April 19, 2013

Are picture books making kids materialistic?


University of Vermont student Rachel Franz developed a coding tool to evaluate pro-consumer indicators in picture books.

While working as a babysitter and nanny, University of Vermont student Rachel Franz, a double-minor in studio art and green building and community design, noticed that many of the picture books she was reading to children were reinforcing materialistic behavior with consumerist messages. So for her senior thesis, she decided to do a study of 30 picture books written between 1998 and 2012, from a list of Caldecott Medal Winners, New York Times bestsellers, and books recommended by librarians. 

She found that many books written for children aged zero to six feature an excessive number of toys. But her research indicated that the best way to counter pro-consumerism socialization or the the “desire for more stuff” was for books to incorporate environmental messages and outdoor engagement, a factor that was present in 23 out of the 30 books she studied. In order to evaluate the books, she developed a coding tool:


[Franz] created a comprehensive and unique coding system that identified 50 indicators across 10 categories representing different ways in which picture books can promote and discourage the consumer socialization of readers. Text and illustrations were coded to measure the occurrence of indicators of consumerism or counter-consumerism across five themes: individual material orientation, interpersonal material orientation, social norms, commercialization and environmental messages.


Some of the 37 pro-consumer indicators included “desire for more stuff,” “material goods as a vehicle for approval/gaining friends” and “focus on objects instead of peers in social setting.” Among the 13 counter-consumer indicators were “self-acceptance,” “sharing,” and “positive orientation to the outdoors/inspiration.”


Franz hopes that parents, librarians, and educators will consider the factors in her study to “develop critical thinking skills around consumerism and select books more carefully.”

This might mean that she hopes they will choose books like Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, which features the main character planting lupine seeds across the countryside, over Kay Thompson’s Eloise books, whose main character is a materialistic and mischievous rich girl. But I must say that I love both books.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.