Epistolary Day: Children and the Digital World

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I used to be a restless kid, and yet I learned to read. It gave me a pathway into the life I have now, the writing life. Reading and writing together have helped me through troubled times, have helped me make sense of the world or question it or rail against its injustices.

Letter Five in your book made me profoundly sad for the children of tomorrow. You raise disturbing questions: what will digital media do to children’s malleable brains? Will their reading circuits be altered, and if so, how? You write about memory, and what it takes to form it, and how attention, grabbed in rapidfire sequence, detracts from the formation of a working memory.

Then I wanted to cheer when you wrote, in Chapter Six, of the incredible importance of reading to kids. Don’t move too fast to screens and devices, you write. You beg parents to embrace the endless rereading of a favorite book.

The first two years of the reading life, you say, should be the equivalent of Julian of Norwich‘s beautiful exhortation:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

How to make all manner of things well in the reading worlds of the young? The digital page is a fake. I know that, even as I use it here to reply to your book. I know I can use the computer and the phone as tools, but that’s only because because I learned to read with the real thing. I can switch in and out of the technology while not succumbing to its flaws. I’m lucky only because I’m old enough.

That real book, the tree-based object I have given my life to, is something that young children should feel the joy of “reading” with their whole bodies and older children should be allowed to read with their entire, undivided attention. Toddlers can’t put an iPad in their mouths. The Internet can’t begin to build a moral foundation for a teenager.

What I Learned from TeachingBooks.net

teachingbooks-logo-bookmark-smallTeachingBooks.net is a terrific resource for teachers, offering all kinds of information on books for young readers and the authors and illustrators who create them. They’ve been doing this for years. They started when the Internet was new and relatively uncluttered. One of the really useful tools they provide is a set of audio-recordings by authors and illustrators on how to pronounce their names. As someone with a long last name, one that may seem like an obstacle course to someone unfamiliar with it, I’ve been grateful for years to have my own little audio pronunciation guide on TeachingBooks.net.

And now I have new reason to be grateful to the good people at TeachingBooks.net, for inviting me to record brief audio about some of my books.  Listen! Here I am talking about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Book Uncle and Me, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Sure it’s nice promotion for my books. But there’s more to my gratitude that this. I expected I’d just take this on as a promo task, one of things you do because you know it’s good for your books but really, you’d rather be working on your new favorite book, the next one! But in preparing for the recordings, I found out something about writing and reading.

I’ve known for years how to write so that a book sounds credible when it’s read out loud. But in my mind, reading out loud has usually meant reading an entire picture book or a chapter or two of a novel. It’s easy to pick out passages from novels that work well for, say, a bookstore  reading or a reading at a VCFA residency, where I have anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

But TeachingBooks requested me to talk a little about a book, and read an excerpt–all within three minutes.  That meant the excerpt needed to be no more than 2 minutes long.

The picture book, naturally, posed no problem. The chapter book and the novel were another matter. All the passages I considered were either too long, or depended on the reader already knowing the background and context, or didn’t have a balance of dialogue and narrative, or didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. I realized that I needed all that for a reading of under two minutes. The opening scenes of both books came in at a little over three minutes so that wouldn’t do either.

I did manage to find a few passages that worked and was happy with the ones I ended up picking, but it made me think about how limitations of time and words can really push a writer not only to pick the best, strongest words possible but also to bring the underlying strength of a story to the surface.

The next time I revise a draft, I’ll keep this two-minute challenge in mind. I suspect it will help me spot and delete my more self-indulgent passages more efficiently.  Not that every scene needs to make the two-minute cut. But the prospect of reading a passage out loud within a limited amount of time isn’t a bad way to remain aware of the need for energy in a work in progress.