world have been debated. However, this year is the first time a SCBWI event has been in the official programme. What a coup for the Southeast Scotland Network Co-ordinators, Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo – who also expertly co-chaired the event. And what a line up they pulled together! The panel included EIBF First Book Award Winner (2016) and author of More of Me, Kathryn Evans, New York Times bestselling author of Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan, and award-winning fantasy author of the Bartimaeus and Lockwood & Co. series, Jonathan Stroud.

Jonathan Stroud admitting he’s a bit of a fan, and Kathryn being a bit bowled over.

All three authors challenge stereotypes in their work; it was clear from the start that they were in agreement that there’s no place in modern children’s and YA stories for lazy approaches to gender. So while this was never going to be a heated disagreement-style debate, that didn’t hinder meaty discussion of what the important issues are. In fact, the chemistry between the authors was the best advert yet for what can be achieved when everyone, no matter their gender, background or style, is given space to get their voice heard and their story told.

L-R Sarah Broadley, Jonathan Stroud

Any census of children’s reading shows that in the YA years, more girls than boys read. That’s not to say that there aren’t huge numbers of voracious boy readers. Authors ignore them at their peril. But there’s also a perception that children and YA readers have issues with the protagonists’ gender. This, however, isn’t always borne out in a straightforward way. Indeed, the authors could all cite great counterexamples and wondered if gatekeepers were often too timid in believing in readers’ appetites for reading across genders. Kathy Evans has a great antidote to any reluctance she encounters. She’s been known to let boys attending her school visits into a secret: the way to understand what’s going on in the mysterious minds of girls is to read books where they are the main characters. Smart thinking!

Following up the notion that the gatekeepers play a role here, Jonathan Stroud recognised that sometimes publishing houses can be reluctant to take the risk of putting a girl on the front of an action-packed book. His Lockwood series has a female protagonist and narrator, yet she was left off the series’ covers until book 4. So it seems that gender-related issues in publishing houses are more complex than we might imagine.

L-R Kathryn Evans, David Levithan, Anita Gallo

David Levithan who, as well as being an author, works for Scholastic as an editorial director, has tried to avoid some of these prejudices by banning the mention of ‘books for girls’ and ‘books for boys’.

One of the most interesting sections of the debate was when the authors addressed representation of non-binary gender in stories. Levithan in particular highlighted the fact that many young people are living lives where non-binary gender is a reality, and he saw it as encouraging that at last children’s literature is beginning to catch up with this reality. We’re at an important juncture in that respect. Stories featuring non-binary, trans, and genderfluid characters have, perhaps predictably, been met sometimes with criticism, but changing landscapes often are. At another Edinburgh International Book Festival event with YA writer Tanya Landman and Reginald D. Hunter, they discussed the notion that “When people who’ve always lived in a state of privilege encounter equality, they feel like they’re being disadvantaged” – I wish I could remember which wise person they were quoting (anyone?) – and the same applies here. We all deserve books that speak to us. If that means wriggling a little to make sure everyone has their fair space, then so be it. We might just learn something in the process.

You can find live tweets from the event at #eibfgenderdebate

*Featured image: Left - Right - Sarah Broadley, Jonathan Stroud, Kathryn Evans, David Levithan, Anita Gallo
*Photo Credits: Sheila M Averbuch. Twitter: @SheilaMAverbuch


M Louise Kelly is a member of SCBWI in Southeast Scotland. She writes for young and old adults and is represented by Lindsey Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates. Twitter: @mllouisekelly


A. M. Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team. She manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org


  1. Thanks fro this write up ! It was such a good event - brilliant hosts and audience!

  2. It was v thought provoking and good fun! What more can you ask. Well done all.

  3. Inspiring debate and excellent write-up!

  4. Brilliant write-up for folk like me who couldn't be there. Thanks x


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