Picture an illustrated children’s book — one that has won a prestigious award — and your mind conjures up images of furry animals, puffy clouds, and eager boys and girls enjoying adventures in the wild.
In fact, our kids are entering a much different world in their earliest literary experiences — one in which nature plays an increasingly minor role. That’s the conclusion of a newly published study, which suggests these books reflect our growing estrangement from the natural environment.
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).
The results, published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, are sobering. “There have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals, while built environments have become much more common,” the researchers report.
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.
“This gap widened in every subsequent decade,” Williams and his colleagues write. "Natural environments have all but disappeared."
In line with this trend, “from the 1960s onward, interactions with wild animals decline steadily.” More surprisingly, even cats and dogs don’t play the role they once did in these stories.
“The probability of a domestic animal serving as a subject declined sharply after 1938 into the 1980s,” the researchers write. “There was a slight rise after this, but the likelihood of finding domestic animal subjects in an image in the 2000s is less than half that of the early years in our study.”
Of course, the American population is more concentrated in urban areas today than it was in 1938, so in one sense, it's not surprising there are more images today of man-made environments and fewer of the natural world.
But the fact this trend continued into the 2000s, well after the urban migration had run its course, suggests something more is going on. Think of it as a precursor to Nature Deficit Disorder.
Of course, children don’t only read books that win the Caldecott Medal. But the researchers note that such award-winning volumes tend to sell well, circulate strongly at libraries, and “influence taste for children’s literature” as a whole.
“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.
They go on to note that the “decline in support of the environmental movement during the 2000s decade,” as measured by Gallup surveys, “is consistent with the decline in depiction of the natural world and its wildlife inhabitants” in these popular books.
Whether these prize-winning volumes are part of the problem, or simply a symptom of larger societal trends, is an open question. But this research suggests we’re missing an opportunity to teach young children to respect nature, perhaps because we never learned that lesson ourselves.