THEY are beloved classics parents go on to share with their children as generations pass, but educators in Australia have issued a warning that books such as The Hungry Caterpillar and Hairy Maclary are ‘outdated’ and relied upon too heavily, encouraging ‘marginalisation’.


How so?
A new study by a senior childhood researcher, Dr Helen Adam, of Edith Cowan University’s School of Education, Perth, Western Australian, has turned its lens on a series of classic children’s tales, with Dr Adam saying she believes they lack diversity and “perpetuate outdated stereotypes”.


Which books exactly?
They include The Very Hungry Caterpillar, written by US author Eric Carle in 1969; Hairy Maclary, first published in 1983 by New Zealand author Lynley Dodd and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, published in 1989 by British author Michael Rosen, who served as Children’s Laureate from 2007 to 2009. 


US author Gene Zion is also in the frame for his 1956 book, Harry the Dirty Dog, as is US 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.


What’s the issue?
Dr Adam and her team of researchers observed the stories and characters from 186 books overall and broke them down into stereotypical, gender restrictive, sensitive to gender or gender neutral categories, looking at eight early learning centres’ usage of the books in Australia and the US. The study concluded that 90 per cent of the works were not inclusive, pointing out that the classics from decades ago reflect “outdated viewpoints and lifestyles”.


So it’s about diversity?
Dr Adam said the books themselves were not the problem but the fact that they are often chosen over many new works with diverse characters and storylines. She told Australian TV show Sunrise the problem with animal stories is that their prevalence reduces the chance of children from minorities seeing characters similar to themselves. She said: “Animal stories are beautiful...But if we’ve only got animal stories and books with white, middle-class people in, then that’s increasing the invisibility of other children who don’t get to see themselves represented.”


We do tend to read books to our children we loved ourselves?
A study last year by Oxford University Press found that in the UK, 63% of parents prefer to read books to their children that they enjoyed in their own childhoods, rather than choosing newer works, with parents overwhelmingly naming Roald Dahl as their top pick.


So what now?
Dr Adam warned that parents reading older books contributes to “outdated viewpoints of masculinity and femininity as well as gender roles” and recommends reading modern books that “challenge traditional notions of gender” including Who’s Your Real Mum? about a little girl who has two mothers and My Shadow is Pink, by Scott Stuart, where the main character is a boy who likes princesses, fairies and things ‘not for boys’.