Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cuddle Up With A Good Book?

It's been awhile since I posted something new and, rest assured I have been immersed in all things technological. But, I feel the need to stray a bit. A recent New Yorker article about the teen publishing industry has been resonating in my head, and not in a good way. Then I saw a USA Today report that told of a New England boarding school replacing its library with a "fully digital collection," including 65 Kindles that would circulate like books. The two articles collided in my brain and the resulting thoughts and concerns demanded this blog post!

Rebecca Mead's excellent article entitled, "The Gossip Mill," details the methods used by Alloy Entertainment's mostly successful publishing efforts, aimed at teens and tweens. The products can only loosely be called books, in my opinion. Rather, they are cobbled together (in the words of my dear friend Joan) from multiple ideas thrown around in large group meetings. The "author" of each title is dependent upon what many minds think will sell, might have a future life on TV or in the movies, and "kids want to read." This last requirement is like saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture should issue a Food Pyramid dominated by fast food fries and burgers because that's what kids want to eat. Okay, that's too extreme. After all, a company is allowed to make money on its products, even if the products aren't really good for the consumers. Reading a bad book isn't going to make anyone sick, is it? Well, I suppose a steady diet of horror books and sexy lit might confuse the moral and ethical real life behavior of a tween... That's what they want, so is that what they should be given?

Not in my opinion. I've seen too many elementary school aged children exhibiting advanced sophistication with diminished emotional maturity for handling it. Third graders sneaking into bathrooms to put on makeup; third and fourth graders talking seriously about boyfriends and dating; cyberbullies in fourth and fifth grade attacking vulnerable classmates thereby excluding them from the social world that none of them is really ready to inhabit. I wouldn't give these children a vampire book for tweens any more than I'd take them to an R-rated movie or feed them a steady diet of marshmallows. How did this world of Barbie dolls for pre-schoolers get started? Will it be possible to change this trend and let children experience childhood before becoming mini-adults?

The bottom line for Alloy, and other companies like them, is they make money from poorly constructed and conceived products if they create a bigger demand for them. It's much more difficult to write a good book for a ten-year-old than it is to take a teen romance, or better yet, a teen vampire love story and alter it for a ten-year-old reading level. It's NOT better for the reader, though. Alloy et al have not stopped writers from publishing some excellent books. School Library Journal reviews loads of them and libraries buy them. It's the job of responsible adults to make sure this literature is the mainstay of a child's diet, not just the snack.

Now let's cuddle up with an e-book! At the outset, let me say that I am a strong supporter of electronic books and readers, like the Kindle, for many purposes. My son uses his for commuting because he can take many books and documents with him, all in one small container that's easy to read. My father uses one because his arthritic hands don't allow him to hold large books but his mind wants to read them. (A Kindle enabled Dad to finish reading "Truman" even though he couldn't hold a 1,000 page book.) Travelers love e-book readers for obvious reasons. Packing a suitcase full of books is just not practical. I can't wait for one of these devices to have color on its "pages" so guidebooks and maps will look authentic! But it's hard to cuddle up with this technology. I still prefer the printed book if I'm getting comfy in a chair or reading in bed. Holding the last book in the Harry Potter series was difficult (it's large!) but there was a satisfaction in knowing that I got my copy the night it came out and I could suffer under the weight of it as Harry and friends were suffering under their terrible burdens. I enjoy seeing sets of books lined up on the shelf. I love thumbing through a bird identification guide and reading colorful picture books to my granchildren. E-books have their value and their place, but should a school library have ONLY e-readers because regular books cost more than electronic ones? Should children not learn the pleasure of cuddling up with a good book? I don't think so. The bottom line shouldn't be "What will it cost?" It should be "What is a book's value. What is the emotional or intellectual cost to the reader who can't recognize and find a good book to read?"