Has Nature Disappeared from Children’s Books?

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 21, 2012 30
Black bear

In the last two decades, depictions of wild animals in children’s books have dwindled. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

I used to think that some of the world’s best nature and travel books could be found in the children’s section of my local bookstore. On those dedicated shelves were tales of exotic islands (The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss); adventure on the seas (Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson); the beneficence of forests (The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein); the dangers of plucking animals out of the wild — and the faithfulness required of them to successfully bring up young (Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss); and, of course, there resided my favorite book of all time: The Little Prince, the story of a boy who travels to other planets in a struggle to save his own dying world.

I used to think that, that is, until I read about a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska. It seems that the current crop of children’s books shows a remarkable lack of nature as subject matter.

Should we be concerned?

A turn away from nature

Elephant

In the book “Horton Hatches the Egg,” an elephant is captured by hunters, forced to endure a terrible sea voyage, and placed in a traveling circus. All ends well when he is returned to the wild. ©Mark Hickey

In this column in November 2009, I wrote about nature words disappearing from children’s dictionaries. But now, it seems, references to nature are vanishing from contemporary children’s books altogether.

Recently, University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, led by sociologist Dr. J. Allen Williams Jr., analyzed 8,000 images from 296 children’s books that received Caldecott awards — given to American artists for distinguished picture books — from 1938 (the first year the prize was handed out) to 2008. They theorized that there were two possibilities regarding a change in content over time: 1) Growing concern about critical environmental problems, such as deforestation and a decline in biodiversity, may have led to an increase in illustrations and stories about wild animals and the natural environment; or 2) the increasing isolation of people from the natural world may have resulted in a decline in the perceived relevance of these environmental issues and resulted in fewer stories and depictions.

Unfortunately, No. 2 seems to be the case. In the last two decades, there have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments, while built environments (such as houses or playgrounds) have become much more common. Representations of wild animals (rather than domesticated or anthropomorphized creatures) also dwindled.

The authors of the study conclude that today’s generation of children are not being socialized — at least through their books — toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place we humans have in it.

Online sources fill the gap

Some question the validity of the study’s results, however, saying that Williams looked only at books that won prestigious Caldecott awards. But there are, they would argue, a wide variety of other books that contain illustrations with natural landscapes or animals. And, they point out, picture books are not the only genre of children’s literature. There are a number of text-based books, and any of them could have contained an environmental message.

Too, those who question the findings say that perhaps William’s study measured a decrease in natural settings or animals because children are much more plugged into the online world today than decades ago. There are plenty of websites that are devoted to educating children about the environment, such as The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere, Defenders of Wildlife’s Kids’ Planet, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s EekoWorld.

Oak tree

Shel Silverstein’s 1964 book “The Giving Tree” is a tale about a boy and the tree that sustains him throughout his life. ©John T. Andrews

A matter of priorities

Williams, however, believes other indicators back up his study’s findings. In 2009, for example, Gallup conducted a poll regarding Americans’ attitudes toward the 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.

A year later, in 2010, Scholastic reported that some of the most popular trends in children’s literature are: dystopian fiction, mythology-based fantasy, multimedia series, special-needs protagonists, and a shift away from picture books. It was stated that publishers are producing 25 to 30 percent fewer picture books than in years past due to parents wanting their children to read more challenging books at younger ages.

It’s a trend that’s still being seen in 2012. Environmentally friendly books for children are still a small subset of the market as a whole. For the month of August, in fact, The New York Times Best Sellers list of children’s picture books shows that books with environmentalism story lines or natural settings are almost nonexistent. And even as the green movement grows today, it appears that  environmental conservation and protection for wildlife is not a high priority for most Americans.

Should this shift away from nature in children’s books be of concern? Or is it merely a reflection of changing technology and the realities of the world our children will have to live in? How many of the picture books on your own children’s shelves are on nature topics?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

30 Comments »

  1. Ann Cordero July 5, 2016 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    I have started a nature center called Fallen Leaf Nature Niche in Longview, WA. It is housed in the McLaughlin Community Resource Center, a beautiful room in the Health and Science Building at Lower Columbia College. It is run by volunteers. We have hands-on exhibits and displays as well as a collection of 1300 nature books (for all ages) for circulation. The books have come from used book sales and donations and include many of the older natural history titles. We are hoping that the books will be checked out, taken home, and perused by the readers: time spent with the book is the key. We are beginning to be noticed, but we are looking for more ideas about how to get people to come and participate. We have been open since March 2016.

  2. julia December 11, 2013 at 6:40 am - Reply

    I agree! Over the past couple of years i’ve been writing a nature children’s series that is interactive with games, facts, and adventure through different environments around the world!

