I think I should start by saying – I do like Peppa Pig.
But poor Peppa has been under fire recently thanks to a new study into the effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals. Anthropomorphism is the literary device by which we give human characteristics to non-human things, often animals. Anthropomorphism has long been in prevalent in children’s literature: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows are excellent examples, and then of course there are all of Beatrix Potter’s sweet books. The study found that “anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.” This, of course, has upset Peppa Pig fans.
There is nothing wrong with anthropomorphism (and as I said – I do like Peppa Pig), but I have to agree with the study.
The problem comes when children’s primary (or only) source of information about animals is a fantastical, human-esque version. Peppa Pig is a lovely pig. But if a child’s only experience of a pig is Peppa, there are going to be obvious issues with the child’s conceptual understanding of pigs.
You see, the things I like about Peppa are NOT the things that make her a pig. Quite the contrary. The things I like about Peppa are the humanistic elements of her character. I like that she’s from a nice family. She plays with her brother. She is polite to her mum. She laughs with her dad. They spend time together. Mostly in muddy puddles. But apart from the mud, none of those things are piggish at all!
If you look at the picture books on your child’s bookshelf, you will probably find the same thing over and over again. How many books does your child have with animals behaving humanly? And how many with animals actually behaving like animals?? As the study says, “If we want children to learn new things about animals, we need to expose them to stories that present the animals and their environments in a biologically realistic manner, both in the way that they are depicted and the way they are described.”
I think this is worth serious consideration for parents, teachers, and publishers. We need more non-fiction. Beautiful, information rich, interesting, read-it-again nonfiction. Books about piglets, bunnies, and owls might deliver warm fuzzies - but our kids deserve to also have books about pig farming, real rabbits and birds of prey. Without a balance of both, they will grow up with a skewed, human-centred perspective of the natural world.
The full research paper from Frontiers in Psychology is available here. Authors: Ganea, Canfield, Simons-Ghafari, and Chou (2014)