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How a Study on Childhood Aggression Shaped Ava's Prosocial Story

Mary had dozens of her handmade loveys ready to go so I had thought a sweet counting book like “One Moose, Twenty Mice” would be a possible and beautiful project for us. Before we knew it, our counting book turned into a year of pouring love and imagination into our little Ava! In this blog post, Mary and I share a couple highlights about the writing of Ava’s Triumph. In particular, we want to share how we used the parenting book, Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, to help us communicate a meaningful and positive story for our youngest of audiences.

We discovered that counting books have narratives beyond just counting. They are wonderful, especially this one!


On Writing for Children

What makes for a good children’s story? I was captivated when I read about the writing philosophy of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon. Embracing the “Here and Now“ movement, Brown eschewed the traditional story arc of Hans Christian Anderssen. Instead she thought books for our youngest children should allow them to “delight in the ordinary and activate their senses, engaging them in colors, smells, and sounds.”

Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight moon. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 2005. Originally published September 3, 1947
The sights and sounds of this treasured classic have entranced our littlest readers for over seventy-five years!

The leader of the “Here and Now” movement was Lisa Sprague Mitchell, a scholar who hoped to redefine early education by incorporating insights and research from the social sciences. She wanted to help aspiring teachers “develop a scientific attitude” and wanted age-appropriate texts for children. According to Mitchell, “two-year-olds and seven-year-olds had very different narrative and emotional interests,” and “[our youngest readers] need stories anchored in the familiar before they can contend with fantasy or the unknown. Had Mary and I read about the “Here and Now” movement at the time of writing Ava’s Triumph, we would have easily been drawn to its ideas. We were also pleased to learn that Brown’s Goodnight Moon, now in its seventy-fifth year, was grounded in research.

Mitchell sought to incorporate the social sciences into stories for children. According to her, “two-year-olds and seven-year-olds had very different narrative and emotional interests...."

In many ways, our take on picture books was similar to Brown’s. Mary and I wanted to create a simple engaging story for our youngest children. We chose the familiar world of art and soccer; and our characters of choice were soft, felt animal loveys. And though we would anthropomorphize our bunnies, their behaviors would be entirely terrestrial.

In other ways, oh how Mary and I embraced the traditional story arc! Not only did we want a satisfying story arc with a beginning, a climax (or two!), and a resolution, we wanted a bildungsroman for our little heroine. Further, there was a pedagogical purpose to our story. We were writing our picture book for the children in our lives in the hopes that they would learn from Ava to be resilient.

Our Hero's Journey and the narrative arc of our story.


Social Science Learnings

At the time of writing Ava's Triumph, our scientific grounding came from Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It is such an interesting book: eye-opening and fact-filled. Who knew that conventional wisdom (or at least mine!) on topics like praising your child, sleep habits, why kids lie, and more, could be so wrong. Each chapter reveals that raising kids is far from intuitive.

Bronson, Po., Merryman, Ashley. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. United States: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.
Nurture Shock: An eye-opening and fact-filled book that shaped the plot and characters of Ava's Triumph.

The chapter most relevant to writing Ava’s Triumph was “Plays well with others.'' It’s a fascinating chapter about why, despite our efforts, our children aren’t always as generous and kind as we hope them to be. Bronson and Merryman begin with a description of a study on the effects of media exposure on children’s behavior with their peers. The conventional wisdom is that kids pick-up on the violence from violent shows, and no surprise, this is a well-documented finding. And this finding is the case "regardless of empirical method or culture studied," the researchers write. "...Media violence exposure increases subsequent physical aggression across development..... [and] this specific effect is quite strong." (If you are interested in reading the study, I found it online here. Among other things, you’ll read that children’s programming has three times more violence than non-children’s programming!)

What has been less understood, at least until this study was done, was the effect of violent programming in early childhood, on the preschool population. Further, studies hadn’t investigated the effects of educational programming. Was it also the case that educational programming could affect behavior in a positive way? Would the young children exposed to more educational programming be more prosocial (sharing, helpful, and inclusive)?

The well-designed study looked at preschool language and behavior both negative (aggression) and positive (prosocial) over a two year period. They looked at physical aggression (hitting, kicking, etc.), relational aggression (ignoring, excluding or ostracizing, etc.), and verbal aggression (mean names, insults, etc). The positive prosocial behaviors included things like sharing, helping, including in activities or groups etc.