  3. Derrick G. September 12, 2012 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Books in schools should always relate to nature in one way or another but hands on and visual introduction is a more practical way for our children to learn and remember especially if they see how a Veterinarian handles any given situation involving an injured animal. The relation of animal pain and human pain is imperative for them to understand that any living being should have a comfortable life.

  4. Carma September 11, 2012 at 10:45 am - Reply

    I think the books are out there, but many are older, and are getting harder to find. The children, even very young ones, are entranced by Dora the Explorer, and video games on electronic devices large and small. These are often encouraged by their parents as a “keep yourself busy while we grownups talk” tool. I see many even in church as a distracting method to keep the little ones quiet. Quiet, usually yes; learning anything or feeling anything holy or spiritual, (or learning ANYTHING) no.
    I see both 2 working parents as enabling this trend; the parents often don’t have the time, or don’t make the time, to take their children outside to even SEE the world beyond the ‘handheld’, much less gain any interest in learning about it. I’m grateful (and impressed) that my daughter & her husband take as much time as they do to make very frequent trips to the library, and read many books, some over and over, with their 5 1/2 year-old daughter. (She can recite a dinosaur for every letter of the alphabet, and tell you about each one!) But I don’t think many parents understand how critically important seeing the sky, and spending time out of doors, both are for the development of many areas of a child’s brain and body. Studies have shown that without that outside time, children’s concept of spacial relationships suffers.
    As I say, the books ARE there, but I believe more are needed – new books that inspire interest in the world (remember “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego”?) with the phenomenal photographs that exist now. I think we need to push harder in that direction. If the rising generation doesn’t SEE photos & information of wildlife and our earth, and learn to value it, how are they going to care about doing their part in preserving it?

  5. John S. September 6, 2012 at 5:35 am - Reply

    I grew up learning about wildlife through wildlife encyclopedias and picture books of animals and birds. I loved learning all their names and about their environments. It’s up to parents to expose children to the wonderful creatures of the world. DK (Dorling Kindersley) has an excellent series of books for children about the animal kingdom with tons of pictures.

  6. Maria Amélia Martins-Loução August 30, 2012 at 1:41 am - Reply

    This is a very important topic that needs to be discussed
    I do agree that the new technologies, the new interests and the rush life of the parents doesn’t allow the time to think, live and appreciate nature in family
    Overtime this turn out in this almost absence of nature and nature love on children books

  7. Kelly B. August 28, 2012 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    Some of my favorite books as a child (and adult!) were picture books, National Geographic magazines, WWF publications, and anything to do with nature… especially our oceans. I went to school to pursue marine biology and art. Today I am a wildlife artist, specializing in marine and Florida species. Conservation of our wild waters and landscapes is the key to life on our planet, and our future is dependent on how we teach our children. They need to grow up with a love and respect for all animal and plant life. It is sad to think that so many grow up in a cold, urban environment with no knowledge (or concern for) of how they impact our planet.

  8. Robert Munger, AIA, CCM, LEED AP August 26, 2012 at 10:48 am - Reply

    Not sure about nature, but Global Warming has disappeared from my child’s sixth grade Earth Science book. In the energy chapter, they do mention some of the drawbacks of coal as an energy source, but greenhouse gas emissions is not one of them. Petroleum has no drawbacks whatsever listed.

  9. Maria de Fatima Botelho Sardinha August 26, 2012 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Yes I agree it’s a great concern if ” ….today’s generation of children are not being socialized toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world…..” and ” the perceived relevance to understand the environmental issues.

  10. John Saluke August 26, 2012 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Working at a cultural site, the principle of Manifest Destiny comes to mind. Sure, it seems an almost archaic term to apply to modern literature, but lets review. White settlers believed that it was their destiny to venture west and conquer the wilderness; to bring civilization to the wilderness. For hundreds of years our culture has depicted wilderness as a dangerous place where evil creatures live. Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, and even the Bible refers to the wilderness as a place of temptation. As great as Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” was, it failed ot teach moderation or management of resources. A man takes and takes from a tree until it is nothing but a stump. He could have planted some seeds to make an orchard or to give his children trees of their own.
    As the generations pass, less people have experiences growing up outside their urban environment. As we write stories of our own, we draw them from our own morals & ethics. Today we’ve grown more and more concerned with the fragile perceptions of children. The MPAA rates our movies for a proper viewing audience. Do we all still believe its appropriate to tell our children stories of kids being eaten by wolves and forced into ovens?
    Today’s media are softened from the adventure days of old. Animal books are designed to be informative with bizzare facts. But this disconnects with a personal experience of Robinson Crusoe stranded on an island. We’re also given a mixed image of what its like outdoors: go outside to have fun, but put on sunscreen, and your insect repellent or you could die from West Nile Virus, Rocky Mountain Fever, Malaria, Yellow Fever… and watch out for snakes, don’t go swimming anywhere but a safe chlorinated swimming pool… the list goes on.
    These types of mixed messages make it hard for children to comprehend the beauty of nature. They become too scared to be adventurous. And why venture outside? Pictures online make the scenery available without the grueling hike through the brush. What kids are losing is the experience of it all. People need to take the time, slow down, and appreciate things.

