The jellyfish, the snail, the spider: anyone who opens a picture book will rarely encounter them. Mammals play a leading role in the majority of illustrated children’s books about animals, write Leiden researchers in the magazine Public Understanding of Science† Especially exotic and domesticated animals often figure in the stories. The picture books therefore do not realistically reflect the true diversity of species, and that can give children a skewed picture of the diversity of life.

Globally, biodiversity is declining, partly due to climate change and fragmentation of habitats. Knowledge is essential to protect species, according to various studies, because unknown often makes unloved. Nature experiences at a young age can lead to a greater sense of involvement later in life. It is not always necessary to go outside for that. Children can also get to know animals indirectly, for example through picture books.

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But which animals appear in those books? To answer this question, the researchers studied 217 prize-winning Dutch-language picture books, 97 of which were originally published in another language. They analyzed from each book which extinct and living animals were in it; they looked at animals that played a leading role as well as ‘extras’. They left out fantasy animals such as dragons.

Lead author Michiel Hooykaas: “We noted the most accurate taxonomic reference in the text for each animal – for example, a black bird with an orange bill can be listed as ‘blackbird’, but also less specifically as or ‘bird’.” The researchers also determined whether the animals showed certain ‘human’ characteristics, such as walking on two legs (in the case of four-legged friends), wearing clothes or showing human facial expressions. In total, 85.5 percent of the 2,237 animals analyzed were vertebrates. Mammals and birds were the most numerous, accounting for 43.9 and 27.6 percent of the total, respectively. In third place came the insects (9.8 percent).

Only 39.4 percent of all animals could be identified down to the species level. Animals in picture books are therefore often not so recognizable, with the exception of domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, horses and chickens. Hooykaas: “But children usually already know them.” Many animals were depicted abstractly, generically or unrealistically: for example, there was a female blackbird with black plumage, while in real life they have brown feathers. In addition, 42.1 percent of all animals showed human characteristics; for the main characters this was almost always the case (96.1 percent).

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Although most picture books are not aimed at educating children about the animal world, they can play an important role in it, the authors write. Hooykaas: “Children can broaden their image of nature with iconic and therefore recognizable portraits of various animals.” For the same reason, the researchers recommend including more native species in picture books, as well as less popular groups such as amphibians and invertebrates.

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