Children’s picture books contain more illustrations of built environments than natural environments.
This is the finding of Williams et al. (2012) in The Human-Environment Dialog in Award-winning Children’s Picture Book.
J. Allen Williams Jr., Christopher Podeschi, Nathan Palmer, Philip Schwadel and Deanna Meyler evaluated 296 Caldecott award-winning books to investigate how the environment was portrayed in children’s book illustrations. Williams et al. (2012) evaluated titles winning the award between 1938 – 2008 and explain they chose to study Caldecott winners because the American Library Association considers these titles to have the best illustrations and because these titles are circulated widely among libraries. The authors explain they chose to study illustrations in children’s books specifically because they “play an important role in childhood socialization” (Williams, et al. 2012). The Caldecott award was first issued in 1938 (Williams, et al. 2012).
During their investigation of 70 years’ worth of titles, the authors evaluated 8,067 images. When evaluating images, Williams et al. (2012) recorded the following:
- The presence or absence of natural, built or modified environments.
- The presence or absence of domestic, wild or anthropomorphic animals.
- The presence of interaction between humans and the environment.
- The negative portrayal of nature or animals.
- Story themes and objectives
Here is a summary of the main findings resulting from the authors’ statistical analysis of illustrations:
- Built environments are present more often than natural environments. While both environments were represented more or less equally between 1948-1958, the presence of natural environments began a dramatic decline after 1960.
- In 1953 built environments began to be depicted as the primary environment more often than natural environments. Prior to this, natural environments were more likely to be the primary environment.
- Wild animals are more likely to be present in an image than domestic animals.
- Wild animals are more likely to be the subject of a story than domestic animals.
- The probability of either wild or domestic animals being depicted in an illustration declined over the 70-year study period.
- Human interaction with nature or animals of any kind is not common and became even less so during the years 2000-2008.
- Negative images of natural environments began to increase in the 1950s and peaked in the 1980s.
- Negative images of built environments increased in the 1980s.
- Negative images of domestic animals increased throughout the study period.
You might be asking yourself, “What made negative images ‘negative’? “
Illustrations were coded as negative if they mostly showed “unpleasant or potentially dangerous natural conditions” or served “as critical commentary on environmental problems” (Williams, et al. 2012).
In discussing the findings above (and many others), Williams et al. (2012) conclude that children’s understanding and appreciation of nature is not being nurtured through the children’s books they studied. Neither is children’s understanding of the role human’s play in the environment.
The authors are concerned about illustrations in children’s books because children’s books reflect what is going on in society (Williams, et al. 2012). The authors hypothesize that two factors may be contributing to they way the environment is presented in children’s books: 1) the public’s indifference towards environmental issues and 2) the public’s declining exposure to natural environments. They make a strong case for both in their paper citing independent research and Gallup poll data. To read more about their analysis of these issues and to view a full account of their findings, get a PDF of their article
(24-hour access costs $35) or look for a copy at your local college library.
Williams, J.Allen and Christopher Podeschi, Nathan Palmer, Philip Schwadel and Deanna Meyler. 2012. The human-environment dialog in award-winning children’s picture books. Sociological Inquiry. 82(1): 145-159