  11. Nitin S Phadke August 25, 2012 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Really its great concern

  12. Deanna Fahey August 24, 2012 at 5:46 am - Reply

    This topic raises a point that is close to my heart as a parent. What I have found is not so much a disappearance from nature in children’s books book but an insurgence in ‘teaching’ style books. I miss the books where children are simply playing in and engaging with nature. Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for nature books that teach a lesson, I just think one of those lessons should be that nature is a place to play, relax, socialize and grow.

  13. Bushra R. August 23, 2012 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    very true, current curriculum is not emphasizing on showing the nature rather it has become a hub for internet and computer, that’s why children of our age don’t have enough information regarding the nature and its beauty.

  14. Consuelo A. August 23, 2012 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    I remember reading the Little Prince when I was in 2nd grade. Now, I wish I had the book at my hand because it seems like at that age I could not grasp the deeper message that the book can convey. It is certainly sad to hear that children’s books are lacking nature. What makes us compassionate towards others (including animals and the environment) is really a result of how much we were exposed when we were younger. I hope it turns around, especially now that we need more leaders that care about other creatures.

  15. Rachealgrace Adams August 23, 2012 at 10:06 am - Reply

    It disheartens me when I look at childrens books today. I remember as a child those beautiful handmade illistrations along with the story. It was those pictures of people in their settings (much of which was nature) that sturred my imagination. I learned to fly with the birds, nest in the trees and run about with the animals.
    It’s my belief that parents today are overly concerned with their children keeping up with the ‘little Jone’s.” What sets a childs foundation into a fully caring educated adult is enjoying and understanding that nuture is primary on this earth. Everything is here for a reason, good or bad. The more we understand about nature, the more we understand about life. Everything has a season and a life span. We can’t protect one without the other!
    Question and thought to add: How many adults regardless of what they’re job or career is, take vacations? Some travel to far off lands, sight seeing. Others go fishing or hunting. Some travel to distance beaches; anywhere to get away from it all. They need to unwind. They need nature, yet they don’t seem to encourage their children to experience it. If they did I believe these children would want to read more about this planets beauty, all of it. Everyone seems to have an animal or bird they relate to. It was only earlier this summer I was sitting outside watching all the different birds cruse through my area. It was almost like I was witnessing a different social world of life! It’s so important we come to terms that we cannot build without the land. If we distroy what has provided us life, life I don’t believe will function as well with just keys we punch! These people who give us all the tools of the world we depend on; where do they go to relaz? If they don’t experience as children when they do as adults I’ve heard so many say, ‘I missed out on so much.’ Hang a dollar on a tree, will it produce a leaf? Anyone ever wanted to be as ‘free as a bird?’ We’re all stressed out and teaching the future the same and worse. How many people at some time in their lifes need to go back to they’re roots? Need to feel the land again, walk among the trees and watch the deer come out of a forest or birds nesting on high cliffs. Nature has it made; we’re the ones stuck in the mud. Give our children a break, let them take their shoes off their minds. Sometimes I think children need to lead us with their questions and feel free to do so not fearing they’re not asking the questions their parents want them to ask about school, college, degrees, resumes, jobs ~ sigh ~ just my thoughts.

  16. Linda Plate August 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    I think the trend away from Nature in children’s books is a reflection of our times. Most children are not exposed to nature most spend their time indoors with video games and cell phones and computers because they live in urban areas and cannot play outside.
    But if authors would write about nature wouldn’t this help to interest more children in the subject?

  17. John Byrne August 22, 2012 at 5:50 am - Reply

    Visitation to national parks is down 23% per capita since its high in 1985. US hunting and fishing are down. Natural area visitation is down around the world.

    Obesity is up.

    Which came first – less nature in children’s book – or less interest in nature for readers?

  18. Geldenhuys Marinus August 22, 2012 at 5:49 am - Reply

    It is absolutely imperative that children from a young age should be educated on nature and all its complex processes and interactions. Even though they may not fully understand all these processes at such an early stage (we still don’t too!), but stimuli such as colourful nature scenes (even with a bit of a fantasy twist to it eg. bears/birds having conversation) coupled with an intruiging/cunning story will definitely trigger a process of thought from an early age. One where they start thinking “Maybe if this bear and bird is speaking to eachother then maybe the flowers speak to the bees” (through visual qeues though..) Get it?

