Turtles and tortoises are being inaccurately represented in children’s books, new research shows

30 September 2019

Researchers have found that turtles, terrapins and tortoises are being misrepresented in children’s books, causing concern about how youngsters are understanding the natural world.

Academics from the University of Derby and Heriot-Watt University carried out a study to assess the way in which the reptiles are depicted in picture books for children up to eight years old. 

The research found that, out of 204 fiction and non-fiction books looked at, 60 per cent contained errors in the illustration and description of turtles, terrapins and tortoises. Of the 799 errors identified, the top misrepresentations included: the shells of turtles being used for storage, tortoises being able to remove their shells, the reptiles possessing hair, and turtles being slow moving animals.

Lead researcher Nel Beaumont, Lecturer in Conversation, Biology & Ecosystems at the University of Derby, said: “These inaccuracies could lead to children forming preconceptions about the natural world that do not reflect reality.

“Children as young as four years old are able to transfer biological information from a picture book to a real world situation, so it is important for young and impressionable children to have access to accurate representations of living things so that they can begin to accurately understand the world around them.

“While it can be argued that children’s literature aims to provide entertainment, a role of children’s picture books should not be to reinforce biological illiteracy.

“Many turtle and tortoise species are endangered, so developing an accurate understanding of these creatures among the next generation is vital.”

The research study involved a six-month search for picture books in the researchers’ home libraries, before looking at texts in Derbyshire libraries, including the University of Derby.

The results showed significantly more errors were found in the fictional books, rather than non-fictional. Over 45 per cent of the non-fiction books examined were found to have one or more basic biological errors.

Another significant finding was that 104 flash photographs of nesting sea turtles were featured in the books, raising concerns about light pollution. 

Nel added: “Picture books can help the development of children in many ways including shaping their imagination, developing their enjoyment and building their love for reading, however, conservation issues and environmental awareness should not be ignored.

“The high frequency of flash photographs of sea turtles on nesting beaches identified in our research is a concern. Light pollution is something that can affect sea turtle nesting, and numerous conservation organisations advise against the use of flash photography on nesting beaches to reduce disturbance to sea turtles.

“The concern is that the high frequency of such images in children’s literature normalises the behaviour of light pollution and there is a risk that readers may, in the future, copy this behaviour.”

As part of the research paper, the researchers recommend authors consulting with academics to ensure creatures are represented accurately in books, to ensure children grow up learning about, caring about, and wanting to protect wildlife.

Nel added: “In order to improve the biological accuracy of children’s books, authors, publishers and illustrators should be encouraged to consult with academics before the books are published. There are so many fascinating real interactions between living things that could be incorporated into children’s literature.

“To make use of the many existing books with errors in the way living things are represented, children should be challenged to look out for things that would not occur in the real world in picture books they read, something that can extend their enjoyment of the books and also help to develop their critical thinking skills.”

This research study follows on from a previous research paper by Nel on the representation of whales and dolphins in picture books for young children, which found that 64 per cent of children’s books featuring whales and dolphins were found to have basic biological errors in the text and/ or pictures.

To see the full article, ‘Slow on the Draw: The Representation of Turtles, Terrapins and Tortoises in Children’s Literature’, that has been published in the Early Childhood Education Journal visit:

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