Thursday, March 12, 2009

reading the future

Elizabeth Delumba and others are writing about the future of books and reading today here

In 2007, Simon & Schuster asked me to write about why I had begun writing, to talk about books I had read, other influences—they wanted text they could use in a trifold hand-out for teachers and librarians. After a few days of turning out drafts lauding favorite teachers and naming novels and picture books that had inspired me, I suddenly remembered the real reason. And so I wrote this…
Colorado, fourth grade, morning recess:
It was a clear-blue winter day with one of those buffeting prairie winds that flattens the wheat fields before it bashes into the Rocky Mountains. We were indoors, desks in a circle, listening to the windows rattle. Then Mrs. Fredericksen began to read a story. It was about small town kids.
Usually, I closed my eyes, but that day I watched faces. One by one my classmates looked dreamy. Then, in unison, we were irritated at a mean city kid in the story. He had just moved in, and we were all angry when he stuffed snowballs down kids’ shirts and made up insulting nicknames.
When he was invited to go sledding—and the kids he had picked on ditched him in the woods—we all smiled. He deserved it. But when they circled back to find him, they couldn’t. It was late afternoon in the story—night would bring bitter cold.
I glanced around the circle. The whole fourth grade looked worried.
In the story, the kids ran for help. The sheriff didn’t scold them. He hit the volunteer fire siren. The kids sprinted for the grange hall to lead the volunteers. Hundreds of people came, wearing parkas and snow boots. They walked through the pine trees in lines, twenty feet between the searchers, all of them calling, going slow, looking into thickets and behind boulders.
We were all leaning forward in our desks. What if the mean kid was hurt? What if they didn’t find him? But finally, in the deep dusk, the boy was found. And he was all right, just scared and cold. I sat back in my chair along with everyone else—relieved, still listening to the story as apologies were traded, and the cold, tired volunteers headed home.
I slowly came back into myself, back into the classroom. We were all still a little breathless from running for help, being scared that a prank we had laughed at was going to turn into something terrible. And we were all proud of those kids and that little town—it was so much like our own.
And it suddenly seemed like magic to me, how a story could turn plain words into feelings. Anger, worry, fear, relief—everyone in the classroom had felt all of that and more. All at once, all of us.
Then Mrs. Fredericksen told us a little about the author—and I was changed forever. I had never once wondered about the people who wrote the stories I loved. That night, listening to the wind, I lay awake thinking. People wrote books? The next day, I started writing. I have never stopped.

There were three happy years in that three-room school house. It had been built almost a hundred years before the day Mrs. Fredericksen read the story about the bully. The building had been planted, red-brick solid, on the edge of what later became a wheat field on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It was a piece of history. It still had a hitching rail. People had been fighting to close it for a decade or two before I went there, because it lacked modern teaching aids. My class was the last to use it. It is a museum now.
The book that made me want to write was a book: Paper and ink and pasteboard. Remembering Mrs. Fredericksen’s wonderful, changeful, reading voice, her insistence that I write a story a week (no one else, just me), the smell of the classroom, the Colorado snowstorms—it was astonishing how clear all the memories around that small-town story were for me.
I closed my eyes and I could see the book in Mrs. Fredericksen’s hands, the angel-wing double curve of the spine and deckled pages. And I suddenly realized I hadn’t read the story about the bully. I had absorbed it via the oldest story-delivery system of all: Voice.
I sat, staring at the text on the monitor before me, wondering if the delivery system mattered. I wrote my thoughts and kept typing, watching words pile up on a screen using technology I didn’t begin to understand.
Everything is changing. Some of my books are becoming e-books. And while most of my work is with Simon and Schuster and Penguin Group, I will soon write a story for a small company with a commercial space on itunes—where the stories will be downloaded. I work with another small company producing traditional looking baby-animal storybooks that come with a DVD of wildlife footage narrated by a child actor reading a script I have written, extending the character the child has met in the storybook . In the sleeve with the DVD is a secret pass code that opens a website with reading–readiness games based on the animal and its habitat. It’s huge fun to see kids’ reaction to the various elements of the story.
I am old enough to wish things would slow down a little—but I don’t wish that. I am excited by the possibilities and all the ways readers can get their stories. I’m on Face Book, MySpace, I keep a blog, and I am writing a twitter novel—a real story in 140 character bursts. It will take a year or more.
This year is busy. I'm chest-deep in a collaboration that includes a visual voice along with the words—not illustration, voice. My fantasy trilogy has two protagonists, the stories going back and forth every other chapter—two hundred years between the stories. It’s a complex and interesting thing and I am enjoying the reactions of readers raised with the flickering alertness of screen culture. Whoohoo! The media are mixing. Haven't the separations always seemed artificial and limiting?
I agree with others that bundling versions of the story—book, ebook, audiobook, and download and other methods yet to be discovered—is likely in the near future. The story-delivery system doesn’t seem to matter.
Stories can be serious, silly, erudite, stupid, inspiring, spooky, discomfiting, affirming, illustrated, designed, storyboarded, filmed, read on an e-reader, absorbed through earbuds, sung, recited by parrots, broadcast through a system of routers aimed at the skulls of future students who will take them in, whole, and glance at each other, ready to discuss.
Every story-delivery method will enhance something and lose something. Each story will touch some so deeply they never come all the way back, leave some cold, make some think, convince others the author is nuts, or brilliant, cruel... And ten years later, many will find they have different opinions of the same work when they re-listen, re-beam, re-absorb, re-whatever the story. Just as they do now when they reread.
This isn’t new.
Artists are just being handed new tools.
YAY! Let the fun begin.
I don’t have a Kindle. Yet.
I travel a lot and I hate lugging books. I am acclimated to reading on screens. So I am considering it. The biggest drawback will be not buying books from my local stores. And by local, I mean independent.
We need to figure that one out, and maybe the bundling of story versions will work. I hope so.
Having only McBooks’ franchises is a very bad idea. So are underfunded libraries. Narrowing choices will hurt literacy and America and the world and humanity. So as we all wallow happily in new ways to get our story on—we just need to make sure there are LOTS of stories available. Saving a little money short-term, even now, is not worth the risk of waking up to the morning the last independent bookstore closes its doors.
Paris will get too crowded if we all have to move at once.
Many more thoughts about about the future of reading will magically appear if you click here!


