Friday 17 August 2018

My Life as the Token Male

By Nick Cross

Photomontage images by Candy Gourlay

As a white, middle-aged, middle class, heterosexual man, there are few situations to which I can add any kind of diversity. But on entering the world of children’s writing, I was surprised to find myself in the minority. I’m the only male blogger on the Notes from the Slushpile team, for instance, and at a recent SCBWI event, I looked around to see that I was the only man in the room. Not that any of this really bothers me, it’s just... interesting.

Of course, there are plenty of other male children’s writers, and significantly more male children’s illustrators. So I’m not claiming any kind of discrimination here! But I remember how at the first night of the recent Picture Book Retreat, all the men ended up together on the same table for dinner. I don’t think we meant for it to happen like that, and it felt quite weird, whereas a table that was all women wouldn’t have seemed remarkable at all.

The 2018 Picture Book Retreat gang. I count seven men here!

Growing up, all my friends were boys. I didn’t have a sister, and the idea of talking to girls was frankly terrifying. Even when I went to university, I chose a course (Computer Science) that was heavily male-dominated. But, through the house I lived in and the university society I joined, I began to move in mixed company. And I was surprised to find myself making actual, platonic, female friends. I began to realise that I was more comfortable in a room full of women than I was in a room full of men. Part of this was, no doubt, my disinterest in typically masculine interests like sport. But there was also an emotional honesty to being with a group of women that was near impossible to replicate with men of my generation (without the application of copious quantities of alcohol). And since fiction writing is very much the process of accessing and exploring our emotions, it made sense when all these interests began to dovetail.

Nowadays, I live in a house full of women (wife, two daughters, female cat) and the majority of my close friends are women too. I am (as far as I can tell) still a man, but undoubtedly with a strong female influence. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem said recently:

“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore

This resonated with me, because I want to embody those “feminine” qualities she’s looking for in men. Qualities like kindness, empathy, vulnerability and respect. The generic advice to “man up” has become a terrible burden for the men of Generation X, who are struggling to adapt to a changed world of work and relationships. The Millennial generation are perhaps better off, but there are still many masculine stigmas to overcome.

When I began writing my latest novel, I wanted to bring some of my personal journey to bear on the finished result. But I was also beset by worries about my place in the world and the challenge of finding a fresh subject. What was there to write about that hadn’t been tackled a million times before by some other self-absorbed white male writer? In a time of cultural upheaval, #MeToo and being “woke”, did my privileged point of view have any relevance?

I don’t want to say too much about how I addressed these concerns, because I still have another round of edits to do on the novel. But, suffice to say that the book became a framework that helped me explore these questions, while also (hopefully) delivering a cracking story. From the outside, personal and social change looks easy, but it’s actually an incredibly messy and contradictory process. Human beings are an inherently flawed species, but while some people see that as a reason to try to genetically or technologically “improve” us, I see that as a reason to celebrate our glorious diversity.

Is the gender bias in children’s writing a problem? It’s something that was tackled recently as part of Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s scholarly article on diversity in British YA fiction. Melanie found that 64% of YA titles over the study period were written by women, and questioned whether this was having an impact by discouraging male teenage readers. As ever, it’s very difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions, because the reading, writing and publishing experiences are so subjective. Undoubtedly, there are some teenage boys who are very happy to read a YA romance with a female protagonist, and some teenage girls who wouldn’t read a book if you paid them. Factor in the increasing fluidity of gender and sexual identity amongst young people, and generalisations become impossible.

I don’t have good answers to any of these issues. But what I can do is to keep asking questions, keep turning up to writing events and keep wearing my token male status with pride.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Nick, I salute you for exploring these issues. I think you're right that change doesn't come in a neat and easily quantified way. Also I can't wait to read your book!

  2. Brilliant piece, Nick! And I sure agree that this world needs more questions than answers at the moment. We are avidly awaiting your new book!

    1. I'm avidly awaiting it too! Let's hope draft 5 is the last one.

  3. Wonderful! Ditto, what slashes have said!

  4. damn that auto-correct! I think you know what I meant ...

  5. I am applauding everything about this. Apart from Addy renaming us Slashes. ///


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