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Not Your Parents’ Coloring Book

The Digital Chill Pill for Kids

ImageBecause I’m not a parent, I don’t spend a lot of time on blogs devoted to raising children. I read Motherlode sometimes on the New York Times, particularly if the article concerns education or children’s health. The only reason I came across this article was because it showed up in my Publisher’s Weekly daily email. I was intrigued because of my interest in cyberliteracy and how children are more adapted to constant use of the Internet than adults (even me, despite the fact that I’m 22). True, millennials and younger people are technology natives, while older adults are technology immigrants, where the younger people grew up with technology and have little to no trouble using it, while adults have to acclimate and adjust to a (digital) technology-heavy world. But even millennials are behind young children who are growing up with cell phones and iPads (I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in my teens, and even then it was a clunker). I see kids in the subway on iPads, in restaurants, in stores, in strollers. I’m mostly fascinated by this trend–all a parent has to do is hand over an iPad or iPhone, and a child is entertained for hours, much more than those activity or coloring books you did on road trips as a kid with a box of crayons. It’s a digital pacifier.

Is handing a kid an iPad any different than giving a coloring book or interactive game/puzzle? The goal is to distract the child, so what difference does it make if it’s on a screen or not? We’ve been developing games to improve children’s education for ages, and that technology is becoming more and more sophisticated as time goes on. As a kid, I had a “laptop” with a bunch of educational games on it, and my brother and I often worked on brain teasers/puzzles/logic games. So, were my brother and I any better off?

The Ads Say This: Tablets Teach your Kids to Read, Write, and Play

ImageYou can’t escape the bombardment of tablet apps and ads geared toward children. I see them every day on billboards and in the subways. They’re ubiquitous, and the message is clear: an iPad can teach your kid to write, to read, and to play (by the way, play is a valuable form of learning, but that’s a different topic for a different day). Because parents want their kids to get ahead of the curve, they’ve invested in video/handheld education games for years. As a kid, I remember seeing ads for pre-tablet handheld video games, kind of like a Nintendo Gameboy but it was all about interactive learning. But these games and handheld devices have become increasingly sophisticated and diversified with thousands of games and apps to choose from.

In my opinion, yes, iPads are different than old-school non-digital games. As someone who had bad fine motor skills, using a regular crayon to color improved my handwriting. Using a pencil to practice my letters made my grip on writing utensils better. Using my finger to trace letters on a screen or pressing spaces on a coloring “page” would have done little to solve the problem of my poor fine motor skills. In addition, you interact differently with paper and actual hard games like Rubik’s cubes or mancala or even checkers than you do with a screen. I’m not faulting parents who use iPads to get their kids to chill while they try to go shopping or enjoy a meal. I definitely understand that from a non-parent perspective. But should iPads and tablets be our default digital education tool?

Alone Together

There’s another perspective on this–giving kids iPads as a constant distraction prevents them from interacting with other people and improving interpersonal skills. Additionally, not having constant visual and auditory stimulation on a screen teaches children how to sit in quiet, to be alone, to be by themselves in their heads. Children need to react to external stimuli, but children also need to know how to really talk to other people and to value alone time.

ImageInterestingly enough, the article mentions an expert whose Ted talk I watched during cyberliteracy class. Sherry Turkle explains that the more time we spend in front of screen, interacting with others through instant messaging and email, the more we isolate ourselves, and not in a good way. Having a good-ol’ fashioned conversation and actually engaging another person are far more valuable than learning your letters on a tablet. Knowing how to keep in touch with people beyond just Facebook wall posts and photo sharing is an important skill that we inhibit in our children when we emphasize digital technology that cannot–and should not–replace basic human interaction. We are social creatures, herd animals, and we benefit enormously from human touch, from mimicking other’s facial gestures and body posture, from learning basic social skills.

Maybe iPads are better than what I had–how do we know? The data isn’t in yet about what children on iPads are like long-term in terms of neurology, psychology, and sociology. Only time will tell.

