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Emotional Content of Children's Books in China and the U.S.

American and Chinese storybooks impart different lessons about emotions.

Key points

  • Young children learn about emotions from adults and media sources such as storybooks.
  • A 2021 study found differences in how bestselling children's books depict and discuss emotions in China and the United States.
  • American books were more likely than Chinese books to depict positive emotions and less likely to depict negative ones.
  • As a result, some children may develop unrealistic expectations about how often they will feel happy, sad, or anxious.

We know that young children learn to identify, explain, and regulate their emotions, but we know much less about how children learn these things. They undoubtedly acquire some of their emotional intelligence from adults–parents, teachers, and coaches, for example. They also presumably learn some "emotion stuff" from movies such as Inside Out, television shows such as Sesame Street and Esme & Roy, and storybooks such as The Unbudgeable Curmudgeon and Llama Llama Mad at Mama.

These observations have prompted some cross-cultural psychologists to ask: Do children living in different parts of the world learn essentially the same things about emotions as they grow and develop? Or do adults, TV shows, and storybooks in different cultures impart fundamentally different lessons about emotions?

An Empirical Study of Children's Storybooks

In 2021, research psychologists Ruyi Ding, Wei He, and Qian Wang reported the findings of an ambitious study that examined the emotion-related content of 38 bestselling children’s books in China and 42 bestselling children’s books in the United States (Ding et al., 2021). The books they examined were written for children between the ages of three and eight.

Ding and her colleagues trained three student assistants to code the emotional content of the storybooks. Two assistants coded books in their native country, and one bilingual assistant coded books in both countries. The assistants counted all instances of emotion words (happy or sad, for example), emotional incidents (a girl fails a test and feels ashamed, for example), and explanations of emotions (a boy says he's afraid at night because it's dark, for example).

The assistants also determined if an emotion was positive (happy, excited, proud) or negative. They categorized negative emotions as powerful (e.g., contempt, anger) or powerless (e.g., sad, worried, afraid).

Finally, the assistants determined whether an emotional incident reflected a social or personal theme. For example, feeling good about helping your grandmother reflects a social theme. Feeling good about winning a gold medal reflects a personal theme.

The Study's Main Findings

When Ding and her colleagues examined the results of the content analysis, they observed two striking similarities in the emotional content of the American and Chinese storybooks. First, all of the emotional categories included in the coding scheme were found in the storybooks of both cultures. Positive emotions, negative emotions, social themes, and personal themes—they all made appearances, although not to the same degree, as we'll see.

Second, in the storybooks of both cultures, powerless negative emotions (such as feeling sad or worried) occurred more frequently than powerful negative emotions. It was also the case that social-themed interpersonal emotional incidents occurred more frequently than personal-themed incidents. These patterns probably reflect the desire of most children’s book authors to help young children cope with feeling bad and learn the importance of treating others well.

In addition to these similarities, the researchers found significant cultural differences. The Chinese books were more likely to present social themes related to family and friends, whereas the American books were more likely to present personal themes. This pattern is consistent with the widespread opinion among cultural researchers that collectivistic East Asian cultures emphasize sensitivity to other’s feelings in the service of group harmony, whereas individualistic Western cultures emphasize sensitivity to one’s own feelings in the service of building individual identity (Ding et al., 2021).

The Chinese storybooks also were more likely to present other-based explanations for emotional feelings. In other words, a character’s feelings were likely to be explained in terms of another character instead of oneself. A girl is sad, for example, because her classmates won't play with her. Or happy because her teammates played well.

This finding leads to an intriguing question: Is it possible that children in the United States are more likely to blame themselves when they feel bad because of the books they read? The flip side, of course, is that American children might also be more likely to take credit for their positive feelings.

The researchers also found that Chinese storybooks were more likely than American storybooks to include teaching responses to others’ negative emotions. In other words, characters in Chinese books were more likely to instruct or advise a child who had experienced a negative emotion such as anger. This finding is consistent with studies that have found "training" to be an important feature of parenting in Chinese culture (e.g., Chao, 1994).

A Troubling Possibility

Finally, Ding and her colleagues found that bestselling American storybooks were more likely than bestselling Chinese storybooks to depict positive emotions such as feeling happy or feeling proud. The American books were also less likely to address negative powerless emotions such as anxiety or sadness.

In my view, this may be the most important finding because it raises a troubling possibility. Do some children in the United States, as a result of the books they read, develop unrealistic expectations about how often they will feel happy, sad, and anxious? It's been said before, but it's worth repeating. Children’s books offer young readers a window into the world, but the world depicted may not be real.


Chao, R. K. (1994). Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development, 65(4), 1111–1119.

Ding, R., He, W., & Wang, Q. (2021). A comparative analysis of emotion-related cultural norms in popular American and Chinese storybooks. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 52(2), 209-226.

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