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Many animals, but little biodiversity in children’s picture books

Dutch children’s picture books are full of animals, but mainly mammals are portrayed. Especially pets and exotic animals are popular. A large part of the Dutch fauna is less visible, but biologist Michiel Hooykaas of Leiden University sees plenty of opportunities for a more biodiverse book world.

Michiel Hooykaas

‘If people are aware of the creatures around them, they are more prone to protect them. But as people don’t go out into nature as often anymore, they get few opportunities to get to know animals. Indirect experiences, such as images of animals, become more influential,’ Michiel Hooykaas explains. For his PhD, he studies the image that people have of animal biodiversity and how cultural products present this to the public. He does this at the research group Science Communication & Society of professor Ionica Smeets. 

Mammals at center stage

Hooykaas already found that children are unfamiliar with native animal species. Now, together with Master’s students Marloes Holierhoek and Joris Westerveld, he looked at 217 prizewinning Dutch picture books and analyzed over 2,200 animals.

‘You won't see a hippopotamus flinging its poop around as it does in nature.’

They found that mammals are overrepresented and often play a leading role in the books. Animals such as birds and insects were less numerous and were generally stayed in the background. ‘Even though they are species-rich, also in The Netherlands,’ says Hooykaas. ‘And these animals were occasionally not even recognizable as a specific species or were not mentioned in the text, even when there were discernible. In this case, mammals have the advantage too: a tiger is a tiger, but a bird is just a bird instead of a blackbird or a sparrow.’ 

Hooykaas also noted humanisation of animals, which was relatively common among mammals. ‘You see a hippopotamus going to a toilet, instead of flinging its poo around as it does in nature.’

The danger of exotic animals

Additionally, exotic animals were featured more frequently in the children’s picture books, especially large ones like elephants and lions. ‘It is understandable, as such animals are popular with children,’ the researcher says. ‘But the diversity in the books is low compared to reality too. And if children only sees charismatic exotic animals, they could unintentionally get the impression that nature is only something that is far away. While there is so much beauty to be found nearby.’

‘When children only see charismatic exotic animals, nature may seems like something that is far away.’

He suspects that writers and illustrators choose animals that they thin will appeal to the public, as children more easily relate to these animals. ‘But this can create a vicious circle, in which children bond with animals they encounter, which then seems a good choice to give a role in a story. Thus, the children don’t learn about new species. And of course, writers themselves are not always aware of all the beautiful animal species out there.’

Show biodiversity

Small changes may help to open the eyes of people to biodiversity. ‘Children’s picture books should not be made into school books, but writers and illustrators already like to use animals in their work, so it would be amazing if our results would inspire them to use out-of-the-box animals protagonists.’ Hooykaas even sees opportunities for stories taking place in the city. ‘There is a lot of animal diversity in the urban environment, such as the house sparrow and the great crested grebe, which a lot of children don’t recognize. Even when they don’t play the main role, they can get a recognizable spot. And even when you want a hairy mammal-animal or exotic animal as a lead, there are many possibilities that you don’t come across often. The possibilities are endless!’

Read the publication

Read the complete article of Michiel Hooykaas.

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