Digital Children’s Literature (Part 3) – What, and If?
Digital Children’s Literature (Part 3) – What, and If?
The digital age has had an influence on the world of literature as a whole, on adults’ and children’s books alike.
At the same time, in my view, the question of whether or not to create digital books for children is a much more interesting and important one than asking the same regarding books for adults. As a quick aside, let me say that I know I am touching on a sensitive spot here. The relationship between children’s literature and adult literature is still problematic, and to create a distinction between them may be viewed suspiciously as unjustified discrimination. And although I reject the approach that says that children’s books have to be educational, didactic, or pedagogic (or other adjectives that really take away any desire to read this class of books), I do believe that there are substantial differences between the two, which require a differentiated approach – in the sense of “discrimination on the basis of relevant differences” (see the Alice Miller case before the Israeli High Court of Justice for details). Nonetheless, here is not the place to expand on such a complex issues, and so it will suffice if I relate to those differences that I believe are relevant to the matter at hand.
In my opinion, the value of digital books for adults is rather limited. It is relevant primarily to issues of access and ease of use. On the other hand, for children’s books, there is a great deal more room for a creative interpretation of the concept of a “book,” as we understand it, and many more reasons to think that such a shift, even if partial, would be a positive move.
As I wrote previously, I believe that a significant fraction of the commotion caused by the digital age within the world of literature is due to its challenge to the traditional form of the book. But it is specifically this breaking away from the bound volume format, with pages, that could open up new and exciting opportunities.
What possibilities might open up in the future with this format? First and foremost – the possibility of a child taking an active part in the story, participating in the story, or influencing the course of events in a real way (a good example of this is the Touchoo application). I think that this could create an inner motivation among people of all ages to take a more active role in the work before them, and in a certain sense to influence reality.
In addition, digital books allow one to see the existing narrative, but also how it might be possible to change that narrative – to read in a different voice, or from the point of view of a different character, or to tell a different ending, and so on (one option that is particularly exciting to me is that, as a child, what I liked most was to imagine how the story continued, what happened after the book ended). This is, in effect, similar to the difference between a tale that is passed down orally, and which might encompass different versions or interpretations (such as “Cinderella”), and a “finalized” book (such as “Winnie the Pooh”). This greatly expands our ability to control the narrative and introduce cultural variation. It also offers many advantages for the development of critical thinking, independence, and imagination.
The digital format also allows for the creation of stories that are not linear (or not absolutely linear). This is important when we think about how far from linear our present-day world is – life today demands constant multi-tasking: in almost all areas of life, we find ourselves constantly jumping from one topic to another, and managing a number of tasks / windows / documents simultaneously. In general, the “world” has less expectation of a there being a single story line, one that starts at the beginning and finishes at the end.
Nonetheless, even with interactive media, creators need to learn to operate with a certain measure of restraint, delicacy, and style, and not totally spoil the narrative, the plot, or message.
It’s true that often, when we read a book, we want someone else to decide on the story for us – the beginning, the middle and the end. But perhaps this is where the difference between adult and children’s literature lies. As an adult, you in any case have more control over your own life – you shape it by making numerous choices over the course of the day. In many instances, a book is a kind of restful refuge at the end of the day, when you don’t really have the strength to be challenged to create surprising endings. On the other hand, for children (and certainly for preschoolers) this is almost the only place in which they can invent or create a world of their own from scratch, in the same way that children have constantly invented games and stories for themselves, well before the digital age.
At the same time, it seems to me that the most important thing is to bring some measure of proportion to the discussion. Children’s books in print will apparently remain with us for some time yet, as will books for adults, to some extent or other. This is just how things work, just as vinyl records have survived throughout the ages of the cassette tape, compact disk, mp3 and iPhone.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to develop new things, and check how children respond to or enjoy new applications. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that we have to give up on reading a child a story from a real book before they go to sleep.
And, to finish off, a real gem – “It’s a Book,” by Lane Smith, perhaps best describes the transition point that we are at today between print and digital. There’s no doubt that both of these media will need to formulate new strategies for coping, and will have to learn to live peaceably with one another.