Recently, a study suggested that enhanced ebooks, which allow kids to interact with stories by swiping or tapping text, may be detrimental to developing literacy and memory. The children in the study sample apparently found it harder to recall plot details from enhanced ebooks, focusing more on the demands of the device they were using than the story they read. Drawing an ancient, creaky, anecdotal parallel with my own experience, this makes some sense to me. I recall almost no plot detail from the Famous Five game books I once played, only the physical sensations of handling dice, compass-wheels, picnic boxes, maps. What they developed was muscle memory, rather than mental.
The game books were still absorbing (until you lost the Torch card), and the study doesn't suggest banning enhanced ebooks as pernicious barriers to learning. As its authors point out, they're good at engaging physically-focused youngsters intimidated or alienated by traditional print. But, as with most technological leaps, we now need to strike a balance between the tried and tested and the sparkly new.
Attending the Literary Consultancy's annual conference, "Writing in a digital age", at the Free Word Centre last weekend, I wondered how young adult and children's writers, in particular, tread the fine line between providing so much enhancement that their stories are swamped, and so little that a tech-native, expectant readership passes them by. When does a book stop being a book, and turn into an online adventure game?
According to author Nicola Morgan, this might be an unnecessarily anxious approach. The children and teenagers she encounters on school visits still mostly read paper books, or ebooks on a smartphone; unwilling to carry along a separate ereader, they like being able to bring up books on the gadget they use to text or play music. (Like a hi-tech Swiss Army knife, but without the saw and toothpick.)
I came away with the idea that text, and young readers' relationships with it, hasn't changed as much as the idea of enhanced ebooks suggests. We might be able to highlight, look up, annotate and bookmark with the swipe of a finger, but we already did all that with paper books, ballpoint pens and forest-felling, brick-thick dictionaries. Opportunities (or obligations) to provide enhanced content – especially for older children – seem to be on writers' websites rather than on the pages of their novels, creating games or content that complement rather than compete.
Having a website, as a young adult writer, is pretty much a sine qua non. Contemporary young readers expect some degree of online contact with the writer, or at least with a constructed public self. (I'm particularly drawn to Robert Muchamore's noticeboard on the Cherub website – apparently he planned to superglue the Queen to a porcelain throne, but fortunately must have been foiled in time to save the jubilee.) It's particularly exciting for younger readers to feel like members of a society – you can text to join the Cherub campus, just as you used to send off your SAE and postal order to join the Puffin club. But, while the additional web content varies widely from writer to writer, according to wealth, genre and reach, the message invariably seems to be that whatever digital desserts or amuse-bouches are on offer, the books themselves are still the main course.
Even Pottermore, a bit of a special case, is resolutely focused on the Harry Potter books. My brief flirtation with the site left me feeling slightly harassed, smacking repeatedly at unresponsive arrows and feathers, but the bits of text I did manage to unlock showed me how addictive it must be for readers mourning the golden years of successive Potter hardbacks. JK Rowling's thoughts about privet, for instance, or the connotations of "whinging" and why she used it in the Dursleys' address, are insights that might start accustoming kids to the challenging processes of critical textual analysis – and, crucially, provide secrets, shared only by the millions of other Pottermore users, about the captivating wizarding world.
Digi-phobic parents fearing that their swiping, oblivious kids will wind up in the late, great Ray Bradbury's lion-infested nursery, steering dangerous beasts through a landscape unnavigable by – and implacably hostile to – anyone over 18, should be placated. As the study's authors conclude, sensitivity and common sense are essential in adding "extras" to a book. But stories – as was concluded at the conference – remain paramount, even in contexts that blur the boundaries between book and game. Gorgeous story-telling apps like Khoya, for example, encourage immersive participation but remain resolutely focused on the responsive reading of narrative. Our future reading, whether we turn or swipe the page, remains a long way from that inimical, illiterate Veldt.
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