As predicted, the researchers found that violent programming was correlated with higher occurrences of physical aggression. They also found that educational programming had a dramatic effect on aggression, but the opposite effect than one would expect. The more educational programming the children watched, specifically the girls in the study, the more likely their relational aggression increased. Shock! How could that be?

The researchers of the study posited that preschoolers have a difficult time understanding plots and may not attend to the overall “lesson” in the manner an older child or adult can. Instead they learn from all of the behaviors shown, the language of inclusivity and kindness as well as the explicit relationally aggressive behaviors.

One can easily imagine an educational program for kids learning to stand up for themselves against school yard bullies or unsavory characters. (Some stories I recall in my youth come to mind! Did anyone read these classics: The Hundred Dresses and A Bargain for Francis)? If you are going to have a story about a hero’s journey, more than half of the story will be about enemies doing and saying very aggressive things! Yes, the hero returns triumphantly, but the weapons and the caustic words used in the lead-up to the resolution are remembered well -- nevermind that the story ends with a happy resolution. In sum, and my favorite line in this Nurture Shock chapter, was: “Essentially, [the researchers] had just found that Arthur is more dangerous for children than Power Rangers!

Classics with moral tales for children.

Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. United States: HarperCollins, 2014. Originally Published in 1944.

Hoban, Russell. A Bargain for Frances. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 1970.


Embracing Prosocial All the Way!

The last thing that Mary and I wanted to do was create a book that taught kids the language of aggression! We pivoted decisively and focused solely on prosocial behaviors and language, and eliminated any language of conflict or bullying behaviors. This decision had ramifications for the plot and other elements of our picture book. For example, Ava’s painting crashing down to the ground had to be an accident. We didn’t want one of the bunnies kicking the soccer ball towards Ava on purpose. Another example was a prop, a sign we had on Ava’s door, that said “Artist at Work! Do not Disturb!” Instead, we changed it to a neutral sign saying “Ava’s Studio.”

Crafting the story in this way helped us stay on point with our main message, the message of resilience. By not having an external enemy, we could focus on Ava’s inner strength and resolve. Ava channeled the quiet support of her family, her own resourcefulness and determination to overcome her predicament. And most importantly, Ava's resolution and satisfaction with her final product was entirely of her own making, and not dependent on anyone's confession or evaluation.

There were other elements that shaped our story of Ava, but we feel very grateful for Bronson and Merryman. Had we not been exposed to their chapter “Plays well with others,” our message of resilience might have become obfuscated with a moral message we weren’t intending. Or worse, we might have inadvertently given the little soccer player in your life ideas about how to ruin someone's afternoon with a soccer ball!


"Should haves" remain even after its shipped!

One last item on our writing of Ava’s Triumph to tie it back to that wonderful book, Goodnight Moon. In the scene when Ava stays up late to work on her painting, Mary and I had initially loved the word “determined,“ to describe Ava that night. Many of our reviewers noted it for being out of character with the rest of the language in the book. Indeed, it’s not a Dolch sight word like most of the other words in our book. In fact, “determined” doesn’t appear until 5th or 6th grade spelling lists. We landed instead on “She worked and worked and worked….” The repetition was somehow pleasing especially laid out on the page as we have:

She worked and worked and worked. Look at how determined our Ava looks!

I felt sure it was the right decision, at least until I come across that article about Margaret Wise Brown’s philosophy and Goodnight Moon. Brown said that children needed “a few gorgeous big grownup words to bite on.” When I read that I thought aloud to Mary, ”Oh, Mary, maybe we should have used “determined” after all!

The "writing" of Ava’s Triumph has been an adventure in and of itself as well. If there is anything we have learned about writing is that it isn’t a science; there are no formulas or dictates. It’s been a vigorous process of working towards understanding what matters to us, of educating ourselves when we didn't have clear direction, of re-doing or trying new things out. We tried out so many versions, even a version without any words! We also had the help of great minds around us, friends and other authors, who gave us valuable feedback or shared important insights. It was tremendously gratifying to incorporate learnings from scientific studies. We embraced it all and loved how it broadened our perspectives.

We hope our readers will see the positive results of this vigorous process when they page through Ava's Triumph. And most of all, we hope our dearest, youngest readers will delight in its colors and sounds, absorb its prosociality, and become moved by Ava's resilience.



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