What About Books?

So what does this have to do with books, you ask? Well, publishers and developers alike are creating books that are more like games than books. Just like those books where you have a choice (“If you enter the cave, turn to page 50; if you decide to take an alternative route, turn to page 12”), these new books embed into the text games, video, sound, etc. In a way, I think this development is pretty cool that books are now a social, interactive application. Integrating media into text is important–multimedia and multimodal texts are becoming de rigeur.

kid reading bookBut, as a traditionalist, I have to put up a fight for the old school book. Digital, interactive textbooks will probably be a good thing–kids will be able to check answers quickly, engage in learning, and explore new learning techniques. But as for literature with a capital “L,” the value of the old school paper book cannot be overstated. These books teach concentration, focus, and valuable lessons on the human condition. Books as art shouldn’t be reduced to fun and games–“serious” reading improves critical thinking skills and themes about what it is to be human.

So please–use an iPad, but still get kids hooked on reading with picture books, then chapter books, then young adult books, then books for adults. Books can still be illustrated, fun, entertaining, exciting, even without buttons and whistles and bells and gadgets.

The E-Reader Wars

Okay, fine, that title is a little incendiary. But the wars behind e-readers are varied: libraries getting mad at publishers because publishers limit the number of e-rentals before the libraries have to pay again; price collusion on e-books leading the DoJ to sue five of the Big Six; self-published e-books taking on the traditional publishing industry. Yes, the battles are varied and many, but I want to go back to a topic I discussed a little while back: a new meaning of “ownership.” I read another article on another e-reader war about digital rights management (DRM). The Big Six publishers require that their e-books be sold with DRM protection so that readers cannot make copies of books, and because of DRM requirements, a book you buy for Kindle can only be read on other Kindle devices or apps (or Nook with Nooks and Nook apps, etc.) Many consumers hate DRM because if they decide to switch e-readers, there is no way for them to convert the file to read on another device. However, the issue goes further; non-DRM books can’t be read on Kindles (some can, but relatively few). So, if you have a Kindle, you’re pretty much stuck getting your e-content from Amazon. An “easy” way to circumvent this problem is to get a tablet with multiple e-reader apps, but a Kindle e-book has to stay in the Kindle app, and an iBook has to stay in the iBook library. 

Independent booksellers want to sell e-books without DRM so that no matter the customer’s e-reader/tablet, that customer will be able to buy whatever book he or she likes. Some imprints of major publishers are ceding to this trend and allowing non-DRM content to be sold. Hopefully other publishers will come around and let independent bookstores fight Amazon’s growing market share of e-readers and e-books. 

As a writer, I’m pretty torn about copyright law and piracy. On the one hand, I respect intellectual property and do not want my work stolen without my permission, but I feel that in some ways copyright law is outdated, overly strict, and stifling. When a music label sues a mom for using a song on a YouTube video, that label comes across as out of touch and stingy. I know; I know; the music industry is struggling right now, but the woman didn’t intend to break the law, just add a cute soundtrack to her video. And don’t get me wrong–I’m super against piracy. Unless a friend gave me the song/CD, I’ve bought every song on my iPod and every book on my Kindle. 

I’m just not sure that ruthlessly cracking down on every possibility of copyright infringement is really in the creator’s or the consumer’s best interest. I’m glad that the resources in the creative commons are growing, but we are a long way from recognizing that copyright laws might be getting in their own way. I’m going to go into more on this in my next post, so stay tuned. 

The Gender Issue

I’m a feminist but by no means a hardcore, bra-burning, no-leg-shaving man-hater with an ax to grind about gender inequality. Yes, I believe in equal work, equal pay and gender equity at home and battling sexist stereotypes, but I’m not a women’s studies major who gets up in arms at every turn. Usually I only get this way when talking about photoshopping models and unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in the media. My point being that I’m not the type of person to go off on men at every opportunity about women’s oppression in the workplace, at home, etc. But today I’m going to argue against sexism and for women in books.

