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Scientists Can Now Predict What Books You’ll Buy For Your Kids

Parents seldom buy picture books with female protagonists, and lean heavily on low word-counts. Their kids are missing out on great books.

Parents seldom buy picture books with female protagonists, and lean heavily on award-winners with few words on the page. They assume their daughters like books more than their sons, and that their kids probably won’t enjoy reading the sort of books they’d want to read. While parents’ favorite books are The Monster At The End Of This Book and Click Clack Moo, they assume that their children will prefer Airplanes: Soaring, Diving, Turning! and JUMP!. Such staunch parental preferences mean children often miss out on great stories.

These are the results of a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, which examined how parents choose which books to buy for their kids. They found that parents judge books by their covers (even when they shouldn’t), and that trends in children’s book sales are relatively predictable.

We love picture books, and we buy them constantly. Sales are consistently stellar, and the children’s section accounts for more than 35 percent of library circulation nationwide. But while researchers have spilled plenty of ink trying to figure out what books children like, relatively few scientists have focused on the preferences of parents—the ones who actually buy the books.

For this new study, researchers surveyed 149 parents (the vast majority of whom were mothers with two kids, considering buying picture books for their five-year-olds). Researchers showed each parent a series of 87 children’s books, some drawn from suggestions made by parents in a separate survey, and some supplemented by the scientists to ensure that the books covered different subject matter, and enjoyed different levels of popularity. No author was allowed more than one book—except for the immortal Dr. Seuss, who got three hits in there. Then, the researchers asked parents to select the books they’d buy, and comment on their decisions.

They found that parents generally perceived their daughters as liking books more than their sons (probably right) and that their kids won’t like the picture books that they personally enjoy (not a bad guess). They also showed a clear preference for books that had won awards or that were household names, and books that had fewer words per page. Interestingly, parents seldom selected books with female protagonists, intimating that their sons wouldn’t want such books.

These findings are particularly interesting because the researchers also dove into trends within children’s book publishing, and found that books are about as predictable as parents. Books with a high number of words per page also tend to have the strongest story structure and demand that young readers empathize with the characters to some degree. “These mutually reinforcing connections suggest that there are important links among linguistic complexity, cognitive complexity and the telling of a traditional story,” the authors write. And so parents who insist on low word counts may be depriving their children of some of the strongest stories.

They also found that books with female protagonists tend to reflect a child’s daily life (think, Maisy Goes To Preschool) while those with male protagonists tend to be more about analyzing a character’s mental state and analyzing what he’s thinking (If You Give A Moose A Muffin). “These links suggest that there may be a coherent sub-genre within the picturebook set, consisting of books which describe the everyday lives of girls,” the authors write. Of course, the links also suggest that parents who don’t buy books with female protagonists for their kids may be depriving them of some of the most relatable storylines, which correspond to the child’s life.

“In our modern society, cultural artifacts like picture books are an important part of the child’s development context. They provide input to language development, constitute an early rung on the literacy ladder, and are a mechanism of enculturation,” the authors conclude. “A close examination of the content of these books can help us better understand these artifacts and help us understand how these books are connected to everyday parenting choices.”