Thursday, April 11, 2019

Writes of Passage: How Children’s Classics Risk Getting Lost in the Cloud

Can classic children’s literature survive as just another digital file on a machine?  ♦ 
When I took a nannying position last summer, fresh out of my spring semester Children’s Literature class, I felt invincible; I had an arsenal of renewed whimsy, and I was ready to connect with the next generation, as books so often enable. I knew, too, that you “write up” for children, not down, and that children’s books served as mirrors and windows–a means of reflection and exploration all at once. Most importantly, or so I thought, I had my own childhood interactions with books to go off of, with beloveds such as Tuck Everlasting, Charlotte’s Web, The Little Prince just to name a few. A little dated, I knew, but all of these had proven to withstand the test of time, as they’d already weathered a generation (or two or three) before making their way to me. At twenty years old, I thought that my own childhood reading experiences were still more than relevant.

I was mistaken.

What I didn’t account for, perhaps naively, was that the 6- and 9-year-olds staring up at me in wonder on my first morning there had been born into a technological world that I hadn’t encountered until I was a teenager. Their parents, bless them, still mandated reading time, which was a required thirty minutes, but on their list of activities, reading was in competition with a limited screen time of an hour. Furthermore, this screen time didn’t include television, the list informed me; it was in regards to the iPad only.

I was flabbergasted.

An iPad? At six years old?

The parents were in no way at fault; when the kids had playdates while I watched them, every single friend they had over had the same interests—those interests being, of course, apps. When I could wrangle the kids for story time, they loved what I picked for them, but they had never heard of Charlotte’s Web before my introducing it to them. The reason for this, I soon realized, was a symptom of the digitalization of books, which has changed not just children’s reading habits but their relationship to these and other books: in this new age of technology, access, and instant gratification, the classics of children’s literature are not only in competition with the newer books on the market but with every Fruit-Ninja-Angry-Bird phenomena app creators can crank out. A well-loved, dog-eared, physical children’s book has a certain presence on a shelf and in the imagination, but when the classics go digital, they’re just data. They become invisible. (What, then, will become of Wilbur? Of Madame Zeroni? There are lives at stake, people!)

As for the home I’d come to think of as my sample for this small investigation, I didn’t see a single one of the books from my Children’s Lit reading list in the house, and the children confirmed that maybe one or two of the titles I mentioned to them graced the shelves of their reading corners at school. Towards the heavens, I lamented; what’s a reading corner without The Giving Tree and the guarantee of contracting head lice or a respiratory infection?

When their parents found out what I was reading to them, they were delighted, and each immediately offered several anecdotes relating to their own experiences surrounding E. B. White’s masterful telling of the unlikely friendship between a spider and a pig, but they’d never thought to pass the book on to their children, not in physical form, and as a result their children had never come in contact with the book at all. It supported the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that I fear is beginning to consume such long-beloved titles, which risks flinging these books into oblivion. Recent studies analyzing the significance of having actual, tangible books in the home on children’s literacy and development have only solidified my suspicions that print in the home has a worth that digital can’t match.

This is not a condemnation of modern youth, nor is it a rallying cry for those who are anti-progress to unite; there is nothing wrong with adding in the new, so long as we don’t lose the old. The call to action then is this: preserve print! Because if we fall prey to the convenience of The Cloud, we might lose entirely the romanticism of turning a page with a child on your lap (preferably your own). Shiny things are new and fun; moving colors on a screen are mesmerizing; these truths I grant you, and perhaps some stories have grown too dated for the future generations to relate to. (Cue: “Mommy, what’s a drive-in theater?”) But for many of us, it would be no small loss for “Stay Gold, Ponyboy,” “Some Pig,” and “Let the wild rumpus start!” to die off with us after our time has passed.

But all hope is not lost: according to EducationWeek.Org, 65 percent of children in 2015 said they will always prefer reading print books as opposed to e-readers, while 60 percent of children still like to read for fun. However, in a study conducted by Scholastic, it was also proven that there is indeed a direct correlation between how many books a child has in their home and a love of reading. Meaning, if we want to save the classics (and the soon-to-be classics) that we felt we were a part of, it’s on us as future parents and teachers to make them accessible by lining the shelves of our future homes with these time capsules of pages.

And if you’re unsure of where to even start your library of the classics, you might begin with this List of Children’s Books to Save the (Literary) World!

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Every child should experience the joy of Silverstein's whimsical illustrations as they were meant to be seen: on pages between their fingers. Additionally, every child should experience the sheer terror of encountering a disconcertingly close-up of Shel Silverstein on the back cover. I had to bury those books in my shelves at night to make sure I didn’t accidentally make eye contact with the author in the wee hours, and I am a better, stronger woman for it.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
The little light-blue book that has been enjoyed for literal generations demands shelf-space; to simply download it would be an injustice. To not encounter it at all, a crime. The last few chapters should bear the wrinkled pages that come from dried tears. Small creases from dog-ears counting the nights you had to stop because you or your audience was falling asleep are merit badges of readership. The nostalgia of this classic is a romantic experience on its own, and anything less than complete immersion deprives you of the achingly innocent friendship Charlotte teaches us at any age.

Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
While I grant that there is probably not a child alive who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with Harry Potter, these are books with heirloom potential. I know my own beloved collector’s trunk, with the seven books bearing their original cover art and many scuffs from my destination reading endeavors, is the only way I want my children to experience the Wizarding World when it comes their time, and these large volumes are an experience in themselves that an e-book simply cannot replicate.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
In my experience, this book lends itself to one or more re-readings, as the classic tale of friendship, classism, and sacrifice has something new to offer for every age. I myself have read it nearly ten times now, as all it takes is a boring afternoon to nudge me into its familiar pages. The satisfaction of having that one copy that shows the loving wear from such afternoons is a must-have on any childhood shelf.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I didn’t encounter this book until much later in life than its intended audience, but I fell in love immediately. I discovered it when a friend lent me his copy from childhood, so I at least got to experience it with a dose of secondhand nostalgia. This one, being as old as it is published in 1943, has many editions and iconic illustrations. It is a fun find in an old bookstore, and it is a beautiful new endeavor hot off the press.

These are just a start, of course. Whatever titles would be on your list of classics, don't doom them to a download folder hidden away on your tablet. Try to imagine them as part of your home, in some tucked-away book corner in all their full-color, cracked-spine glory, and then see if a little of that childhood excitement doesn't come rushing right back.

  • About the Author
    Madysen George is an English Literature major who's honestly just hoping for the best. When she isn't spouting off crotchety things about how the times are changing, she is probably reading, writing, or spending an absurd amount of time with her friends who never fail to make her laugh.

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