Fun fact: J.K. Rowling used her initials when publishing Harry Potter because her publisher told her that boys would not buy a book by a female author. Yup, that’s right, one of the most successful, most popular authors in modern times (perhaps ever, up there with Agatha Christie) had to mask the fact that she’s a woman on the cover of her books. Harry Potter appeals to all ages, both genders, and many demographics, both ethnic and socioeconomic, the perfect example of a crossover. So why dd her publisher fret over whether or not boys would know her gender? Because boys don’t read books by or about women.

I read an article (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=5713&utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=138a83439c-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email) about this phenomenon. I recently decided to indulge in some literary candy and read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s a fabulous book–great storytelling, gripping, keeps you on the edge of your seat the kind of book you just can’t put down until you’ve reached the last page. It’s a bestseller; the first movie has just come out to rave reviews and blockbuster opening weekend. But the book wouldn’t have sold nearly as well if instead of a gold medallion on a black background on the cover, the female protagonist would have graced the jacket. Boys simply would not have been interested by a cover with a girl on it. Yes, I find this attitude to be a huge problem.

For one thing, girls make up half (slightly over half, I think) of the human race. Women are half of the human experience. To ignore their stories and their perspective is to shut out the views of humanity. Boys’ refusal to read books about girls is a sad story on how we market to boys, how we shun the feminine for boys in favor of cultivating the masculine. I understand boys’ reluctance to read Gossip Girl and the Twilight series and the like, but a publisher shouldn’t have to worry that a boy won’t buy a book because it’s about a girl. Think about the great female protagonists in young adult/crossover literature: The House on Mango Street, the books of Cynthia DeFelice such as The Ghost of Fossil GlenGathering Blue by Lois Lowry (author of The Giver), Scout in To Kill a MockingbirdMeg from a Wrinkle in TimeHermione from Harry Potter (even if she isn’t the main protagonist, she plays a vital role in the series), the young women in Sharon Creech’s works of Ruby Holler and Chasing Redbird. The list goes on: Secret Life of BeesMemoirs of a GeishaIsland of the Blue DolphinsCharlotte’s WebMatildaLittle House on the PrairieLittle Women, etc.

Students need exposure to the experiences of  both sexes from all races, classes, and backgrounds. If not, we are ignoring the experience of the human race. The issue of ignoring other demographics in high school English classrooms is for another post, but female protagonists illustrate the experiences of women that cannot be ignored or pushed aside. Children of both genders can benefit and learn from the writing of both female authors and female protagonists.

A Ticket to the Literary Rodeo

I was in New York last weekend, and one of my favorite things to do there is explore little independent bookstores in the East Village. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, so most of my bookstore experiences are at Barnes & Noble or Half Price (and Borders from time to time back in the day). Although the large chain bookstores are great for book browsing of popular titles and seeing the newest and bestselling books immediately in your face, there’s something enticing and entrancing about diving into a little shop–maybe a converted studio apartment–and finding books that may be out of print, that may not find their way into popular bookstores (small press distribution, the odd textbook, etc.) and digging deep into the shelves to find gems. For example, I found a deluxe copy of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. I was sorely tempted to buy it before realizing how low on funds I was. These treasure troves dot the urban landscape of Manhattan, and I wish I had more time to go spelunking in the petite mines of indie bookstores, the shelves shafts of papery mines.

Occasionally these stores will hold events for readings and book signings. Up until recently, many of these events were free and open to the public. Now, however, bookstores are charging for admission to readings and signings–often you have to buy the book, buy a gift card for a certain amount, or pay a small fee. The reason? Sales in bookstores are decreasing while online sales are increasing. I read an article in the New York Times that details this new trend in bookstore events (for the full article see: www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/business/media/22events.html). Part of the issue involves the fact that many customers now treat bookstores as libraries or a place to browse before going online and buying a cheaper e-reader version of the same book. Customers will walk in, browse, write down titles, and leave without buying anything. This practice is part of the reason that brick-and-mortar stores have seen book sales suffer in print while online sales have increased dramatically. Stores must now turn to other sources of revenue in order to stay afloat.

