Looking back at history some of the most popular and most loved children’s books of all time are: Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Goodnight Moon, Go-go Dogs, Guess How Much I Love You?, Pat the Bunny, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Green Eggs and Ham, and Corduroy. Some of these are classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and it would be easy to find them in a school’s library or a young child’s bedroom today. No doubt, some of these books have managed to transition well and maintain a loyal following within the current book industry. However, are they reflective of what is most popular today in children’s literature? When taking an analytical look at the previously mentioned books, there is a strong presence of the main characters interacting with nature or are animals themselves. Can that be said about today’s children books?
A recent study begs to differ.
J. Allen William Jr., a sociologist, led a research team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and posed a profound question: “Are children losing touch with their natural environment than ever before?”
Together they evaluated award-winning children’s books from the American Library Association dating from the years 1938 to 2008. William and his research team then studied over 8,000 images and 296 from the books to take notes on whether they show natural settings like a forest, human-made environments like a house, or something modified such as a playground. Adding to this research, the team also observed whether animals were included in these illustrations and how they were drawn (i.e. wild or given human qualities).
The results from this study suggest that there is isolation from the natural environment than ever before in today’s society based on the incrementally lowered number of illustrations showing natural settings. To some this may sound strange, especially since the green movement has been picking up momentum over the years. However, Williams notes in his study that children today are not being socialized enough with the natural world to appreciate or understand it. He cites changes such as urbanization and television as vital factors that lead to this separation from nature, which causes adults and children alike to have a lowered perception regarding the relevance of environmental issues.
The findings of this study are, of course, debatable.
Some could argue the validity of this study. For example, Williams could have looked at more than just books that won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. After all, there are a wide variety of other books that were not awarded the medal and still contain illustrations with natural landscapes or animals such as Dianna Hutts Aston’s Looney Little: An Environmental Tale. Furthermore, picture books are not the only genre of children literature. There a number of children’s books that are text-based and any of them could have contained an environmental message regardless of pictures.
However, Williams does recognize that in the 296 books that were observed, environmentalism was not a major theme. Furthermore, toward the end of his study he mentions a poll conducted by Gallup in 2009 regarding Americans and the attitude toward their environment .The results showed that the environment is “not a high salience issue” and has a “low-mind presence” in respect to priorities for the government.
Williams’ study is profound and interesting, and as debatable as it is, it does provide Americans with valuable insight.
Indeed, even today as the green movement grows, it appears that the environment and protection for wildlife is not a high priority on many people’s list. In regards to children’s literature, when one looks at the top ranking books of past years there is some interesting trends. For the month of February, the New York Times Best Selling list shows that books with environmentalism (whether picture or chapter) storylines or natural settings are almost nonexistent. Mary Pope Osbourne’s The Magic Tree House series and Rick Riordan’s The Sun of Neptune are the closest children’s books that have images or main characters interacting with nature on this list. Some other bestselling books this month are Micheal Morpugo’s War Horse, Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Sherri Duskey’s Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. Just by looking at these titles alone, one can see that children’s literature is not just about See Spot Run anymore. No, what one sees here is a shift to subjects that were once deemed too heavy for children. Of course, with some exceptions such as Duskey’s picture book that reflects William’s theory on how children’s books are increasingly depicting built man-made settings.
Perhaps, this almost nonexistent presence of environmental messages or natural settings in images could be attributed to recent book trends. Scholastic reported in 2010 that some of the most popular trends in children’s literature are: dystopian fiction, mythology-based fantasy, multimedia series, special-needs protagonists and shifting away from picture books. For the latter, it was stated that publishers are publishing 25 to 30 percent less picture books due to parents wanting their children to read more challenge books at younger ages.
These trends reported by Scholastic in 2010 are still trends seen today in 2012. Unfortunately, environmentally friendly books for children are not a major trend, then or now. They are still a small subset of the market as a whole. However, it is growing and being recognized. An example would be The Wilderness Society’s annual Environment Award for Children’s Literature, announced everyday on World Environment Day. The 2011 winner was Jackie French’s (illustrator was Sue deGennaro) The Tommorrow Book. French’s picture book tells the story of a prince who is determined to rule over a country in a future filled with environmental hope and touches upon renewable energy (i.e. solar power).
Moving on, perhaps William’s study saw a decrease in natural settings or animals because American society today is very much plugged into the online world. This is a factor that he did not mention, however, it was suggested when he stated that urbanization and television contribute to children’s isolation with nature. Certainly these factors have the ability to inhibit children’s interaction with nature greatly. However, they can be turned into positives if used correctly. Consider that there are many online websites dedicated to educating children about the environment such as: Eeko World, Kids Planet, Eco-Kids, Kids Regen, The Green Squad and Recycle City.
Understandably, William’s study focused only on award winning children’s pictures books from the American Library Association. So really, the books were only a small representation. Nonetheless, this doesn’t take away from the fact William’s study does provide Americans with something to reflect upon.
Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hudsonthego/2114565250/