This morning I listened to an old recording of CBC radio commentary segments my mother did when I was a child. She was a trained teacher, and an avid lover of books.
As part of a piece about child literacy and the importance of reading aloud to children, she read my favourite story, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, to me on the air. As she read, my two and a half year old voice interrupted with the words I knew, and other sounds that don’t appear to have been words at all. The joy in both of our voices is palpable.
My love of children’s books hasn’t faded since then. So when I was browsing the Internet recently, I was excited to come across OneMoreStory.com. It’s a clever site that offers an impressive audio collection of lesser known children’s stories. Kids can view the original illustrations from the printed book, and follow along with the text as they hear the story spoken aloud. The site boasts that “through a simple point and click process, children . . . can have the book read to them whenever they want.”
I listened to a whimsical and funny story called “The Rattletrap Car” about a family going to the beach in a rickety car. Along the way, the car needs to be fixed with ridiculous objects like beach balls, fudge, and sailboats. The images on the screen were exact replicas of those in the print copy. The words turned red to indicate the word I was hearing, and the sounds of silence and the appearance of a green arrow signalled it was time to “turn the page.” There was even musical accompaniment.
But I was disappointed. While there was nothing wrong with the website itself, and the stories available were lovely, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it felt wrong. Something was missing.
The voice that spoke the words to me sounded like someone’s mother. She may even have been someone’s mother, but she wasn’t my mother. She wasn’t anyone I’d ever met. I sat staring at a computer screen, listening to the words, alone.
My fondest memory of my mother is sitting on her lap, reading a book. Listening to her radio segment again brought tears to my eyes. It was clear that reading stories with my mum was not only essential for fostering a love of words, imagination and story telling, but also bonding with my mother, who died eight months after it was recorded.
The publishing world has been up in arms in recent years about e-books. The release of the Amazon Kindle in Canada has increased tensions. Publishers and authors are terrified that the presence of e-books will ruin the reading experience, infringe on copyrights and bankrupt the original industry. But whether adults give up physical books in lieu of fancier, digital versions hardly seems like the biggest issue at hand. The publishing industry, in time, will adapt to the new technology. What I am really worried about is whether or not children continue to experience books in the traditional way – or at all.
I don’t doubt that this website will help children learn to read. If people want to use sites like this as a supplement to their regular reading schedule with their children, then I think that’s great. What I am not OK with is letting technology take the place of parents in an activity as crucial to young children’s development as reading.
Most of the children I know have a vast amount of computer knowledge relative to their young ages and could easily access the books on this site on their own. Since sitting at a computer is rarely a two-person activity, and getting children to simply read seems to be the main goal of most reading programs, it is easy to imagine children enjoying these online books alone. But by leaving kids to be taught by a computer instead of a parent or caregiver, they are potentially missing out on a broader experience.
To quote my mum: “at the very least, story time provides an excuse for a cozy cuddle with your kid, and it’s a great opportunity for some guaranteed fun together.”
I want my future children to grow up reading. I want them to remember not only the stories they loved, but also the experience of reading those books with someone that loved them.