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Take a look at the titles on your children's book shelves. Are they reading classics like The Wind in the Willows? Or are they into more modern tales about characters like Bob the Builder?

According to a new study, depictions of nature have been gradually disappearing from award-winning illustrated children's books over the past few decades, sparking concerns about a growing disassociation from the natural world.

Professor emeritus J. Allen Williams Jr. of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a team of researchers examined the top books honoured by the prestigious Caldecott Medal, judged by the American Library Association, between 2008 and 1938 when the award was created.

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The study reviewed close to 8,100 illustrations from 300 children's books, in total. The researchers found a steady decline in images that showed a natural environment, like a forest or jungle, compared with images of built environments, like a school or house, and in-between environments, like a mowed lawn. The number of wild animals, compared with domesticated animals, was also found to have dropped.

Award-winning books from the late 1930s to the 1960s were about equally as likely to show built and natural environments. But in the mid-1970s, depictions of urban settings rose, taking the place of natural environments, to the point where nature has all but disappeared, the researchers said.

"I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems," Dr. Williams said in a press release.

The researchers noted that a rise in illustrations of built environments is unsurprising, since more people now live in urban settings, but their prevalence in comparison to depictions of natural environments is disproportionately high. They also said that even though their study is limited to Caldecott winners and honourees, the award strongly influences book sales, schools, libraries and children's preferences in literature.

Even though children may be learning about the natural world through other media, the authors said, they're not being socialized, at least through illustrated books, to understand and appreciate nature and humans' place in it.

When you were a child, were your favourite books about wild creatures in jungles and forests, or were they set in urban environments?

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