tinkandalissa said...

Wow! Talk about voice! Your's is amazing. I was so swept up in your storytelling! I want a Kindle so badly. If and when I ever get one, I will still buy books from my local bookstores. I LOVE books. I collect them like art for my shelves. I have no clue what the future holds, but I hope it doesnt mean an end to books that you can hold in your hands and hug to your chest when you are done and keep in neat little stacks and rows piled this way and that. That would be a tragedy.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I used to worry about books...when I looked across the room at all the 45 records piled up next to the albums, next to the tapes,and now the CD's. (No 8 track tapes, though-did anybody keep those things???)But then I realized the music, no matter HOW I hear it, is still music. So I quit worrying...the stories will keep coming, no matter HOW I see, hear, or experience them. Thanks, Kathleen, for a wonderful story (the future of storytelling is safe with you!)

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

Kathleen, thank you so much for your mesmerizing story about the power of stories. I love the way you're able to bring to life the emotional impact of stories. And, yes, you're so right that it's that emotional power that matters to us. The mediums will change in many ways and remain the same in some. But what we need to focus on (as writers, librarians and parents) is how stories help our children. thank you - your work is inspiring in so many ways.

Jon M said...

I love books but as long as someone tells children stories, we're safe I reckon.

kathleen duey said...

Tinkandalissa, you say the nicest things...and yes, do support your Indie store. I will too!! I forgot to put in the link to Indiebound, will do so now...

Cathy, *perfect* analogy. Ditto movies and paintbrushes v. digital. It's all just new media. Art stays the same--and by the same I mean it never stops changing.

Mary Ann, yes, the story content is the thing...and having a wide variety of stories for our kids, everyone's kids...

Jon M --I agree. And I love the word reckon. Are you AU, UK or US,southern???

Robyn Hood Black said...

You're an adventuresome spirit, Kathleen! Thanks for the thoughtful discussion, and especially for that piece of your own history beautifully told. (And that parrot technology aspect... could be interesting, no?)

kathleen duey said...

Parrots have potential I think.

The Author's Guild mag this month suggests that there might one day be a 'print on demand' machine in every bookstore. It would save a lot of trees, eliminate returns, warehousing, make many more books (at each location) accessible...

((Click in the title you have decided you want, based on a bookseller's great little book-talk recommendation, swipe that card, listen to whirring and gear-change hum-modulations, put on some chapstick, wonder what's for dinner and...thump. There's your book in the padded slot, still smelling of soy ink...)))