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.)

Study of over 5,000 children’s books from 20th century shows gender bias

A team of sociologists looked at “nearly 6,000” of children’s books from the 20th century and found that there were patterns of gender bias throughout the entire period:

“We looked at a full century of children’s books,” McCabe said. “We were surprised to find that books did not become consistently more equal throughout the century. They were most unequal in the middle of the century, with more male-dominated characters from 1930 to 1969, than those published in the first three decades of the century and in later decades.”…

The study, “Gender in Twentieth–Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters,” was published in the journal Gender & Society. The study found that:

•Males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters.
•No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.
•Male animals are central characters in more than 23 percent of books per year, while female animals are in only 7.5 percent.
•On average, 36.5 percent of books in each year studied include a male in the title, compared to 17.5 percent that include a female.
•Although books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters, a significant disparity of nearly 2 to 1 remains for male animal characters versus female.

This may not seem terribly important in the grand scheme of the world but at the same time, children’s books can play an important role in the socialization process. I would be interested to see how the authors discuss the changing role of children’s book with the advent of mass publishing, television, movies/DVDs, etc. And is there any way to assess the impact of such texts on children who read them?

Just off the top of my head, I’m struck by the number of children’s books examined. Over a 100 year stretch, this would average out of 60 per year but this seems like an unusually large qualitative data set.

Considering the effects of darker fiction on younger brains

An academic conference this past weekend considered how fiction, particularly the darker fiction of recent years, might affect the brains of teenagers and children. Here is a quick overview of what was being discussed:

The trend for darkness and dystopia in children’s literature reflects concerns in the wider, adult world, Nikolajeva [the conference organizer] said. A hundred years ago, books for kids were dominated with stories about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands; then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the themes were emerging sexuality and parental conflict.

Inside the teenage brain, synapses are breaking and reforming, and the chemistry keeps changing. Teenagers can’t make decisions in the same way adults can, Nikolajeva said, and she noted that authors, filmmakers and game developers have a moral obligation to make sure that their works contain some positive ethic.

As the Post writer notes, this sounds like an interesting conference. In general, narratives can have a powerful effect. If children’s literature has indeed turned darker, this could have implications for future adults.

And I’d be curious to know how people at the conference defined the “positive ethic” that Nikolajeva suggests should be included in children’s literature.