Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Stuffed Into a Teapot

Well, I'm taking slow-blogging to new heights. :) 

Ropes course with the fam on vacation in NH
One thing that gets on my nerves is when people throw around the idea that because of TV (or the internet) kids have shorter attention spans than they ever had before. You know, when people say it authoritatively in a how-to-write-for-children book, without citing any evidence. 

Alice: From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I've been told what I must do and who I must be. I've been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I've been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I'll decide where it goes from here.
Bayard: If you diverge from the path...
Alice: I make the path!
(From the 2010 movie, Alice In Wonderland)

By making that sort of assumption, that children are being damaged by the progress of media, you might as well stuff 'em into a teapot.

It may be true that attention-deficit issues with children are on the rise, but let's face it, that's a chemical process in the brain. I don't think people have found a causal effect between that and TV or computers. And, it has been shown that kids with ADHD can actually "hyper focus" when they find something compelling to focus on. 

That's the point, right?  Give kids something compelling to focus on.

I do think that it is true that there are different sources of entertainment that can lure our kids away from books, but the takeaway for us writers is that in order to compete with these games, shows and interactive experiences, we need to grab the reader on the first sentence, and hold their interest through the whole book. Which is why writing for young readers is so darn intriguing in the first place. Want a challenge? Try to write a novel for today's youth. They expect the best. It's our job to give it to them.

My kids don't zone out after 12 minutes because they have been trained by the TV and commercials (in fact, the commercials are more compelling to my kids than the show, most times). They don't stop focusing on interesting things after a few moments and drift away. They aren't less inclined to focus. They just have more to chose from.

We need to learn from the experts in the gaming field, like Jane McGonigal, and write in a way that gives kids positive feedback and a real interaction with our books, either figuratively, if we are writing traditional stories, or literally, like Patrick Carman. (The video clips of Skeleton Creek scared the bejeesus out of my eldest. Because he didn't listen to his mother. I'm just saying.)

But let's not assume that our kids are becoming less because they have more to interest them. Let's give them the more (which I believe today's authors, in general, are accomplishing).

Take my nine-year-old son, for instance. 
Give me s'more!
Some might say that he doesn't have the attention span for reading, because he tends not to choose books at his reading level. He sees a full page of text and turns away. But it's not attention span that is his problem--(I don't happen to think he has a problem, thank you very much, teapot stuffers)--but that he is an auditory/sensory learner, and not a visual learner. So most age-appropriate books are, by definition, not his cup of tea. But give him an Alvin Ho book, and he won't put it down. For him, humor is the carrot that will pull him through an entire book.

As a writer, you don't necessarily have to hook my son. (Although the fist fight that ensued in the back seat of my car when I tossed Anna's ARC of My Sort-of Fairy Tale Ending to my kids shows that she has. I'm talking FIST FIGHT where I had to pull the car over and physically separate the kids. Thanks, Anna. #MyBoysReadGirlBooks #TheyArePassionateAboutBooks #MyDaughterWonTheFight)

But you do have to know what type of kid you are hooking, and then hook them the whole way through. Don't let 'em off the line.

And, as if I haven't mixed enough metaphors in this post, I'm encouraging you to make your own path, when it comes to writing books, and not write under the fear that children don't have the attention span to pick up a book and read anymore.  You make the path!

And, now for our regularly scheduled commercial: If anyone wants help with the path, we have an All Things Picture Book group meeting at the Writers' Loft in Sherborn on Thursday night this week, and a Craft Chat on Character on July 23rd, also in the evening. Here's the link. Join us!


  1. So glad my books inspire violence in young people... :-)

    1. Anna Staniszewski: Corruptor of Youth.

      Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? : )

      -- Tom

    2. Tom--hello! And LOL. That's totally Anna to a T.

    3. Anna, you made (some number) of my kids cry. There are ARCs floating around of My Sort-of Fairy Tale Ending that (some number of my children don't) have access to?

      Your are causing middle-grade hysterical tantrums in addition to violence and corruption.

