February 3, 2012

The theatrical performance of “Max & Ruby: Bunny Party” came to Williamsport. I freelance for Showcase on the Arts and Nightlife, and in covering the show I got to interview Rosemary Wells.  I was beside myself.

I hoped maybe some success juju would eke through the phone. I was eager to look inside the mind that had penned Ruby, a character who I—as the oldest sister of four—find to be especially sympathetic.

I’m also the mom of a struggling reader and writer. My daughter is 6, in first grade, and she’s barely reading at grade level. Watching her write is painful. I want to share my love of books and writing with her, but she’d really rather play. Outside. In the mud. Or watch action-based TV shows. Like “Adventure Time” and “Avatar: the Last Airbender.”

I want her to be who she is, not who I am. So I read to her, and help her with her homework, and ask her to do the work of learning to read, but I encourage her to pursue her own interests. Like this: she will soon be taking karate classes.

By the time I was her age I would come in from school every day, lie on the couch, and read book after book. I was so eager to put words together that I practiced my penmanship. I chose books over TV early on.

Which brings me to Wells.

Here’s an unedited quotation after I asked her if she’d ever imagined Max & Ruby would be on TV and in theater:

“I’m one of those people who doesn’t have TV for kids. I don’t believe in TV for kids. I never once thought that it would be on television. I don’t think in television, I think in books. And I think that books (and live theater, by the way) are the basis for children’s brain development and their spiritual development and their imagination and powers of critical thinking. Very, very little of it comes from computers and computer games and television and movies. I emphasize this because we are fast entering a world where there is just so much screen time for kids. None of this has really been examined over the years—whether parents really are making a good decision to allow so much screen time, and whether it’s just a progress in the technology, or if kids are just falling into it because it’s there. I’m a conservative in this way, in that I think we should always do what we know works, and allow a little bit of the new stuff in, and only when it’s appropriate for children. And I must say that the Max & Ruby TV show is perfectly appropriate for children. They’ve done a really nice job.”

The interview went on with lots of little speeches like that, with which my writer half was in agreement and my mother half was feeling generalized and persecuted.  

I agree that people (not just kids) should read more. That TV watching should be kept at a reasonable level. That there is a scary dearth of critical thinking ability all around me, every day.

But we are also increasingly digitizing media. Printed books are going the way of the woolly mammoth, so according them total responsibility for a child’s brain and spiritual development seems to be problematic.  

The publishing industry is changing with such speed that even its executors can’t keep track. Before my first grader is a fifth grader, we will choose from the library of books on her eReader for bedtime literature.  

Tablet technology is getting less and less expensive, and computer classes begin in kindergarten. iPads are being used as teaching tools all over the world. This stuff, these screens are her medium. They will shape an ever-larger portion of her world, like it or not.

And she has absurdly easy access to so much information; this can’t be a bad thing.

As the interview progressed, I felt the need to defend myself. “I read to my daughter!” I said, almost defensively, as Wells made a blanket statement about parents not reading to their kids.  

Wells didn’t even seem to hear me.

“I do voices and everything!” I said.

“You have to,” she said.

In the wake of feeling belittled as a mom and affirmed as a writer and reader, I wondered: What does the digital media revolution mean for children’s books? For children’s literacy? Are we heading down a slippery slope of oatmeal-minded buffoonery as a culture? Is Rosemary Wells just a curmudgeon? How do I navigate this transition as a mom? Do I go out and buy an iPad or a Kindle Fire? Boycott Wells? Cling desperately to my printed books and start buying up copies of all my favorites?

Not Answers

I think I landed somewhere between a self-scrutinizing panic and contempt for Wells’s arcane argument.

In the usually less than an hour a day my kid spends in front of the boob tube, she’s watching higher quality narratives than I had access to in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with smarter writing in Adventure Time, and a massive variety of animation styles. And Netflix gives me the option to exclude commercials.  

I am as excited to see how research happens for my child as I am sad that she won’t spend hours in the dusty stacks, jotting notes on recycled card catalogue leaves and learning the Dewey Decimal system.  

More than being concerned that my sweet kid will think too little, learn too little, read too little, I’m thrilled that she has access to so much. Now is historical nirvana for writers and readers and critical thinkers. And it’s my job as a mom to show my kid how to take advantage of it, regardless of medium.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s blog:

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