Which Children’s Books Are Best?

A new study found that books with anthropomorphized animals may teach children fewer facts:

Over two experiments, the researchers tested preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids’ knowledge of a few obscure animals—caviesoxpeckers, and handfish—by reading books about the animals with them and then asking questions. Some books contained realistic pictures and descriptions, some cartoon drawings and humanized language (e.g., “mother cavy tucks her babies into bed in a small cave”), and some a mix.

While all kids learned something about the three animals from whichever book they read, those who read the realistic books ended up with a better factual understanding of the creatures. Those who read the anthropomorphized books didn’t learn as much and also had a harder time reasoning about the animals.

Study author Patricia Ganea talked about how the results have been misinterpreted:

People have gone crazy out there. They think we are saying, don’t read books that interweave fantasy with reality. That’s not the message from this.

It’s if you want your children to learn more facts about animals, it would be better to use books that are more realistic. Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children. Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development. … I think [this study is important] because it may have implications for our use of picture books as a tool for science education. Studies say picture books are an excellent tool for giving kids knowledge about the world. You can have a five- or six-year-old learn important biological concepts. So our work suggests if you want to establish foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding of the world early on, you use factual books.

Katy Waldman defends talking animals:

Sometimes, an overly anthropomorphic view of animals can be harmful, as when people get mauled by bears because they regard them as cuddly human friends in bear suits. But to the extent that humanized characters are both more accessible to and more likely to inspire empathy in young readers, I don’t see how they could be construed as bad for kids, the animal kingdom, or even science.

Scaffolding familiar traits onto alien subjects is a powerful way to promote learning, one that children do naturally from the age of 12 to 24 months. And imaginative play—the type where you pretend a badger gets jealous of her baby sister—has cognitive benefits: “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”