Tablet Computers and Literacy

There are studies suggesting that reading digitally is worse for recall and comprehension than reading books – yet many of them are based on computer screens not touchscreen tablets, and involved adults who’d grown up reading books, not children who’ve been swiping on tablets since they were toddlers.

There are studies suggesting that reading digitally may, in fact, benefit certain groups of children, from boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle with print, through to children with dyslexia – but many of these are based on small sample groups, with the common conclusion being that more research is needed.

The Guardian

Mirrors and Reflections 03: Mirror Moments In Literature

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

– from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

 

When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).

In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:

We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)

On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.

 

Sarah Dessen Book Covers

 

I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.

 

CONCRETIZATION

There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.

 

EXAMPLES AND ALTERNATIVES TO MIRROR MOMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation
from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

 

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.
This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

Lois Lowry The Giver Book Cover

In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry  manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.

Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.

 

MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL

Related to the Mirror Moment is the Narcissistic Mirror Moment, in which the character gazes into a mirror but instead of having some sort of personal revelation, they have their delusions of grandeur confirmed.

Juliet Barnes from Nashville
Juliet Barnes from Nashville

The Size and Format of Picturebooks

How does the binding of a book affect reader expectations?

What about the size?

 

The actual individual appearance of of individual books is just as obvious an example of how prior expectations control our responses to stories; it influences our attitude to the stories the books contain before we even begin to read them. We expect more distinctive literature from hardcover books with textured, one-color cover and more conventionally popular material from books with luridly colored plastic coatings. we tend to thin differently about paper-covered books and ones with hard covers, and as a result we respond differently to the same story in different formats; what might seem forbidding and respectable in hardcover often seems disposable and unthreatening in soft. 

The size of a book also influences our response to it. We tend to expect rambunctious, energetic stories like the ones by Dr. Seuss from large books and more fragile, delicate stories like those by Beatrix Potter from smaller ones. In fact, larger books do allow larger effects, while smaller ones demand restraint from an illustrator, lest they appear overly fussy; but these differences are as much a matter of convention as of technical limitations. We tend to read smaller books expecting charm and delicacy — and to find it even if it is not there — and to read large books expecting energetic rambunctiousness– and to find it even if it is not there. 

– Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman

We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of binding and size. One disadvantage of book apps and ebooks is that the reader is not provided with any textural information, and the size is fixed according to the dimensions of the device.

That said, a universal book app created for iOS (for instance) may well be interpreted very differently depending on whether it is read on an iPhone, an iPad mini, an iPad, a Mac screen or projected onto a smart board.

Words Academics Are Using To Describe Book Apps

Mostly from the papers:

Engineering stories? A narratological approach to children’s book apps

Multimedia book apps in a contemporary culture: commerce and innovation, continuity and rupture

 

Apps

Short for application software: Software designed to accomplish specific user tasks (in contrast to “system software”).

eBooks

While e-books are single files that require specific software (e-reader software), apps (being software) run by themselves.

Multimodal Narrative

A digital story is defined as a ‘multimodal narrative’ text comprising  pictures, music, speech, sound and script.

Remediation

Whereas books are ‘adapted’ for screen, books are ‘remediated’ as apps.

Continue reading “Words Academics Are Using To Describe Book Apps”

Look for something that’s active, engaging, meaningful and interactive.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an author of “Einstein Never Used Flashcards,” has studied use of e-books and other electronics by parents and children and said the lesson of all the studies is that what really matters is the back-and-forth relationship.

“Look for something that’s active, engaging, meaningful and interactive,” she said. “The bad news and the good news is, you can’t outsource learning to an app, but the good news is there’s really room for us, two minutes of time, five minutes of time, look into our children’s eyes, have the conversation.”

Perri Klass

Why can’t we all just get along? Library funding cuts is why.

‘The screen is all surface’, says Eleanor Catton, an author I respect very much, both for her books and for her politics. Catton compares printed matter vs digital matter to watching TV sports vs playing sports:

[S]itting on the couch, watching a game of rugby, bears as little relation to actually playing the game as clicking through websites does to reading a book.

Why? Why is this author saying these things about digital resources, I wonder aloud, after which the NZ Book Council tweets that Catton’s quote is in response to impending funding cuts to libraries in my home country of New Zealand.

This is all so very unfortunate because:

1. There are still schools in New Zealand relying on dial-up Internet. And I can tell you for a fact that no matter where you are in NZ, Internet speed is no great shakes. A well-stocked library is still the most reliable source of information.

2. The money saved by pushing schools towards ‘curated digital resources’ is only one year’s salary for the top-earning MP, as someone pointed out.

3. Many teachers (and their students) are still most comfortable with hard materials, especially in schools where the technology is outdated.

4. It’s difficult enough to get students using printed matter when conducting their research — still a necessary skill since not everything is available online. NCEA English seems to have evolved a lot since I taught it in New Zealand — there used to be a dedicated ‘Research’ standard, in which students were required  to locate resources from a variety of different sources (as opposed to copy and pasting everything from Wikipedia, which is the pragmatic but unwise thing to do). Students still need to learn that printed non-fiction is an excellent supplement — if not an excellent primary source — in their research.

5. Eleanor Catton is right that any library funding cuts increase the disparity between the rich and poor, with the rich having more access to digital resources. (Is this, in effect, an acknowledgment that digital resources are actually useful, and not ‘all surface’ at all?)

 

Library funding cuts are also unfortunate for those of us creating digital matter.

‘A book has dimension. It is a doorway.’

Subtext reading: ‘a digital resource is lacking in dimension. It is a barrier.’

 

We see no hierarchy when it comes to digitised and printed material. One complements the other. Printed materials have their advantages, especially to the readily distracted, or to the book owner who likes to write marginalia. On the other hand, you can’t hit Ctrl+F on a printed book to find every instance of that phrase you recall. A printed book can’t keep all your highlights in one place; once you highlight a printed book that’s it. You can’t ‘unhighlight’ it. Digital matter, too, has its advantages, not least instant availability to those with the technology, and perhaps this does need to be said.

This should not be a digital versus print war. Still, these unwise funding cuts to libraries tend to set off some of our most respected voices in the world of literature. No, the screen is not ‘all surface’ — sure, you can’t turn the pages, but the metaphor isn’t sound. The analogy between TV sport and digital books is surprisingly weak given the writing ability of Eleanor Catton, a master of figurative language.

Funding cuts to school libraries are what they are: A terrible idea.

Schools everywhere should not be pushed prematurely into digital-land. Any student or teacher who wants to borrow a book from The NZ National Library should have the right to do so, and the money should be there. Likewise, schools everywhere should have access to all sorts of international digital content — via perfectly adequate screens — should they want it, and the money should be there, too. Students should be taught the different kinds of reading (skimming, scanning, synthesising — and I believe they are), and taught which type of reading is best suited for different purposes. Students should be encouraged to check a range of different resources when conducting research, whether printed on paper or kept in a digital online archive.

In Which Jerry Griswold Makes Some Great Points

Speaking of The War Between Print And Digital, which you’ll definitely have noticed if you’re in book app world, Griswold points out that the competition between the two types of media is a false dichotomy.

The book, too, is a handheld story gadget. It’s not a choice between but of.

Children’s Books In The Era Of The iPad

 

And he is right. There are many instances of ‘interactive print books’. Please, do read the entire article, if only to learn the very useful concept of ‘hypnagogic objects’.