In all honesty, I shouldn't really be writing about this.

According to children's novelist Jonathan Emmett, people like me are part of the problem. Pleading for more good books for boys, Emmett has lambasted the children's book world, from publishers and editors, librarians and book reviewers, to those of us who buy most children's books - in a word, women.

A wholesale denunciation of the malign effect of women upon any other industry would have me up in arms. In this instance, however, I believe he may have a point. Aghast at the literacy gap that has grown between boys and girls in recent years - a gulf that's apparently obvious by the age of five - former architect Emmett blames in part the fact that almost all the "gatekeepers" of literature for children are female.

Consciously or not, he says, publishers and librarians have been shaping children's books to reflect their own preferences, and mums and aunts and grannies have been buying books that appeal to them. As a result, much rough and tumble masculinity has been lost from literature, a point on which Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, agrees. She thinks publishers are now over-cautious about portraying bad behaviour, even when it's baddies who're doing it. As a result, unable to find subjects that interest them, many boys turn away from reading to computer games or television.

It's certainly true that if you were to call a convention of children's publishers, reviewers, agents, librarians and booksellers, it would be like going into a nursing college 50 years ago, with barely a man to be seen amid a sea of pastel cardigans and kitten heels. Meanwhile, teaching seems to be attracting fewer men, and women are having more influence on boys at an age when male role models, and the books such teachers can recommend, are critical for their maturing.

Judging by titles for younger readers, safety and cosiness are paramount, as if bedtime reading must not include anything exciting or scary. Yet if you cast your mind back to childhood, there was nothing better than an adventure story, with evil villains, and frightening battles, and nerve-tingling escapes. In fact, the only book that gave me nightmares was Beatrix Potter's blood-curdling The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, where rats behind the wainscot roll up a kitten in pastry to turn him into pudding. Not even Silence of the Lambs could match that for horror.

Interestingly, many of the most popular children's authors of the past were men. Robert Louis Stevenson's spine-chilling Treasure Island or Kidnapped were a staple of the school library, no-one fearful that their scenes of sword fights or attempted murder would be harmful. Health and Safety geeks might now raise eyebrows at the highjinks in Arthur Ransome's shipping tales, but were they to have cautioned against the likes of Maurice Sendak's brilliantly eery Where the Wild Things Are, or Jack London's violent White Fang, the world would be a much duller place.

Fortunately, blame for the dearth of boy-friendly books does not lie entirely with womankind. For more than a century, many boys came to books via comics, where they were given high-octane stories that taught them the pleasure of reading. In his classic book The Uses of Literacy, the late Richard Hoggart singled out comics as one of the defining features of a working-class man's literary development. Until the decline of the comic, girls were left far behind in this regard. I used to envy male schoolfriends who would become engrossed in The Eagle or Hotspur, full of tales of war-time derring-do and gung-ho heroes, whereas I had Bunty or Jackie - the one as demure as an Edwardian, the other giving lessons on lipstick and boyfriends - which were no good for a tomboy.

The root of the problem may, of course, lie in a fear of gender stereotyping. For understandable reasons, women are alarmed at the thought of sons being considered inherently more pugnacious or technical-minded than daughters. With hindsight, today's lack of gutsy books for boys may even come to be seen as part of a losing battle to rewire the male brain. Since that is neither desirable, nor possible, maybe it's time to pump a bit of boyish bad taste and irreverence into children's books, and see the pages come alive, and their readers too.