Almost all parents have read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle at least once with their young children. And some parents have read it literally hundreds of times to their eager toddlers and preschoolers. A full ten years after I last read it to my sons, I can still recite most of it off by heart, from beginning to end:
In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.
And he was a beautiful butterfly!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not only a beloved classic in children’s literature; it’s also a genre buster. Is it fiction? Yes, in the sense that it contains a narrative structure with a main character, a beginning, middle, and end, and a build-up to a high point, followed by a resolution. Is it non-fiction? Well, yes – in the sense that it teaches children about the life cycle of the butterfly, and new words like cocoon. It is certainly literary, with its liberal use of repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and poetic language, not to mention its unique tissue-paper images. Perhaps for all of these reasons, children love it, and ask for it again and again, and yet again.
What do we know about parents’ and children’s enjoyment of children’s literature? Not very much, at least from a psychological, rather than anecdotal or marketing perspective. Sarah-Jane Robertson and I conducted a small survey with middle-class mothers and fathers about their own book preferences and their children’s. All of the parents were the primary book readers to the young children in their households. Parents overwhelmingly said that they read fictional books to their young children (72% of the books they read), with only a smattering of parents reading non-fiction, rhyming books, or (gasp) poetry. Yet when we asked the parents to read two unfamiliar books with their children, one fiction and one non-fiction, parents reported that their children enjoyed the non-fiction book more. Parents themselves reported enjoying the two books equally. Although children’s preference could be because of the particular two books we profiled in the study, we believe that there could be a deeper reason for this surprising choice. Parents may be biased against choosing non-fiction books for their children, perhaps because in the past these books were – let’s be honest - boring and dense. Today’s non-fiction offerings are anything but. They may not all be of the same caliber as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but many of them manage to delight just as much as a fictional picturebook, and to inform children about the world on top of that. Take a look at the What is a … (Fish, Mammal, etc.)? series that we used for our study, and you’ll get an idea of how far non-fiction children’s books have come in the past decade.
Part of the reason parents prefer to read fictional books with their young children could have to do with their own preferences for reading fiction. Most of the “primary” book-readers in our study were mothers (64%), and the mothers noted that their own reading preferences were for fiction, whereas the fathers in our study said they preferred non-fiction.
Whatever the reason for these reading preferences, they could have implications for children who prefer non-fiction. We all know one of these kids – the ones who have a passion. It might be for fish, dinosaurs, rocks, or trains, but they want to know ALL about their chosen topic. And the reality is that most young children with intense interests are boys (DeLoache et al., 2007).
We also know that parents read less frequently and for shorter sessions with their sons than with their daughters.https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tell-me-story/201308/the-gender-gap-in-reading Reading books to young children is a superb way to advance their language development, which in turn helps their reading later in school. In our study, parents read the fiction and non-fiction book in equally interactive ways, and the two genres had similar links to the children’s language and literacy. Unfortunately, boys on average have slightly slower language development than girls, and boys are more likely to have reading difficulties with girls. A picture emerges in which one reason boys have lower language development is that parents are reading to them less often. And one reason parents may be reading to them less often is that boys may be more interested in non-fiction than fiction, yet parents mostly choose fiction when reading to their children.
The bottom line is that parents could be reading to boys more often and for longer, and from a younger age. How? Find a book that interests them. It may be The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or Where the Wild Things Are, or All About Dinosaurs. Try to find a book that you will enjoy too, at least a little. Ask open-ended questions (What’s happening here?) and hard questions (What do you think he uses his horn for?) to extend the conversation about the book. Watch your child’s eyes wander over the pictures, and talk about what he’s looking at to maintain his interest. Soon you may find your book diet expanding to include a wide array of books and genres that will keep you both reading and talking.
DeLoache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles--and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1579-1586.
Robertson, S-J., & Reese, E. (2015). The very hungry caterpillar turned into a butterfly: Children’s and parents’ enjoyment of different book genres. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. DOI: 10.1177/1468798415598354
Tu’akoi, F. (2007). What is a Fish? Auckland: Scholastic New Zealand.