    4. At last, my plan is coming together. Mwahaha

  2. Kids do need to be trained to find stories interesting from a very early age, though. We had an 8-year-old visitor from the Bronx via the Fresh Air Fund one summer. I was so startled and surprised that she couldn't sit still to hear a picture book read aloud, even a quite dramatic one. She would just jump up and wander about teh room. Now TV--she'd sit through what seemed to me comparatively boring things on TV. I do think attention needs to be trained, and it may be that fewer kids are being trained in the kind of attention it takes to absorb words and pictures. I found this quite tragic. She was such a bright little girl, but she just wasn't habituated to being read to. If I'd taken care of her longer term--now I promise you she'd soon have seen teh pleasure in books!

  3. Children still read. Ideas have to come from somewhere. And even if some don't 'love' reading at the age of 9, they may change their mind over time.

    Take me, for example. It is a well-documented fact (and by that I mean I am documenting it well in the blog-post-comment) that I did not like reading growing up. Why this was the case? I don't know. I am also an auditory learner. I'm also exceedingly lazy.

    (in fact, I'm too lazy to finish this comment)

  4. Every accomplished author's dream, right? Turning kids into a pack of wild animals when your book is thrown into the mix? :)

    The winner of the fist fight, seven-year-old Cowgirl, then sat peacefully with the book on her lap, eliciting extremely angry responses from her brothers: "YOU'RE NOT EVEN READING IT!"

  5. (Above comment was thrown Anna's way.)

    Susan--I agree--as parents, we have an obligation to keep books in the hands of our kids. Any type of book they want to read. (I think!) I don't know if my nine-year-old would love books if he wasn't familiar with them....

    PapaJ--I'm not sure I buy into "lazyness." I think people are just wired with different energy levels. And, if I happen to be reading, it means that I am probably avoiding something more taxing somewhere. Which some may consider as being lazy. Having met you, I also don't think that your energy level could be considered "low" on any scale. But, that's my opinion. :)

  6. Susan--I just wanted to touch on your comment one more time, because it was such a meaningful one--I think it is so sad when imagination (fed to children through books) is malnourished. A basic childhood need not being met. :(

  7. In all honesty, I think enjoyment of reading has a lot to do with parenting. I don't believe I saw my parents reading all that much growing up. It wasn't a part of my life. It became a chore. And I'm not proud of it.

    In fact, I project this fault on my (redacted) children and may have gone overboard. I spend the hours of 7-9 each night reading chapter books with my kids. It's the best part of my day. We catalog what we read. We count the books. We count the pages (thank you google docs). We even review books together on our own website. I have made a significant effort regarding making reading fun. And this began years before I had any aspirations as any sort of writer.

    We also canceled cable in 2009. At first it was a tough transition. But now, not only do I save upwards of $100 per month, I don't really miss it. Sure, we have an antenna on one of our tv's for sporting events, presidential addresses, and the oscars. We often watch dvd's (most of which come from the library). But I'm proud to say my kids might not see more than 3 commercials a month.

    I guess my point is, that children must be placed in an environment that is conducive to activities like reading. With all the distractions available, I do believe more of an effort must be made today in order to get kids *to want* to read. No cable, multiple trips to the library per week, seeing parents reading for pleasure themselves, and just being genuinely excited about books - all of these are ways I feel I've been successful (to this point) in getting my kids *to enjoy* reading.

    And enjoying reading is what's important.

  8. Papa J--I agree that parenting with exposure to books is key. For us, that doesn't mean that we've turned off TV and video games. I might be in the minority here, but I LOVE Mario Kart. I love playing online games with my kids. I love TV (especially the British show Sherlock). We stayed up way too late last night watching the first Harry Potter with Cowgirl (we're reading book four to her and she was getting nostalgic).

    I think gaming has excellent side-effects when done in moderation. We haven't tuned out in order to tune into books. We do it all. :) But I think that all these ways of parenting is legitimate--as long as they are done thoughtfully. People who won't let their kids play video games because they think games are 100% harmful are ignoring a whole lot of data about resiliency and gaming.

    Plus, we have exposed them to the programming aspect of gaming as well. If you want to play it, you should be able to take it apart and look at how it works.

    Anywho, I'm just offering this comment as a healthy way to embrace the tech advances and still provide a good diet of books. :) Thank goodness we don't all think the same way, or what a boring blog/community/world this would be!

