As noted in an earlier post, one of the most interesting questions currently facing empirical researchers of the psychology of fiction, is the role that empathy or social comprehension plays during the processing of narrative fiction. One potentially interesting question is whether children's storybooks can aid social development. Two papers have investigated the degree to which storybooks contain information that might relate to a child's ability to understand the minds of others. Kimberly Wright Cassidy and colleagues (1998) found that, in the books read to preschoolers by a group of parents, over 75% contained some language related to internal states, and a third of the books dealt directly with the concept of someone holding a belief that is false (a key component of understanding other minds, which usually develops between the age of 3 and 5 years). Similarly, Jennifer Dyer and colleagues (2000) conducted an in-depth content analysis of 90 books for 3-to-4 and 5-to-6-year-olds, and found that mental-state references were frequent: they occurred once every three sentences or so. This constitutes empirical support for an observation that might have occurred to many, that children's stories are indeed very social in nature. Whether the social content of these stories thus promotes social development in preschoolers is another question, and one that is just now becoming the object of direct empirical study.
Cassidy, K. W., Ball, L. V., Rourke, M. T., Werner, R. S., Feeny, N., Chu, J. Y., Lutz, D. J., & Perkins, A. (1998). Theory of mind concepts in children's literature. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 463-470.
Dyer, J. R., Shatz, M., & Wellman, H. M. (2000). Young children's storybooks as a source of mental state information. Cognitive Development, 15, 17-37.