This is the title of an article by Nurith Aizenman, published in NPR on 6 January 2018. It refers to an academic study “Learning-Related Values in Young Children’s Storybooks: An Investigation in the United States, China, and Mexico” carried out by Cecilia S. Cheung, Jorge A. Monroy and Danielle E. Delaney (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology vol. 48, issue 4, May 2017, pp. 532-541 – see the abstract at the bottom of this post).
Aizenman summarises the results for the general reader, and draws attention to two of the Chinese books considered in the study: The Cat That Eats Letters《吃字的猫咪》 and The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain《愚公移山》.
For a taste of their findings, take a typical book in China: The Cat That Eats Letters.
Ostensibly it’s about a cat that has an appetite for sloppy letters — ‘written too large or too small, or if the letter is missing a stroke,’ explains one of the researchers, psychologist Cecilia Cheung, a professor at University of California Riverside. ‘So the only way children can stop their letters from being eaten is to write really carefully and practice every day.’
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.
The results — published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology: The storybooks from China stress those values about twice as frequently as the books from the U.S. and Mexico.
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.
‘Every day he has to dig some dirt from the mountain,’ says Cheung.
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.”
Let’s take a closer look at these two books:
The Cat That Eats Letters is a collection of stories by Ge Jing 葛竞, and is part of a series of 10 books by 10 influential authors of children’s books (中国当代实力派儿童文学作家精品书系).
Ge Jing was born in Beijing in 1977, published her first writing at the age of nine, and attended the middle school attached to Peking University. She graduated from the Literature Department at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), and now works at the BFA”s Animation School. A member of the China Writers Association since 2000, she has published more than twenty books, as well as film scripts and cartoon scripts. Her books include The Dog That Didn’t Eat Meat 《肉肉狗》(a collection of stories), Sugarsnap Pea and the Little Witch《小豌豆和小魔女》, The Wizard in the Cat’s Ear 《猫耳朵里的魔法师》, and The Magic School series 《魔法学校》.
The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain is an old fable from the Liezi, the fourth-century Daoist text, but is better known as one of the “Three Constantly Read Articles” (lao san pian 老三篇) of the Cultural Revolution, as Mao had referred to this fable in his speech at Yan’an, on 11 June 1945. The current drive to promote red genes in students probably contributes to this story being on the recommended reading list.
The illustrator of this edition is Cai Feng 蔡峰, known internationally as Chaiko. Born in 1981, he is an independent illustrator, manga artist, cartoon director, with experience also in game design and advertising, and for his work in Europe. Although he works on children’s books, Chaiko is better known in Europe for his graphic novels, such as Chronicle of the Immortals, and The Jade Door (a collection of erotic stories).
Below is the abstract for the article by Cheung et al:
This research examined the prevalence of learning-related values in children’s storybooks in the United States, China, and Mexico. Storybooks (N = 157) were randomly selected from government-recommended booklists in each country. Trained coders assessed the prevalence of learning-related beliefs (e.g., malleability of ability), motivated cognitions (e.g., achievement orientation), and behaviors (e.g., effort) in the storybooks. A set of MANOVAs revealed that Chinese (vs. American and Mexican) storybooks contained more instances of learning-related beliefs and behaviors. For example, Chinese storybooks included more instances of achievement-related goals and behaviors, relative to storybooks in the United States and Mexico. With the exception of achievement goals and helplessness, the prevalence of learning-related qualities was largely similar in the United States and Mexico.