The Confounding Science of Children’s Literature

Over the past 50 years, researchers have learned a lot about the basis behind children's book-selection preferences. But there's still a lot that remains unknown.

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It takes no more than a quick Google search to find out which children’s books are flying off the shelves. But how much do children’s book sales actually tell us about children’s book preferences? Do kids love Dragons Love Tacos because of their interests in both dragons and tacos? Probably. Did She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton, make it to number two on the New York Times bestsellers list because kids can’t resist an illustrated guide to modern-day feminist heroes? Probably not. (Although, wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case?)

The motivations of pint-sized readers, it turns out, can be tough to untangle. For the better part of a century, experts in early education, library sciences, and child development have sought to understand what makes kids reach for certain books and leave others behind to gather dust. The primary reason to examine kids’ book choices is make sure that kids become happy readers, which researchers have singled out as the most reliable predictor of literacy development, overall reading proficiency, and related academic achievements. According to studies dating back to, at least, the 1950s, children are more likely to develop an interest in reading when they get to choose their own books. In the education world, this behavior is called “self-selection.”

If the major goal of studying children’s book choices is figuring out how to create  opportunities for kids to self select, parents represent a complicating factor because they don’t assess books in the same way as children — not exactly. Research indicates that kids judge books by their covers, seek out titles that they believe will create opportunities for social interactions, and have a strong preference for certain topics and genres. Still, it’s hard to reverse engineer successful children’s literature. Researchers have not reached anything resembling consensus on how to handle gender roles or how to dissect children’s strategic decision-making when it comes to book choice.

According to studies dating back to, at least, the 1950s children are more likely to develop an interest in reading when they get to choose their own books. In the education world, this behavior is called “self-selection.”

The idea that picking out books puts children on the fast track to becoming bibliophiles has been around since the early 20th century, if not earlier. And efforts to understand children’s preferences regarding the the color, size, and style of illustrations in picture books, among other physical characteristics, in order to understand what they’d want to read on their own, go back almost as far. However, it wasn’t until the seventies that children’s book research really took off. One study from 1972 reported that fifth-graders primarily enjoyed books about animals, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasy, science fiction, sports, sports biographies, friends, and school life. The subjects also supposedly read widely, for both information and pleasure, and reported that were not influenced in their choices by television or movies. At the time, this was a revelation.

Through the eighties and nineties, researchers continued to tout the benefits of self-selection in reading. But the process by which kids chose books was described in remarkably different terms from one study to the next. In some cases, kids came across as goal-oriented book-hunters with opinions about, and budding passions for, reading. In other cases, kids were depicted as wanderers looking to do no more than nab the first book they could find and flee the scene.

In one 1997 study, for instance, preschoolers and kindergartners were given the opportunity to select a book to bring home from school each day (from a collection of 40, over a seven-week period). The main factors influencing their choices, the study showed, were familiarity and genre. Kids were more likely to choose books they’d already read, heard about from a friend, or believed to be similar to something they’d already liked. This depiction, while internally coherent, was at odds with other depictions. Taken outside of that context, it would be instructive to book publishers and parents. Taken in that broader context, it was far more confounding.

Still, there are some through lines in the research. The most popular books contain some sort of fantasy element, while the least popular fall into the “informational and alpha-numeric” genres. But, within those genres, books with a narrative structure get more attention. (Kids like stories!) Students also prefer picture books that have no more than five lines of text per page, but are not entirely wordless. A number of subsequent studies have similarly identified book genres (animals are huge) and themes favored by kids, thereby providing insights that can help teachers and librarians (and by extension, parents) maximize self-selection experiences. In one 2006 study, for instance, 199 first-graders overwhelmingly preferred a book about animals to nine other offerings. 

Across the board, kids appeared to be influenced by physical characteristics of books, such as the presence or absence of illustrations, the condition of a book’s cover, and the size of the font.

In a 2010 study, the two most popular book-fair choices among economically disadvantaged 8- to- 12-year-olds were Pop People: Destiny’s Child and Hangin’ with Lil’ Romeo: Backstage Pass, two books about famous musicians. However, the author of the study, Lunetta Williams, a professor at the University of North Florida, suggested that kids weren’t merely drawn to these books because they were about famous pop stars; she posited that the books were popular because kids could talk to their friends about them. In other words, kids were choosing the watercooler-friendly equivalent of prestige television because they wanted to be in the loop. Based on this tendency, Williams suggested, it would make sense to motivate children to read by setting up book groups, or any type of interactive experience.