While bookstores are important, as are books in print (no one wants a Fahrenheit 451 situation on our hands), the charge to get in to events hurts those who have already bought a book or can’t afford to pay admission such as students or the elderly, and authors worry that they will lose potential readers. However, these events are often publicized and might boost book sales anyway. Publishers resent the fact that bookstores charge when they are the ones footing the bill for the author and the production of the book itself. But the main concern remains that charging will discourage readers, seem unfriendly to the public, and hinder the community sentiment so often found in independent bookstores.

I see both sides. Hosting an event costs serious money, and bookstores must look for other sources of revenue when so many sales are going online. I’ll admit that I’ve gone into bookstores several times to check out books, write down titles, and go home to find the books online. But I have to add that I do still make a regular habit of buying books in print. I can’t help it. As a bibliophile, I act like a junkie in the presence of books, and when I’m jonesing for that book in front of me, I need my fix and I need it now. My apartment is proof of this impulsive behavior, where I’m running out of shelf space at an alarming rate. Anyway, I digress. Bookstores need to make money from more than print sales, and events are great ways to get publicity and make a profit at the same time.

But I’m also a student. I have a part-time job that doesn’t pay well, so I often can’t afford to pay $25-30 for a hardback book, and I’m a little unwilling to pay for something that was once free. Fortunately, my university has a reading series through the English department (www.liveoak.tcu.edu), which is free, but I’ve attended other readings to learn more about the author, get a sample of their work, hear how the writer intended the work to be read, or connect with others in my community who appreciate reading. Smaller bookstores can act as an integral part of a community, whether it be a small section of Manhattan or part of Boulder, Colorado. Either way, charging for events fractures with  community feel and divides what might have been a closer community.

So here’s my call-to-action: even if you have an e-reader that you love and cherish, consider going out and buying a couple print books every now and then, buy gift cards, go sifting through the shelves of bookstores for gold that may not be available online. There’s something enticing about the smell of books, the feel of the paper underneath your fingertips, the rustle of pages, the look of an open book. We may live in a digital age, but I’m here to advocate for the continued consumption of the printed word. We need to keep print books and bookstores alive. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores.”

Oh Yeah, I Totally Forgot

I just realized in that my haste to write my first post, I failed to introduce myself. So, here’s a short little bio about me.

Hi, I’m Rachel Spurrier. I’m a Writing and French double major at Texas Christian University, scheduled to graduate in May 2013. I’m a peer consultant at the William L. Adams Center for Writing at TCU, where I help students with their writing to become better writers. Additionally, I’m about to start an internship at the TCU Press. I’m not sure yet what my role will be, but I’ll probably be copyediting while possibly dabbling in acquisitions. I’m also the president of the Bryson Literary Society, TCU’s creative society (bls-tcu.tumblr.com). I’ve been published in as well as edited for TCU’s undergraduate student journal of the arts, eleven40seven (www.1147.tcu.edu).

On a less formal note, I’m a lover of words and language in general, both English and French. I’m primarily a creative writer, mostly of creative nonfiction essays. I do write some atrociously bad poetry here and there and shamefully hide it in a folder on my computer. I’m not particular about the genres I read, but I focus mainly on contemporary American writing, mostly fiction and essays.

I’m just getting started in looking into the editing and publishing world. After I took a course in, what do you know, Editing and Publishing, I realized that there was a potential career path in publishing for me. Hoping to develop an online presence and my own website, I started this wordpress. On this site, you can find my résumé and online portfolio for both creative writing and copyediting.

Anyway, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy my somewhat pretentious writing about writing!

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