Thursday, December 27, 2012
Kids, Reading, and Storytelling
The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project came out with a study recently on younger readers. Their stats, not only on teens but on younger adults up to age 29, found that more than 8 in 10 Americans aged 16 to 29 had read a book in the past year. (The 29-year-olds would have been 14 when the first Harry Potter book came out in the UK in 1997.) “Some 75% read a print book, 19% read an e-book, and 11% listened to an audiobook.” In fact, the under-25s’ stats (86% for 16-17s, 88% for 18-24s) compared favorably with 50-64-year-olds’ 77% and a shameful 68% for over-65s, my own age group.
So not only is reading still alive and well, but so are books, although we know that more and more kids—and younger and younger, as thumbing a digital device becomes one of those skills that those who start as toddlers learn easily, like walking and languages—are falling heir to only slightly dated e-readers and tablets as their parents trade up. The Pew study didn’t look at middle grade readers or the even younger readers of picture books. I’m sure that more and more parents, librarians, and teachers will read illustrated books to children on tablets, but if any books have made the most of the texture of paper and the subtleties of color and form, it’s surely children’s literature.
I was reminded of the power of illustrations while reading the first three books in L. Frank Baum’s series that begin with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. I got a dozen or so, those actually written by Baum, for practically nothing on Kindle. I first read them some time between third and sixth grade, because I used to sleep over at my best friend’s, and she had them on her bookshelves. I last read all forty of the Oz books in high school, or it might have been college, so going on fifty years ago at the most conservative. A high school friend had the whole collection, and he brought them over to my house in a little red wagon when I expressed interest in rereading them. (Today he’s a seller of collectible books.)
The Kindle edition had no illustrations. But as I read, I found I remembered each illustration vividly. In the first book, Dorothy had dark hair in braids and looked not unlike Judy Garland in the movie. In the subsequent books, she had short blond hair chopped off below her ears and wore a short dress that belted below the waist. Or maybe the flapper effect was due to the fact that she wore the Nome King’s magic belt. Ozma of Oz was portrayed in a sinuous art nouveau style, and I’ve had a fondness for that school of art ever since.
This fall, I attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I got there through a chain of digital-age circumstances: the author’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, who’s written the introduction to a special anniversary edition and reads the book aloud on the audio version, found me on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and emailed to ask if I could spread the word about a signing and panel in New York, at the Bank Street School (which my son coincidentally attended from the ages of 5 to 13). She had also been in touch with my blog sister, Julia Buckley, who (like me but even more so) was a fan of Joan Aiken’s adult romantic suspense novels. Julia couldn’t get to New York, but I exchanged a few emails with Lizza, who lives in England, and was happy to show up.
The event included a film clip of the author, a panel including her agent since 1958, one of her publishers, and a teacher, a writer, and a librarian who had been influenced by her strong heroines and tongue-in-cheek Dickensian style. The author’s daughter read one of the early scenes aloud. In it, a little girl traveling alone by train is terrified first by the offer of a mammoth box of chocolates and then by a wolf coming in through the window. If it doesn’t sound as charming to you as it did to me, well, you had to be there. But the thought that came to me was that it is not only reading that it is essential for us to preserve as a legacy to the next generation, but also the art of storytelling.