What is wrong with us?
We take PE away from kids in the schools because they aren’t part of the “basics” of education. Then we either over-program their lives outside of school so they don’t have time to expand and explore the world on their own, or we leave them in the loving care of the television and video games. We allow kids to spend, on average, more hours “socializing” on the computer than in the classroom every day. And then we’re surprised that they are physically uncoordinated and don’t know how to interact socially during recess, so we have to hire “playground coaches” that turn recess into a regimented practice of all the things kids used to do on their own?
From the perspective of writing children’s literature I am always mindful of the fact that a story has to move. Doing this means keeping characters in motion, which in turn prohibits me from writing scenes where kids are sitting around communicating through the internet or talking on cell phones. But does this mean that I am writing unrealistically for the audience? If so many kids would rather spend a good portion of their day doing something other than read a book, when they did read a book would they want to read about the alien experience of a bunch of kids who are actively exploring their worlds?
In a word, yes. My feeling is that kids crave action and activity, but that we (that is to say the adult world) have been so quick to adopt technology into our consumerist lives that kids today aren’t so much lost as they are adrift. And worse: we don’t give them any inspiration to do anything beyond sitting around and staring at a computer screen.
We can look at the recent spate of books extolling the virtues of old-fashioned activities like The Dangerous Book For Boys and their ilk as part nostalgia and part course-correction. While I have my doubts as to how many of these old activities will actually appeal to modern readers, I do think there is a need to suggest that there is a world beyond the monitor screen.
Which is not to suggest that it’s either/or when it comes to technology and activities. MAKE magazine, a Popular Mechanics of our day, is full of projects (known as hacks) that incorporate such old school shop skills such as soldering, drilling, and machining but often for projects that are meant to be used outdoors — the building of rockets, or long-pole camera tripod extensions, or even an electric motorbike powered by a cordless drill. These are definitely more complicated than anything I ever attempted as a kid, but not for lack of trying. Older guys taught us young twerps how to make mini rockets out of matches, foil and a paperclip. In junior high we used to try and sit on each other’s shoulders to get candid yearbook shots from unusual perspectives. And once there was this kid who had me convinced that as soon as we figured out how to connect to motor to the wheels, our lawn mower-powered shopping cart go-cart was going to be rad.
But here’s the thing. When I read kids books today, I don’t see either of these kids. I don’t see the hackers who are looking to bend the rules and make the world their own. Unless it’s played for a laugh, I don’t see younger characters trying to invent some new gadget and learning from those failures. I don’t see a lot of creative thinking, and I think there is a direct correlation between kids not having the time or space to explore and this inability to know what to do with themselves out in the world socially.
I think writers of books for children should look at the stories they want to tell, step back, and ask themselves: outside of the story, what are readers going to be able to take away from this? Will they see that it’s okay to be a free-thinking individual, or will they get told once again how to be a polite member of society? Will they be taught that to be an individual is a lonely, invisible, outsider-ish thing to be, with all the moralizing lessons that come with that story, or will they see that the unique path is the one with more options in the future?
Will they be inspired to finish the book and then go out into the world and want to do something? From what I can tell, it’s a far harder thing to inspire young minds than it is to write or tell a good story.