The disappearing natural world in children’s books

A new sociological study suggests the natural world is disappearing from award-winning children’s books:

A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist J. Allen Williams Jr. studied the winners of the American Library Association’s prestigious Caldecott Medal between 1938 (the year the prize was first awarded) through 2008. They looked at more than 8,000 images in the 296 volumes.

They noted whether each image depicted a natural environment (such as a forest), a built environment (such as a house), or a modified environment (such as a cornfield or manicured lawn). In addition, they observed whether the illustrations contained any animals, and if so, rated them as either domestic, wild or anthropomorphized (that is, taking on human qualities)…

Specifically, they find images of built and natural environments were “almost equally likely to be present” in books published from the late 1930s through the 1960s. But in the  mid-1970s, illustrations of the built environment started to increase in number, while there were fewer and fewer featuring the natural environment…

“These findings suggest that today’s generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it,” Williams and his colleagues conclude.

Here is the list of Caldecott winners. Here is what the award is about:

Each year the Newbery Medal is awarded by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s books published the previous year. However, as many persons became concerned that the artists creating picture books for children were as deserving of honor and encouragement as were the authors of children’s books, Frederic G. Melcher suggested in 1937 the establishment of a second annual medal. This medal is to be given to the artist who had created the most distinguished picture book of the year and named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott. The idea for this medal was also accepted enthusiastically by the Section for Library Work with Children of ALA and was approved by the ALA Executive Board.

Do Newbery winners (chapter books) have more depictions of nature?

Perhaps this is simply the necessary consequence of suburbanized America. How many children actually have consistent opportunities to interact with nature or even to see it? The suburban world is a strange one in that while it has a lot of natural imagery (think of street names) and the first suburbs of the mid 1800s invoked pastoral themes, the natural world is very homogenized and sanitized.

Additionally, we live in a country that suggests technology can improve or solve most problems while nature might seem somewhat static (even though it is incredibly dynamic). Perhaps we are now a culture where only the built environment promises excitement while nature seems unpromising. Or perhaps pressing social concerns simply tend to outweigh natural concerns at every turn.

While this study can’t conclude whether these books are reflecting cultural concerns or forming cultural ideas, it does raise questions about what children’s books should be doing. Teaching valuable lessons? Passing along cultural values or cultural capital (a la Bourdieu)? Entertaining? Helping kids learn to read and learn about the world? Making money for the publishers? All of the above?

I wonder if any of the Caldecott Award committees thought about the role of nature in the books they selected.

(This study seems a bit similar in methodology to a study last year that looked at gender biases in children’s literature.)

One thought on “The disappearing natural world in children’s books

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature | Legally Sociable

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