Friday, April 1, 2011

A New Kind of Reader

Reading Press Here by Hervé Tullet approximates the experience one would have with an app. Yet, it is not an app. It’s a book. One of the genius qualities of Press Here is that even though it’s clearly making a case for the great glory of books, it never adopts an attitude. It celebrates the pure joy of page flippings, book turnings, and the ability to grab the two covers in both hands and toss it up and down. I am not one of those people who frets about the future of the book. A great story--or, in this case, a great experience with words and pictures and ideas--will always be in demand, whether it’s a book, an e-book, an enhanced book or an app.

However, I believe that we need to think about how we use books with pages and pictures, and how we use electronic devices with young people. Just the way we would television or radio or any other means of conveying content for educational or entertainment use. One of my favorite anecdotes about the new kind of reader who's emerging today involves a 22-month-old and Freight Train by Donald Crews. A dear friend of mine who runs a library system in Connecticut visited her toddler grandson at Christmastime. She bought him a board book of Freight Train, wrapped it up and put it under the tree. In the days leading up to Christmas, his mother bought the Freight Train app for him to play with on her iPad. He happily pressed the screen for the different parts of the train, and saw and heard different things happening depending upon where he pressed. When he pressed the cattle car, for instance, the cows said, “Moo.” On Christmas morning, when he tore off the wrappings for Freight Train the board book, he instantly recognized it. He went to the page with the cattle car picture, and he pressed it. Nothing happened. He pressed it again and again. Nothing. Next he started pressing and saying, “Moo! Moo!” as if providing the soundtrack himself.

Did he feel like the experience of the board book was missing something? I don’t know. But when we talk about the generation of readers who will change their reading habits because of electronic devices, in my view, this is the generation who will drive the future of reading. The children who are growing up with the option of electronics to aid their fluid experience of content, from pre-reading experiences on to decoding words (learning to recognize letters and simple words by sight) and then to reading for information and entertainment will ultimately set the new standards for reading preferences.

The more kids read, the better, as far as I’m concerned, in whichever way they prefer. My great hope is that they can still have the experience of sustained reading, of getting lost in a book—by page or by screen—for long stretches. As they get older it becomes more challenging to read without interruption by phone calls and text messages, sports practice and play rehearsals. Children can build worlds out of words or blocks or forts in the woods or create plots for their Lego characters or the dolls in their dollhouses. Those long interrupted periods of reading and playtime develop imagination and concentration, and we need to help children honor and defend those opportunities until they can do that for themselves.

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