Editor’s note: Scott Rochat is taking a week off. Please enjoy this 2015 entry from the Times-Call Archives.
I opened the covers of “The Empire Strikes Back Storybook” and blinked in amazement. It sure has been a long time. But how had I forgotten that?
I rushed upstairs to Heather, the thin bound volume in my hand.
“Listen, sweetie,” I said, half-sarcastic, half-intimidated. “Words.”
“Really?” she replied in the same tone.
I held the 35-year-old book open, mindful of the old tape on the binding. There, among the many color photographs of starships and dueling Jedi, there was column after column of gray type. No thin columns either – about 52 pages of words packed like a legion of Imperial stormtroopers, a children’s book that demanded to be read, insisted on.
My wife and I stared at it for a moment in wonder, then at each other. The same thought was in both of our minds.
They would never let this be printed today.
The book had arrived in a mum pile, the last round of release from the basement of our long-ago possessions. The fact that even my picture books were so heavy reading didn’t completely surprise me – I’ve been an avid reader since I was 2 1/2 years old, and even remember using the book in “Star Wars” shreds for acting. scenes with my action figures.
But I had forgotten what an honest book it was. As opposed to a picture book with thinly disguised captions.
I don’t want to sound jaded or old-fashioned here. But I really wonder if the same book would survive in the hands of modern editors and publishers, when “Show, don’t tell” has become a mantra. And not just in the children’s edition.
For a time, one of Heather’s most prized possessions was a 1985 issue of Cosmopolitan, just for contrast. Fewer images, long articles that may have to “jump” twice in the issue before they are finished. Compare it to a modern number with its splattered photos and large print and it’s like holding “Robinson Crusoe” next to “Go, Dog, Go!”
You could make the same comparison with newspapers, where the emphasis has long been on more photos and graphics, shorter stories. Or in half a dozen other genres and formats, especially when you add digital and online publishing to the mix. People want pictures, videos, interactive graphics, cute kittens!
Now there is some truth in that. Author Spider Robinson once noted that reading is a relative newcomer as a means of acquiring information and that it requires a lot of work compared to just…watching. And with the decline in the number of children who read for pleasure (31% of children aged 6-17, down from 37% in 2010), it might seem like we need to do everything we can to get kids back into the habit .
But I wonder.
What if the problem was not the format, but the content?
Do you remember Harry Potter? The boy wizard has led an entire generation of children (and their parents and older siblings) through seven volumes of increasingly thick adventures. It became a pride to have read each book the day it was published.
There have been other fads since, if not as intense. (What could be?) In the UK, indeed, series like “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” (yes, I’ve been there) are credited with boosting the number of children readers.
Give the children a story that seems to interest them, and they will chew the text very well. Adults too, I bet. If the topic interests you, a longer story is a blessing, not a curse.
By all means, have cool images and all the other bells and whistles. Heaven knows my storybooks had art that broke. But remember the fundamentals. When you want people to drive, you sell cars. When you want people to read, you are selling words.
Good words. And lots of them.
We can do our part, ‘sell’ for example – it’s almost proverbial that when parents read, children read too. And over time, if enough of us reward good words with good audiences, someone will see the chance to make big money.
One day, perhaps, our footprints will come.