    Since everything in nature is connected whether physically or through some interactions, and the foundations of economies and its welfare so deeply embedded in the availability of natural resources these patterns of thought will only positively influence their future views on natural resource use and economic welfare.

    As the children today will be responsible for implementing most of the policies, actions, conservation plans, etc. for future sustainability of our planet we should embed feelings of kindness, equalness, respect and love in them towards nature from as early as possible.

    Peace

  19. Cyretha I. August 22, 2012 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Hi Candice,

    Thanks for pointing that out. No wonder the wife of my cousin’s 3 year old was so happy when I gave their daughter a copy of a small photobook I did on the “Big 5”.

  20. Chris August 22, 2012 at 5:43 am - Reply

    Well I’ve taken to introduce my son to The Hobbit. Plenty of nature in that book, I must say. It’s not just facts about animals and the environment, but also having nature as a backdrop to teach those messages. That’s the appeal of The Hobbit for me.

  21. Christina Bridge August 21, 2012 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Yes it is a shame, I loved travel and nature books as a child. I have a series of stories actually written for children about nature and it’s habitat. Here is the first one, it is actually based on fact. and all the characters are real. Hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to share, I wrote it in 2003.

    http://pocketchef.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/cosmic-chrissie-and-her-friends-and-their-adventures-in-the-universe-and-beyond/

    The first one is The Sick Sea, second is the about the forests and the third is about the world falling over.

  22. Pat L. August 21, 2012 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    I think this is a reflection of our times, and is also a cause for concern. It’s difficult to generate interest in saving something you don’t know, haven’t experienced or learned to love and enjoy.

  23. Amanda August 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    I think it’s a reflection of the parents and their concerns for their children. Since children are not the ones purchasing the books, the parents are the ones that influence themes and marketing of such books.

    In all honesty though I believe this is a concern, especially for reasons that Phillip addressed, that parents should expose their children to national parks and wild lands rather than zoos and theme parks.

    However, I do understand that the education offered at such places such as aquariums, zoos, etc can influence parental choices following a visit because otherwise, they may not have had access to that knowledge.

    I am frequently reading about new children’s nature apps and themes for children’s books in these forums but seldom hear about them being advertised to the general public, but instead to people such as ourselves; much like preaching to the choir. This may be a possible reason that natural themes in children’s books and materials have been receding.

  24. Burr W. August 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    kids books… should be stories of their own home bioregion…and should include the Indian stories, settler stories, stories of any culture that developed communities within the ecoregion (German, French, Hispanic, Asian, etc). Stories should be about the most common plants and animals of the region — and with activities on how to fix native foods, medicines…

    This means a lot of work must be done. We have been horribly lazy, expecting a “national curriculum” to be able to create true citizens with a deep abiding love of where they live. With the Internet, the books can be pdfs on websites, or apps for tablets and smartphones… paper books became too centralized in production.

    Students can ferret out the folk tales of the region, and much of the local lore, and be made part of the process of creating bodies of bioregional work.

  25. Emma August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am - Reply

    I will share this with some children’s writers that I know…

  26. Linda H. August 21, 2012 at 8:42 am - Reply

    I agree Janis – and the media makes a circus out of every tragedy, adding layers upon layers of fear to an already fearsome environment. Copy cats are spawned from this vast media machine which repeats every 10 minutes, and I won’t even broach the subject of tabloid television that hypes sensationalized headlines numerous times in each broadcast. Such hosts would have us believe that they are doing this because they care but they have built their images on the personal tragedies of these unfortunate victims – far too many of them children. I know we need to know that we are living in a dangerous world and that such information reminds us to protect our children, which most parents are doing anyway but the media has sensationalized every tragedy to the extreme. These are just a few thoughts I have on the matter.

  27. Mitchell August 21, 2012 at 8:40 am - Reply

    You just have to give them the right kind of books: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1936607697/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00

    My grandkids love this book.

  28. Phillip Tureck - FRGS August 21, 2012 at 8:39 am - Reply

    “Children are moving with technology and this is part of an evolution Some of the humanities are also optional at school these days. As they opt out of geography and history they learn less about the environment My favourite story is how North Americans in particular may visit Animal Kingdom in Orlando and then tell people that they went on safari – I have heard it first hand At the weekend I was shocked when out to lunch at a pub that where the children are usually kept busy with crayons and colouring books a number of the parents had brought with them I pads or Net Books to keep their offspring amused. It will not be long before night time stories are given by talking E books!”

  29. Janis Susan May August 21, 2012 at 8:37 am - Reply

    I think this trend is reflective of our current living environment. Children don’t play outside any more like they used to – they stay in and play video games or watch TV. Of course, part of the problem is that ‘outside’ is a very dangerous place these days, with pedophiles and assorted predators. I don’t remember the world being this perilous a place when I was a child.

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