Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Losing the Lorax

March 9, 2012

Children’s books pay less attention to nature

Horton heard a who and the Lorax spoke for the trees. But today’s top children’s books don’t pay much attention to nature or wild animals, according to a new analysis.

“Picture books often play an important role in childhood socialization,” a group of researchers notes in Sociological Review. And, given the seriousness of environmental problems, they wondered: How have depictions of natural environments and animals changed over time?

To find out, they analyzed more than 8,000 images in 296 children’s books that received the prestigious Caldecott Awards from 1938 to 2008. Anything constructed by humans, such as a house, was considered a built environment. Lawns and cornfields were considered “modified spaces,” while animals were coded as “domestic, wild, or anthropomorphic.”

Overall, built environments were depicted in 58 percent of the images, while natural environments appeared in 46 percent. “Wild animals were somewhat more likely than domestic animals to be present or to be a subject in a story,” they add. Over time, however, “there have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals while built environments have become much more common.” Indeed, “natural environments have all but disappeared,” they note. And “although nature is included less in recent books, when present, it is less likely to be portrayed negatively.”

“This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism is not an important part of American culture,” they note. But it does suggest that the current generation of young children listening to the stories and looking at the images in children’s books are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it.” ❧

–David Malakoff

Williams, J.A. Jr. et al. 2012. The human-environment dialog in award-winning children’s picture books. Sociological Inquiry doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2011.00399.

What to Read Next