Posted by the Writers of Sci-Why
The Huffington Post recently ran a story entitled, “Children's Books Lack Nature References, Study Suggests.” The study it referred to, which was published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, concluded that “today’s generation of children are [sic] not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it.” (You can read the complete study here)
Here at Sci-Why, where we are both children’s writers/illustrators AND scientist/environmentalist types, we were naturally intrigued by this study. So we took a closer look at it.
As suspected, the study did not pass the scientific sniff test.
The study looked at 296 children’s books, published between 1938 and 2008, and which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. The medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” From an examination of these books, the study authors drew conclusions about children’s books overall, and their effect on children.
In short, the conclusions the authors reach are not supportable by the facts, and the study’s design is flawed.
To begin with, the study examined books that are award-winners for artistic merit. These books, by definition, are not reflective of books overall.
Nor, as the authors claim, are Caldecott winners necessarily “the books that young children are most likely to encounter.” Quoting a 15-year-old study, the authors say the Caldecott winners “are important both because the award leads to strong sales and they are featured in schools and libraries and influence tastes for children’s literature more generally.” While it may be true that Caldecott winners influence tastes in children’s literature, those tastes would be in artistic style, not in subject matter.
Furthermore, Caldecott winners are not necessarily the books children tend to encounter most. A better designed study would have looked at best-selling books, and books actually on school and library shelves. Caldecott winners are a tiny minority of these, and not reflective of them over all.
The choice of the sample, therefore, is seriously flawed. But an even greater flaw is the severely restricted size of the sample. The study examined just 296 books. Contrast this to the number of children’s books published in 2009, as reported by The Library and Book Trade Almanac (“Book Title Output and Average Prices: 2006-2009):” 21,878.
According to the American Library Association, that staggering figure is actually part of a downward trend in the number of published children’s books that began in 2008.
While we do not have access to the data describing the number of books published for children overall since 1938, considering the 2009 figure alone demonstrates the problem with this study. 296 books are simply too small a sample to reflect the nature of children’s books over all; in 2009, the Caldecott winner was just one title out of more than 20,000 books published for children in the U.S. One of of twenty-thousand yields a statistical correlation of exactly zero.
Furthermore, the authors' statistical analysis of trends over time is noted in three graphs. The data, the authors says, show statistical significance with a p-value of about .05. This is not a strong p-value. Something where p=.01 or less are stronger data.
Scientifically, then, the study fails to convince. A non-scientific, common-sense approach to the study reveals even further flaws.
A quick eyeballing of the most popular picture books from the first “golden age of publishing” – a period loosely covering the 1950s and 1960s, features bestsellers such as Babar, Curious George, and books by Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. The Little Engine that Could. Madeline. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Goodnight Moon. Where the Wild Things Are.
Looking back even further, to the first illustrated children’s books in the 19th century, every single book features built environments, tamed nature and artificially civilized animals – think of Beatrix Potter’s Peter in his little blue coat.
None of these books is “natural” in focus or illustration, yet they remain, perhaps, the most influential children’s books of all time.
In contrast, look at some notable books for 2012 from the Association for Library Service to Children (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb). Nine out of 32 picture books on the list have natural themes and settings.
Interestingly, students of literature know that in the fairly short history of children’s literature, nature has rarely been presented as benevolent or even benign, making the current crop of books with pro-nature themes an anomaly. In traditional children’s stories, both oral and written, the wilderness is universally presented as a place of evil and danger. Consider Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel as prime examples of the classic form.
There are still other issues with the study overall. For example, the authors use dated material, and also cite references that do not, in fact, support their claims. For example, consider this sentence: “the final decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first saw a conservative backlash (Kline 2000; K. Gottfried, personal communication).” Unless the authors engaged in time travel, it would be impossible to draw conclusions about “the early years of the twenty-first century” from a document dated 2000.
Similarly, the authors of the study use data from 1996 to draw conclusions about the content of children’s science textbooks and continuing trends today. This data, 16 years out of date, does not reflect either the content of children’s texts today, nor the changing nature and usage of textbooks overall. To draw conclusions about books and their impact without consideration for the revolution in publishing we have been undergoing in the last decade is simply nonsensical.
The authors, we believe, suffer from a common problem among scientists and researchers of all stripes: confirmation bias. The researchers set out to confirm a hypothesis in which they already believed. Consider this quotation from one of the sources used in the study: ‘‘I believe one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live.’’ This is not a scientific observation; it is an unsubstantiated opinion.
As writers and illustrators involved in science and nature, we, of course, have our own biases. We know, however, exactly how much our own work, and the work of our peers, is inspired by and infused by the natural world. We see firsthand the work that is most influential, the work that is most often read by children and promoted by teachers and librarians.
Is it less “natural” than previous generations? We think not.
The Huffington Post should be more careful about the studies on which they choose to report. And for information about science or nature in children’s books, they should perhaps look to those who know something about the field: authors or librarians, not environmentalist-sociologists.