Why are children’s picture books always about animals?

Anyone remember the family the ‘Berenstain Bears’ or perhaps you were more of a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ fan? No matter which childhood books you were into, I guarantee that they all featured endearing animal characters with human-like qualities. There’s ‘Pooh’, the ‘Bear of Little Brain’ or the walking, talking Berenstain Bear family who learn human lessons like ‘counting your blessings’ or ‘stranger danger’. This phenomenon of giving human characteristics to animals is known as ‘anthropomorphology’ and is a commonly used device in the world of children’s literature. So why do authors use these furry friends to engage little readers?

Human Race versus Animal Kingdom

After being spoilt for choice for the two best picture books to be included in our Jungle Love Book Box, I realised that children’s books are definitely skewed towards characters from the ‘animal kingdom’ over the ‘human race’. The jungle theme seems to be far and away the most popular type of animal books out they’re trumping farm, ocean and Australian animal characters. In fact, children’s picture books in general are dominated by endearing animal characters over human ones. Anthromorphology is a device that authors use to engage readers. Does the message or moral have more of an impact on our children when presented in this less threatening way?

The ‘Man versus Wild’ Moral Dilemma: What does the research say?

A recent study by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto revealed exactly the opposite. In fact, children’s books with humans were found to have a greater moral impact than animals.

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Here were the 3 most interesting findings from this study (https://goo.gl/S8Bts1):

  1. Reading a book about sharing had an immediate effect on children’s pro-social behaviour with children immediately donating stickers to an anonymous child who they were told wouldn’t receive any stickers.
  2. Children who heard the stories with human characters were more generous than the children who heard a similar story featuring animal characters with anthropomorphologic features (human like) or a control story.
  3. One theory for this difference in generosity is that children may not be putting two and two together that the animals are actually representations of ourselves and therefore the moral lessons are lost.

Animals Make Better Humans

On the flipside, it seems that we have quite a few life lessons to learn from animals about how to be better human beings (11 of them here). With our ‘Jungle Love Book Box’ in mind, here are some incredible things our jungle animal counterparts CAN teach us:

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That love (and romance) lasts a lifetime

Gibbons, our closest relatives mate for life displaying true loyalty and strong familial bonds. They stay in monogamous relationships for decades and produce and raise in small groups up to six offspring. They even have a love song, involving complex sounds, that can be heard for miles. Sadly, they are endangered and these beautiful creatures are at risk.

To always respect your elders

Elephants, especially African elephant tribes are more successful when led by an older matriarch – a female elephant often in their 60’s and 70’s are the best at recognising and responding to predatory threats and show no sign of cognitive decline. We could learn a lot from the older generation, and from elephants it seems!

To be nice to your neighbours

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Monkeys and baboons are highly social but not just with their own kind. They are so friendly (and non-judgemental it seems) that they have been seen socialising with members of other species and even grooming them out of respect and friendliness. Perhaps offering to brush your neighbours hair might be a bit strange but mowing their lawn or collecting a parcel for them might be a nice gesture!

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

So what do you do about your book selection at home? Well I am certainly not going to be throwing out any books with only animal characters (‘the baby with the bath water’) but I could maybe restore the balance a little and add some more books with human characters. I can’t help but think that if you read truly engaging and quality stories to your children (regardless whether they feature human or animal characters) then any message or moral is much more likely to stick with them. Instead of your children using all their cognitive resources on maintaining attention, they will be able to better comprehend, empathise with characters and make important inferences and connections with self.

Walking in someone else’s shoes teaches empathy

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A huge benefit of reading picture books to young children (apart from it being a major contributor to learning to read independently) is the lessons learnt through the magic of stories. ‘Theory of mind’ is a cognitive skill that allows you to walk in another person or character’s shoes by feeling, thinking and imagining things from their point of view. This is how children develop empathy, a learnt skill, through the explicit and meaningful conversations you as parents have when you discuss the stories and characters while reading.

Be a RichREADER

As speech language pathologists, we would argue that it is not the story alone but these meaningful conversations (i.e., ‘RichREADING’) with your child that creates the long-lasting impact on moral teaching and life lessons. Regardless whether the protagonist of the story is a depressed donkey or a little boy who never wants to grow up, the stories rely on you to bring them to life when you read aloud to your special little human.

Thanks for hearing our call,
Your Little Birdies
Janice and Tania