But there’s also a strain of research that depicts kids as caring very little about their book choices and needing more help from adults to benefit from book-selection opportunities. In another highly influential study from 1997, for instance, researchers observed three groups of first-, third- and fifth-graders taking out library books. Most kids, researchers noticed, followed a standard routine: They’d reach for a book, glance at the cover, flip through the pages hastily, and make a judgment, without paying much or any attention to the book’s content. Only a small minority of students (roughly 11 percent) exhibited “outlier” strategies, including reading a sample page from a book and talking to other kids about their potential choices.

Across the board, kids appeared to be influenced by physical characteristics of books, such as the presence or absence of illustrations, the condition of a book’s cover, and the size of the font. When asked about their book-selection strategies, kids were typically unable to identify where or how they’d learned them. One takeaway? More than 60 percent of kids just chose books at their eye level so rethinking library and book store shelves might make sense. A second takeaway? Book selection may be a skill that needs to be taught. 

Ray Reutzel, who co-authored this study and is currently Dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming, hasn’t followed up on this particular research. And he says that virtually no progress has been made in the field (since its publication) in terms of understanding children’s book preferences.

Luneta Williams, who ran the book-fair study, also noted that research on children’s book choices has decreased in recent years. Anecdotally, she said this shift may be partly due to the fact that more time is spent grooming kids to read information-heavy books that will prepare them for standardized tests, supplanting previous efforts to encourage reading for pleasure.

But if there’s one issue within children’s book selection that’s steadily received attention since the seventies, it’s the role gender plays in the book choices of the youngest readers. And that has a lot to do with the fact that boys, particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, lag behind girls in reading scores.

Studies have shown boys to be less motivated to read, and less engaged in what they read, than girls. The mainstream attitude, more or less, is that boys need to be given books tailored to their interests to get them to enjoy reading. And the three overarching “boy” interests, as identified in studies, are: animals, transportation, and sports. A few studies, going back to the eighties, have found that boys prefer non-fiction, especially as they get older, and that girls opt for fiction. But some researchers are skeptical of the assumptions about gender and children’s book preferences.

“What we found instead is that parents pretty much think girls will read anything and that boys will only read boy books, or more specifically, that boys won’t read books they think are girly — that they will definitely not read Fancy Nancy.”

Laura Wagner, a psychologist at Ohio State University, published a 2017 study on parents’ preferences towards children’s books. “The most depressing finding from the study about parents, I thought, was that, yeah, it really is all about gender,” Wagner said. “I wanted it to be about narrative storytelling and linguistic complexity and that kind of stuff … but what we found instead is that parents pretty much think girls will read anything and that boys will only read boy books, or more specifically, that boys won’t read books they think are girly — that they will definitely not read Fancy Nancy.”

But in another study of Wagner’s (currently under review), she found that, while boys tended not to choose a “girly” book — in this case, a book from the “Olivia” series — they often reported enjoying it once they picked it up. (“Of course they did,” laughs Wagner, “it’s a great children’s book.”)

And while studies do show some gender-based differences in kids’ book choices, they’re not as stark or consistent as parents might assume, especially among younger kids. The 1997 study on preschoolers and kindergartners, as well as the 2006 study on first-graders, showed only “mild tendencies” for boys and girls to favor different types of books. And the gendered assumptions linking boys to non-fiction and girls to fiction have borne out in some studies, but certainly not all.

Wagner, whose primary research interest is what children get out of picture books, feels it’s a shame that boys miss out on reading the wide variety of books that girls are exposed to. She wonders if perceived gender differences are a product of enculturation. “The gender thing is a chicken-and-egg problem, but it’s possible that parents’ assumptions that boys aren’t open-minded means they steer boys away from certain books,” Wagner said. “It’s like everything else with gender; it’s hard to know whether preconceived ideas about differences between boys and girls leads you to pigeon-hole them, or if parents are just responding to natural inclinations in their kids.”

The research on kids’ book preferences is thin and inconsistent, Wagner says, including the gender findings, but that still leaves plenty of room for optimistic interpretation. “In my point of view,” she said, “the biggest takeaway is that there are lots of different types of books out there and that there should always be a book you can get your kid interested in.”  

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