There’s an interesting debate happening on Twitter this morning regarding a recent study which claims that, according to the Guardian’s headline, “Only children’s books with humans have moral impact.” (You can read the rest of the article here.)
The study was conducted by the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and focused on the likelihood of young children sharing with their peers after listening to a book about sharing. Lead academic, Patricia Ganea, revealed that “the type of story characters significantly affected whether children became more or less inclined to behave pro-socially. After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous. In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphised animals or a control story, children became more selfish.”
This has come as a shock to all of us familiar with, for example, Aesop’s Fables – traditional fodder given to children to warn them to be nice to others and avoid antisocial behaviour. Additionally, many of the books I read aloud from in my Library storytime sessions are based on animals and I have very interesting discussions with the children about any underlying messages. Take, for example, Duncan Beedie’s book The Bear Who Stared – a tale about a shy bear who’s rather scary and overBEARing (pardon the pun) in his attempts to make new friends. Too tongue-tied to speak, he stares at whoever he comes across until they move on or shout at him to go away.
A wise frog opens his eyes to the error of his ways and helps the bear become a more sociable being.
When I read to the children at school, I often stop at key points and ask them what is happening, why a character might feel a certain way, and what they could do about it to make things better. The children had no difficulty identifying what the issues were with the bear and had plenty of suggestions about how to make things better.
Arguably, children can deal with issues that are explored through the animal world better than in the human one. For example, there are excellent children’s books dealing with grief by looking at it from an animal’s perspective, including Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley, in which the titular Badger prepares his animal friends for his impending death. I think the success of books like this lies in the fact that children are seeing human emotions through the eyes of an animal and, therefore, they are one step removed from their own experience; a parent portrayed doing similar things might be too traumatic for child readers.
Teaching children about emotions and morals can be a tricky area: you don’t want to lecture or distress. Using animals is a useful way to get round this issue as Tracey Corduroy comments in Alison Flood’s piece, “the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”
In a way, you could argue that picture books featuring animals are similar to fairy tales, if you are looking to attribute some sort of moral function to them. Fairy tales, according to Freudian psychoanalysts and academics such as Bruno Bettelheim, are essential to children’s moral and emotional development precisely because all the dreadful events happen in a world that isn’t anything like the child’s own (unless of course there are talking wolves, magic death apples and dragons etc in your neighbourhood). The child experiences the actions one step removed and therefore can process all the emotions – fear, anger, sadness – in a non-threatening way. (Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment makes for excellent reading even if some of his theories are WAY out there!)
I must say that, as a Librarian, I often look to picture books to discuss a difficult subject. At school we have children who come from homes where there are difficulties in the families of which the children are inevitably aware – depression, self-harm, eating disorders, divorce, etc. I’ve searched, in vain, for picture books that deal with these issues in a helpful way. There are ones that focus on child psychology, with humans as characters. They look unappealing, are poorly illustrated and written in a dull way. They are meant to teach and, boy, does the reader know it. In this case, I will always, always, look to see if I can find a better alternative in a ‘proper’ picture book that I can use instead. Unfortunately there aren’t many around for some of the deeper things, but I can honestly say that there is a desperate need for these!
And if I can add more fodder to the fire, I’d like to point out some excellent books on autism and other conditions, written for autistic children, which have – shock horror – animals as protagonists! For example:
These books are a Godsend because they explain emotions and conditions in a fun and non-threatening way. Even children who do not have these conditions love looking at these books, which is great because they, then, learn about the struggles their friends and classmates may have and why they behave in certain ways.
To conclude – I can’t say I agree with these findings and have questions of mine own about the research. For example, I wonder which books the researchers used, for example, and how they were read aloud as that can, in itself, have a huge impact to a child’s reaction. Any book that is read with sensitivity to the text and images can create massive discussion, whereas the best book in the world, read aloud badly, can bore and turn listeners off. I think the researchers have raised interesting points, but they need much further discussion if they stand any chance of dethroning evidence that has stood children’s literature in good stead for many years.