Reading May Be Rotting Our Kids' Brains

children's book trends

I’ve been reading The Incredible Journey to my 9-year-old at night (now that he's enjoying books more), and I was telling my sister-in-law my method for doing so: since the book uses such rich, detailed language, I occasionally scan ahead and break down particularly challenging words into terms he’s more familiar with. I do this because I loved the book so much when I was a kid, and I love the experience of sharing it with my own child now -- I don’t want him to give up on it and ask for something different because he’s frustrated by having to continually ask for the definition of a word. “Is it written for his reading level?” she asked me, and I tipped my head and thought about that question. On Amazon the age range says 12 and up, but I remember reading it when I was in grade school. So maybe yes, maybe no. But overall, is it the sort of book that would get published today and become a bestselling children’s classic? I really, really doubt it.

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The Incredible Journey is a novel about a young Labrador Retriever, an elderly Bull Terrier, and a Siamese cat who trek many miles through the Canadian wilderness in order to reunite with their owners. There’s a movie version but it’s pretty terrible, I think they gave the animals talking voices and made the whole thing as cheery and stupid as possible. The book is much more mature and downright frightening in parts as the animals face starvation, exposure, and wild forest animals. It was published in 1961 and is one of the best children’s stories that’s ever been written, if you ask me.

My son enjoys our nightly reading sessions (perhaps in no small part because I really put my all into reading it with emotion and gusto, in my attempts to encourage him to imagine the various scenarios unfolding on each page), but he’d likely tell you that he’s far more interested in his Humphrey the Classroom Hamster series, or Captain Underpants, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I can’t fault him for his preferences. Here’s an excerpt from The Incredible Journey:

The leaves were losing their color rapidly, and many of the trees were nearly bare, but the dogwood and pigeon-berry by the sides of the trail still blazed with color, and the Michaelmas daisies and fireweed flourished. Many of the birds of the forest had already migrated; those that were left gathered into great flocks, filling the air with their restless chatter as they milled around, the long drawn-out streamers suddenly wheeling to form a clamorous cloud, lifting and falling in indecision. They saw few other animals: the noisy progress of the dogs warned the shy natural inhabitants long before their approach; and those that they did meet were too busy and concerned with their winter preparations to show much curiosity.

An adult might read this and know that those evocative sentences are meant to foreshadow bone-chilling peril for the traveling animals, but my son may well have drifted away, lost in the pew-pew-pew battle of Lego creations in his head. Which is fine, I don’t expect him to be reading above his level, nor do I demand that he love the same things I love to read.

But take a look at these excerpts from another best-selling children’s series that’s geared for his general age:

[giant cartoon]

Tuesday: When I got to school today, everybody was acting all strange around me, and at first I didn't know WHAT was up.

[another giant cartoon]

When I got out of the van, I called Roderick a big jerk.

[yet another cartoon, because words are hard]

Is it any wonder my kid isn't likely to have the patience to sit through long, adjective-filled sentences in order to embark on a long mental expedition when so many popular kids’ books have been watered down to the shortest, punchiest content possible?

I’m more guilty of contributing to this trend than most people I know, actually, because of what I do for a living. Adults are skewing toward shorter, grabbier headlines, and that’s why I don’t title articles like this “A Long Thoughtful Essay on Whether or Not Our Dwindling Attention Spans Will Have Profoundly Negative Results as Time Inexorably Marches On.” There’s a reason most of the content you read on the Internet has been condensed to a few bolded, deliberately provocative, media-rich topics: content providers are competing for eyeballs, and our eyeballs are increasingly unable to stay fixed in one location for more than a minute or two.

This of course leads to polarized “discussions” that aren’t even what you’d call conversations. After all, if you can’t get your point across in an easily sharable 140 character sound bite, what’s the use? No one’s going to pay attention.

It’s a disturbing trend, one that seems doomed to lead us more and more toward drifting apart as a society. As parents, we do all we can to help our children develop nuanced thinking skills and the patience to truly delve into any given subject — but jeez, we’re busy, right? We’ve got our own frantic schedules and flickering screens demanding our attention.

In the end, all I can hope for is that there’s room for everything. Maybe The Incredible Journey gets read on a tablet alongside a host of beeping games and apps, but it still exists for those who want it — and for the times when we need to skim along the surface because life is a little too overwhelming, we’ve got wimpy kids and underpants superheroes to help us out.

Do you think the tone, content, and pacing of children’s books have changed since we were young?


Image © iStock.com/Zurijeta, DiaryofaWimpyKid/Instagram

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