I thought that I would share this cartoon which appeared yesterday in a local Brazilian newspaper following a verbal fracas in front of 3,500 people at the 14th Jornada Nacional de Literatura literary festival in Passo Fundo in the South of Brazil, to which I was invited. The row – and it really was quite heated – was between me (I’m in the blue jacket in the cartoon) and Alberto Manguel, a highly-respected Argentinian writer for adults (the bearded guy in the cartoon).
It took place on the last day of what is a truly remarkable literary festival for adults and children. The festival draws audiences – in a huge circus tent – of up to 5,000 people, with a range of smaller seminars and children’s events in other spaces too. The event happens every other year. It was created 30 years ago and driven forward even since by the remarkable Tania Rosing. You really don’t need to speak Portuguese to understand the energy and dynamism exhibited by her here ! Passo Fundo literacy rates are significantly higher than those elsewhere in Brazil, and that’s part of Tania Rosing’s achievement.
The argument is reported – not entirely accurately from my point of view! – here, and we’ll try to get a translation out shortly.
The topic of debate was The Contemporary Reader.
It was a demonstration of our forthcoming app, Cinderella, that enraged the Argentinian writer. As soon as I’d finished my presentation, which ended with the demonstration, Alberto Manguel seized the microphone to say he thought that he’d come to debate what was forming the contemporary reader, not what was deforming the reader. He said that the app was a terrible thing and that children exposed to apps like it were not reading and would never learn to read. I asked to reply, and was handed the microphone, but as soon as I’d said two sentences, he interrupted in English saying, “That’s nonsense!” I am afraid, blog readers, that it was here that I got cross. To have a negative view, however expressed, about apps and digital reading altogether is absolutely fine by me, even if it is based on a very, very limited understanding of technology and today’s children. But to interrupt a response to it is just not acceptable. And I told him so: I’d listened to him, so now he had to listen to me.
Of course, the crowd in the tent – a terrifying 3,500 strong, remember – just loved the whole thing, and every time either of us spoke, there were huge cheers from supporters of our point of view. My point of view was that technology supports reading and conversations about reading. Alfredo Manguel’s was that technology was an assault on literature, and, importantly, that the book was something that was above commerce and that technology somehow made it commercial.
Much of what we talked about is already controversial, as this Guardian article makes clear.
My own views on interactive reading experiences are outlined here. Children are spending more and more time in front of screens – as a look at the survey reported here would suggest and much of the Strathclyde and Stirling University research mentioned here covers. If we don’t provide compelling, exciting reading experiences on screens, then, because children are spending more and more time on screens, they will, it seems to me, simply read less. And if those of us with real expertise and understanding of children’s reading don’t create those reading experiences then others will fill that gap with either inferior reading experiences or with games with no reading component.
National Literacy Trust research between 2005 and 2009 suggests that children in the UK are reading slightly less frequently:
English children 7-11 report the frequency with which they read in 2005 and then again (second darker column) in 2009
The research also suggests that children are enjoying reading slightly less:
English children 7-11 report how much they enjoy reading in 2005 and then again (second darker column) in 2009
When they do read, much of what they read is on screen:
English children 7-11 report what they like reading in 2009. Red indicates material they are accessing on screen, blue is print: dark blue is books, and light blue is other printed material.
Our many blogs about great children’s books (most recently, our blog about books for summer), make it clear, I hope, that we value and applaud great writing for children in whatever form and want children to have access to it whether through libraries, bookshops, or supermarkets.
But the idea that technology and literature are somehow “opposites” or at least in opposition seems to me to be sloppy thinking.Technology’s just a tool and we can use it to open up conversations about reading, to facilitate access to reading, and to create new kinds of reading experiences. Packing to come for Brazil (and with the salutary memory of the number of books my family took on holiday still fresh), I just brought a paperback and my Kindle. The paperback I brought was The Observations and I tweeted about it, stimulating a Twitter exchange which involved the author, Jane Harris: technology enabled a conversation about reading, including providing me, the reader, with access to the author. Having finished the book, I decided I wanted to reread Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood… and, in a hotel room in Passo Fundo, I downloaded it in seconds: technology facilitated access to literature. And anyone doubting that an app like The Three Little Pigs is a reading experience might be convinced by this video showing a pre-schooler reading our Three Little Pigs app as a known text sent in to us by a parent.
George Dugdale, policy adviser at the National Literacy Trust, was recently quoted in the Glasgow Herald as saying,“In today’s digital age, we believe that all reading experiences must be embraced, whether children are reading text messages on their mobile phones, on-screen or a physical book. Our research has shown that children who regularly use technology, such as Facebook, actually have more positive attitudes towards reading and writing than those who don’t.”
In fact, Brazilian writer, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, who was on the Passo Fundo panel said smartphones and reading devices might, in a short time, achieve what Brazil has, over the years, failed to do: make a wide selection of reading widely available. He said that, while the government still hadn’t established enough libraries in all the decades of trying, perhaps electronic devices could be the libraries of the future.
The debate touched on another (largely artificial) polarisation too: between literacy and literature. I think that our apps are great, empowering, beautiful and carefully thought-through reading experiences – literature, if you like – but if I have to choose between literature and literacy (and, in this polarised debate in Passo Fundo, that’s exactly what I was forced to do), I choose literacy. In the end, what matters to me is less what children read, but that children read, whether it’s in print or on screen. Many children won’t grow up to read Alberto Manguel or his English-language equivalent, and that’s maybe regrettable, but not as regrettable as many children growing up unable or reluctant to read at all, given how essential literacy is to improved life chances. And you become a reader, quite simply, by practising reading.
Brazilian children reading our Cinderella app
“Jornada” means “journey”, and I’d be the first to say – in fact, I said at the end of my presentation – that we are all are just at the beginning of a journey when we are creating digital reading experiences. But we think what we are doing is worthwhile. We know, from blogs, emails and iTunes reviews, that many teachers and parents welcome the apps we’re creating, and that they are also being used by teachers and parents of children with special needs, such as children on the autistic spectrum, or find it difficult to learn to read.
But what do you think?