    1. I don't have kids, so I can only speak about my own experiences, but I think you and Papa J are essentially talking about two parts of the same thing. I agree with him that reading should ideally be part of the family culture, but I also agree with you, Heather, that spending time on other things like TV, video games, etc. doesn't necessarily detract from reading. Like everything in life (I'm starting to suspect) it's about balance.

    2. Yeah, we play video games. Mario Kart happens to be their favorite (although Mario Party 8 is also a good one) - we even get video games from the library (if the library has them, it can't be bad, right?). For now, we've convinced the kids that video games are just for weekends, though. And we watch our fair share of television, too.

      But when it got to the point that we had 20 episodes each of Dora, Little Einsteins, Little Bill, etc on our DVR, all of which our (many) kids had seen at least a few times each, Mama Funk had had enough. I reluctantly went along with the new plan, but now I'm proud of it. We still get Charlie and Lola and Shaun the Sheep DVDs from the library, as well as lots of movies (we probably watch as much TV as other families, we just do it in chunks of movies). But the thing I like is *not* being able to just flip on the tv and watching *whatever's on*.

      It's all about the attitude you have toward reading. If it appears to be fun, then we all know there are enough fun and exciting books out there to make it fun.

      If only having a good attitude about vegetables made it funner for kids to eat them...

      And who doesn't like a mystery-solving Benedict Cumberbatch?

    3. OMG, we should get a google-chat room for this conversation. :) I like how you guys have to make an effort in order to play video games and watch TV. I agree that the path of least resistance seems to be toward electronics these days. But I agree, everything in moderation. Well, except books. We are pretty exuberant about them. See the fist-fight above. :)

  9. I'll take issue with one thing: calling Anna's books "girls books" (as in #MyBoysReadGirlBooks) is doing them a disservice. As a kid I read Hardy Boys mysteries -and- Nancy Drews. I found the Hardy Boys books horribly formulaic (within the first few chapters I could tell which of the two or three templates it was going to follow) but the Nancy Drews were more diverse and just better books.

    It might be the rebellious elementary school librarian in me, but I would happily hand Anna's books to any kid who wanted to read a fun, slightly twisted and funny adventure, regardless of gender.

    Now, hooking a kid all the way with a book, -that- I completely agree with. : )

    -- Tom

    1. Love the conversations here today! Tom, I agree, I am COMPLETELY AGAINST the "girl book" label. I feel like the publisher (who is awesome btw) made that decision when they smacked a picture of a girl on the cover. They are just following trends and what sells. (Sucktastic trends.) I added that hashtag because I wish they could gender neutralize books in general, and it's something we have discussed before with that tag.

      My oldest son (13) used to give away Kate Messner's The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z to his guy friends as birthday gifts, and wasn't at all self-conscious about it. Now, however, he hid the neon pink cover of the latest HIVE book as he walked our of our indie book store--and that is as far from a girl book as you can get. But he felt self-conscious of the cover.

      Then, this past week, I placed the book The Earth, My Butt and Other Round Things, on his bed at the cabin we were vacationing in, and he read it in a night. But when his Uncle saw him with it, in order to save face, he pretended he hadn't been reading it. (He told me later it was good.) His Uncle definitely would have mocked him for reading it. (It is silver with a pink Kiss lip mark on it.)

      So, I'm happy my kids read across gender lines, like I did when I was a girl, (and still do) but there is still stigmas involved with boys reading the stuff. Yay for e-readers and nobody knowing what you are reading!

  10. Great post! As a new mom, I'm trying my best not to just plop my kidlet down in front of the TV and let it do some baby-sitting for me(though some days...) I want my little guy to look at TV as a fun thing he sometimes watches, instead of a constantly running thing in the background. Now if I could just get my husband on board... =)

    1. Leandra--welcome! Thanks for stopping by! I think that is cool that you want tv to be a deliberate choice.

      I think that all the electronic stuff makes parenting so much easier AND so much harder these days. Easier, because for the first time, (for example) we have a car with an entertainment center, so I don't make my kids just talk to each other when we go on 1,000 mile trips. :) But harder because it is right there in the car, but we maintain the rule that we only use it on long trips.

      Good luck with your choices!

  11. Hi Heather!
    I agree. I make my own path too, with my husband. We are not always on the right path, and sometimes we have to cut over, but we are not stuffing them into any old teapot.
    Great post.
    I think we need teapots at the loft for decoration now.