Research into acclaimed titles for very young children finds messages encouraging 'consumer involvement' and 'attachment to objects'. Should we buy into the thesis?
by: Alison Flood
Veruca Salt, the ultimate consumer, might have been given her comeuppance by Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 1964, but many of the children's books of today are continually reinforcing materialistic behaviour, according to new research.
Cultivating Little Consumers: How Picture Books Influence Materialism in Children, the 196-page thesis of University of Vermont student Rachel Franz, analysed the content of 30 picture books written between 1998 and 2012, a mix of New York Times bestsellers, librarian-recommended books and Caldecott Medal Winners. Franz found that a number of picture books "featured excessive amounts of toys, sending pro-consumer messages to children ages zero to six" – but also that this message was often countered by more outdoor-related themes.
"Some scholars have vaguely pointed to children's books as both sources of consumer socialisation and sources for countering consumerism, but investigations of these ideas were limited as far as I could tell," says Franz, who will present her research at a conference on Tuesday. "As a babysitter, I noticed that one consistent element in the lives of all of the little ones I have looked after is reading books at bedtime. I was reading three to four books per night, and some of them were filled with these consumer messages. So, the topic needed more insight. I asked the question, 'How do picture books potentially deter or reinforce materialism and consumer involvement in young children?'"
She used 50 indicators across 10 categories to analyse the books, from "emphasis on looks" to "desire for more 'stuff'", looking at the different ways in which stories can promote and discourage the "consumer socialisation" of their readers. One of the worst example she found was in Pinkalicious by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann, in which the main character, Pinkalicious, "lives in a home with a crystal chandelier in her bedroom, is surrounded by a plethora of toys, desires instant gratification, and exhibits unmistakable vanity".
"The book's dialogue illustrates how relationships are centred around products in many of the picture books," says Franz. "For example, Pinkalicious constantly begs her parents for more pink cupcakes, even after they have caused her skin and hair to turn pink. She reflects, 'After dinner, I ate more cupcakes. Then I refused to go to bed. 'Just one more pink cupcake, and I'll go to sleep,' I promised.' Scholars argue that marketers encourage children to nag their parents, and this sort of pressure from kids is an equivalent reason to price for why parents actually purchase things. If this is reiterated in picture books, it provides just one more avenue by which children might become irresponsible consumers."
Her research also highlighted the "attachment to objects for happiness" in Chris Raschka's A Ball for Daisy, a wordless picture book in which Daisy the dog loves her ball, only to have it broken by another dog. Daisy plunges into sadness, but is given a new ball the next day and her happiness returns. "Her happiness is completely dependent on her ball," writes Franz.
Franz says she went into the study expecting to find "overwhelmingly consumer-driven messages" in all the books she looked at, but actually discovered that many titles simultaneously reinforced and deterred materialism. "In Square Cat by Elizabeth Schoonmaker, Eula the Square Cat hates her appearance so much that she stops purring. She compares herself to her round friends, she moans about how specific clothes don't fit her, she tries to become round with different clothing and make-up options, and, as she learns to love herself, realises that she can do so through specific fashion choices that fit her square shape. The end message of the book is self-acceptance, which should combat consumerism," she says. "However, the messages of vanity, social comparison, and articulating one's self-concept through material goods are also embedded in the story. Further research is necessary to determine exactly what messages children take from these books. But, these simultaneous occurrences do mimic the reality of our world. And they call for the development of critical thinking skills in order for children to know what's wrong and what's right anymore."
She wants authors to realise that "the power of picture books is to not only reflect childhood, but to influence it". "If our children are reading books where the characters are surrounded by heaps of toys, then those readers without excessive amounts of toys around them might feel as if they are not normal. Creating and promoting more interpretive children's books that challenge damaging norms while helping children develop critical thinking skills is going to be an essential task for authors, publishers, and other book-related industries in the future," she says.
Rebecca Cobb, who won the Waterstones children's book prize for her picture book Lunchtime, about a girl who doesn't want to eat her lunch, largely agrees with Franz. "I think that authors and illustrators do have a responsibility to be aware of the effect of their work on young children and should be careful about the attitudes they convey regarding materialism and also a wide range of other issues; however, a book can, for example, be illustrated with lots and lots of toys, as part of a visual celebration of the excitement and wonder of things without being pro-consumerist," she says. "I believe picture books can inspire children to become questioning, imaginative and thoughtful people with the ability to form their own values and opinions about what is really important in life."
But Jon Klassen, a Caldecott medal-winning author and illustrator, says it "gets tricky when you begin to see these books primarily as tools to promote certain kinds of behaviour, in any direction".
Klassen's New York Times bestseller I Want My Hat Back is part of Franz's research. The story of a bear who has lost his hat, is lied to by a rabbit about having the hat, and subsequently eats the rabbit, the book contains, found Franz, themes of "lying/manipulation as a means for acquisitions" as well as "emphasis on love of products", but also "reciprocity/altruism", and "outdoor engagement".
"If you're in the position of making these things, I think you mostly have to worry about whether the story is working the best it can, and just hope that your politics and attitudes that might be coming across are lining up with what's good for them," Klassen says. "I think it would be difficult to put together a good story if your main objective when you start is to promote an abstract point. The story has to find those things on its own."
Australian illustrator Freya Blackwood won the UK's most prestigious prize for a children's illustrator, the Kate Greenaway award, for her book Harry & Hopper, about a boy whose dog dies. Pointing out that "children are subjected to much more persuasive pro-consumer messages than picture books", Blackwood says it was nonetheless "eye-opening having an issue like this brought to the attention of those who create material for children", and that she "certainly had to quickly justify my work to myself".
"I came to the conclusion that there is a fine line between creating a realistic representation that children might relate to and creating something they desire," she says. "But surely it is the parents' responsibility to choose books to read to their children that represent their beliefs, or to discuss a book's content with the child."
Franz agrees, saying that parents can "use picture books to help children develop critical thinking skills around consumerism … Overall, I think this study reiterates that, in our pervasive consumer culture, children even at the youngest age need to develop critical thinking skills in all areas of their lives in order to preserve happiness and self-acceptance without the 'stuff'."