Friday, December 14, 2012

Precious Objects: Children's Books and/as Technology

Portrait of a Boy (1790) by William Beechey*
As something of a tech-luddite (see my stance on screen-time for kids) and a book-lover, I found two recent essays on the relationships between children's books in print and in e-book format really fascinating: Marah Gubar's "Good Morning iPad: Technology in Twenty-First-Century Picture Books" critiques the winner-take-all battle represented between print books and science and technology in recent children's picture books.  As she writes of her son:
"From earliest toddlerhood, he had been chasing after electronic gadgets with all his might, resisting the protestations of adults who insisted that smartphones and computers were not toys. But he also loved books, so I decided to seek out picture books about modern technology to help distract his attention from actual screens and buttons. Or so I told myself, but clearly my motives were mixed. Even though, like many parents, I imposed strict limits on screen time, I also wanted to encourage his interest, as I would have done had he been fascinated by dinosaurs, music, or some other, more socially sanctioned subject."
After reading a selection of children's picture books about technology, she is "disappointed to discover how anxious these narratives are, how frequently they characterize modern machinery and even science itself as a menace to society and personal well-being."  Since electronica is so clearly a part of the world our children are growing up in, wouldn't it be nice if books helped them think through their relationships with devices rather than simply demonize them?

William Gleason's "Goodnight iPad: Children's Literature in a Digital Age" covers some of the same books that Gubar examines, while also summarizing some of the mixed messages that have emerged so far from studies of tech and reading in children's lives.  Gleason quotes an article in Time in Dec. 2011 describing one study:
“Instead of talking with their children about the content of the books, parents ended up spouting ‘do this, don’t do that’ directives about how to use the devices. All this chatter may interfere with comprehension. When Parish-Morris tested how well children understood the stories on electronic devices, the ­ e-book users did significantly worse than those who sat with their parents reading print. Parents may have interrupted more often because it was hard to get used to the device or too many images beckoned to be clicked. Either way, the kids ended up with ‘a jumbled version of the story in their brains,’ [Parish-Morris] said.”
On the other hand, for some struggling readers, digital mediation seems to improve literacy more quickly than traditional methods.  So far, there doesn't seem to be enough data to generalize broadly about what the rise of tech means for children's reading.

Both Gubar and Gleason discuss Press Here by Herve Tullet as a picture book that playfully alludes to the buttons of our electronic devices yet remains magical in its book-ness.  Printed books are themselves, of course, a kind of technology.  As a new form of technology when they first began appearing in eighteenth-century England, children's books were promoted by booksellers as revolutionary for their unique appeal to children's fancies and denounced by skeptics as objects that could undermine traditional modes of education, distracting children from the habits of mind they needed to cultivate (memorization and recitation, for example), concentrating children's reading on frivolous topics.  The two sides of the debate should sound familiar to us.  Just as today's parents often control how and when children use electronic devices, eighteenth-century parents sometimes controlled access to children's books (which were expensive status-objects), keeping them in cabinets and doling them out for prescribed reading sessions.  It amuses me to find that my attitude to electronic technologies mirrors that of the eighteenth-century cultural commentators who were so anxious about children's literature, a genre I love.
*Picture source: Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection.
Further reading: The Child Reader: 1700-1840 by M.O. Grenby (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What We're Reading Now

N.'s drawing of a sailboat inspired by We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea
We've been immersed in some wonderful books lately!  I just finished reading aloud We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea, the seventh book in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.  I have a lot to say about why we love these books so much, but for now I'll just note that we do.  So much!  N. adores the characters.  Don't let the unfamiliar sailing terms in the first volume deter you!  (I will note that we didn't finish the third book, Peter Duck, which is supposedly a tale the characters make up rather than an account of their own adventures.) I feel absurd levels of gratitude to the Internet for making me aware of these books, which I had never heard of before a few years ago and which have brought us such familial reading pleasure.  If you are already a fan of Ransome's books, you should read Roland Chambers' recent biography The Last Englishman.   

While we eagerly await the arrival of a recently ordered used copy of Secret Water, the eighth in the Swallows and Amazons series, I am reading aloud Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth.  It's even more fun than the 1950 Myrna Loy movie led me to expect.

Last week N. discovered Clementine on our shelves and has since devoured the first three books in Sara Pennypacker's series about the irrepressible redhead (are redheads in literature ever repressible?).  It's been a while since he has read fiction with such avidity (he gravitates to Trains Magazine, Classic Trains Magazine, and National Geographic, or he rereads Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for his pleasure reading), so I was happy to see him enjoying these so heartily.

Tim recently began reading N. a biography of Mozart.  Tim tutors two middle-school-aged homeschool students and he's studying Henry VI with one and Huckleberry Finn with the other, which means he's spending his evenings rereading those texts.  For his own pleasure reading, he's reading Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb.

I just finished Zadie Smith's NW on Sunday and last night I started Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  I loved Wolf Hall and am already loving this sequel.

[I'm linking to The Children's Bookshelf.]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One Shelf At A Time: Austeniana

Melissa Wiley has been taking photos of sections of her bookshelves and invited folks to play along.  So, here's a view of the most fun shelf in my campus office, right after the real Austen texts and scholarship.  These are fun things I take to class to demonstrate a bit of the wide range of Jane Austen spin-off products available in the universe (and if you want to be thoroughly amused, search "Jane Austen Soap" on Etsy). 


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Nice-Boy Heroes in Chapter Books

Books are always better when read with coonskin cap.
When I started reading chapter books aloud to N., it seemed to me that many of the classic children's books either have girls as the main characters (Betsy-Tacy, Pippi Longstocking) or feature boys who are troublemakers, don't like school, etc. (see a brief survey here).  While he enjoys the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, my son is generally disturbed when kids do "bad" things in books.  And as much as parents of girls might look for models of femininity beyond Barbie, I seek positive models of masculinity for my son (while at the same time reading him lots of books with spunky heroines).  So I started keeping a list of books we've read starring good/smart/nice boys.  I'm not talking Little Lord Fauntleroy goody-goodies here. But these boys don't hate school, they're aren't especially violent, they don't mind being friends with girls, they are independent, competent, and accomplished in their own ways... in other words, they're a lot like the boy I read to.
  • Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
  • Rufus M by Eleanor Estes
  • Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
  • Homer Price and More Tales from Centerburg by Robert McCloskey
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (series) by Donald Sobol
  • Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  • Knight's Castle by Edward Eager
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  • Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager
  • The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton
  • The Well-Wishers by Edward Eager
  • The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
  • Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
  • Henry Huggins (and other "Henry" books) by Beverly Cleary
  • Swallows and Amazons (series) by Arthur Ransome
  • Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary
  • Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
  • The Magic City by E. Nesbit
  • Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
  • The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes
  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  • The Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
  • Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome
  • 26 Fairmont Ave. series by Tomie DePaola
  • The Adventures of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George 
This isn't an exhaustive list, of course; it only covers what we've read aloud or N. has read himself to date.  There are additional good suggestions in the comments to my post on our 1st-grade read-alouds here.  What other nice boys are we missing?