What’s the Difference Between Children’s Books in China and the U.S.?

Nurith Aizenman, NPR, January 6, 2018

What are the hidden messages in the storybooks we read to our kids?

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For a taste of their findings, take a typical book in China: The Cat That Eats Letters.

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But the underlying point is clear: “This is really instilling the idea of effort—that children have to learn to consistently practice in order to achieve a certain level,” says Cheung. And that idea, she says, is a core tenet of Chinese culture.

The book is one of dozens of storybooks from a list recommended by the education agencies of China, the United States and Mexico that Cheung and her collaborators analyzed for the study.

They created a list of “learning-related” values and checked to see how often the books promoted them. The values included setting a goal to achieve something difficult, putting in a lot effort to complete the task and generally viewing intelligence as a trait that can be acquired through hard work rather than a quality that you’re born with.

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Take another typical example from China—The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountain, which recounts a folktale about a man who is literally trying to remove a mountain that’s blocking the path from his village to the city.

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The book celebrates perseverance, of course—but also another value Cheung and her collaborators tracked: steering clear of bad influences. As Cheung puts it, “avoiding a negative person and staying on track and not being distracted by things that would derail you from achieving your goals.”

In this case the man keeps on digging “even as he has to endure criticism from his fellow villagers who call him silly. And in the end he actually removes the mountain.”

By contrast, Cheung says a typical book from the U.S. is one called The Jar of Happiness.

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Cheung says this emphasis on happiness comes up a lot in the books from the U.S. In some cases it’s overt—central to the plot of the story. But often it’s more subtle.

“They’ll just have a lot of drawings of children who are playing happily in all sorts of settings—emphasizing that smiling is important, that laughing is important, that being surrounded by people who are happy is important.”

The same held true of the books from Mexico.

“They’re just not so focused on the importance of achieving a particular goal or persisting so that you can overcome an obstacle. Those are much more emphasized in the storybooks from China.”

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Cheung notes that children in China consistently score higher on academic tests compared to children in the U.S. and Mexico. But she says more research is needed to determine how much of that is due to the storybooks or even to the larger differences in cultural values that the books reflect. Other completely unrelated factors, such as different teaching techniques could be at work.

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[Edtior’s Note: The original study is available here.]

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