Why Most Popular Children’s Book Characters Don’t Own Smartphones

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My kids are having a great summer. They bounce from Y camp, to farm camp, to sail camp, to sleep-away camp. In between, there are trips to the beach or skate park or library. They spend their days outside, come home exhausted, ransack Yaya’s refrigerator and then go back out for ice cream or Back Door Donuts. Then they’re off again on their bikes, down the safe bike paths and ancient ways* of the Vineyard, coming home only when it’s dark.

Basically, when they’re on Martha’s Vineyard, they live a 1970’s style, pre-smartphone, independent childhood.

Now, honestly, given a choice between electronic entertainment and just about anything else, my kids, like most kids of their generation, would choose the screens. Luckily, their summer makes choices for them. (Yaya’s Internet connection is spotty at best, and their camps don’t allow handheld devices.) So they develop new skills and take pride in doing something other than making small movements with their thumbs.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the “is technology ruining childhood/society/our brains/the ability to enjoy anything else” debate. There are plenty of people who have written on this. There have been many scientific studies. And there are more than enough arguments on both sides. So go ahead and read other blogs or articles if you want that back and forth—I won’t even bother to provide links, there are so many.

But I have been thinking about what this has to do with children’s literature, and what this means for me as a writer.

I recently emailed another writer-friend that so many books were about a post-apocalyptic future because adventures couldn’t happen if all the characters were sitting on their butts with smartphones and gaming devices in their hands. So the authors blew up that world, in order to move their characters into the great outdoors.

I was kidding, kind of.

But I have noticed that most books for children don’t include smartphones. With a few notable exceptions, children’s books eliminate handheld devices altogether by either being historical, magical, or set in some future time when civilization is so altered that phones become a non-issue. Even ones that happen in the present or near present largely avoid mention or use of smartphones.

This isn’t surprising. Because really, as a writer, you need your character to DO THINGS. And tapping on a tiny screen isn’t really doing anything at all. Maybe the texts a character sends and receives could be interesting in a “let’s replace dialogue” sort of way—but I don’t see a lot of authors choosing this—especially not in the books my kids and I read.

Try this: imagine a book you loved as a child, or a children’s book you currently love, and put cellphones in the characters’ hands. Does the plot still function? Are the characters the same? How about the action scenes? Would texting alter these in some way you wouldn’t like? Could the kids in that book have the same adventures if some adult could reach them, or rescue them, or find them by phone?

I think about Lynn Jonell’s Emmy and Ratty series (If you haven’t read them, and you know a girl between the age of 8 and 12, you should). So much action would have been lost with cellphones—all the secrets, misunderstandings, hiding, sneaking around, getting lost, captured —none of that would have occurred if any of the characters could have simply called each other. And Ratty’s charm would have been lost if he was sending out texts instead of speaking (squeaking) his sarcastic witticisms.

In The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, I got rid of the cell phone issue by placing my characters in a part of the Vineyard where reception is poor—and that’s a lot of the island. There’s no way Maria would have searched for pirate treasure on a stolen boat if her mom had been able to call and check on her. And I am so tired of characters having to become orphans to have adventures.

All characters need freedom. And cellphones are the antithesis of freedom.

My kids love their tech-free summer. Yes, if you asked them, they would complain that they miss the PlayStation, the IPhone, and the computer. But in reality, my daughter loves all the attention her brother now pays her. And he seems to enjoy their time together, too. Instead of bickering over computer time, they tear off down Yaya’s ancient way for the hidden terrain park in the forest behind the golf course. And though they may not admit it, they both enjoy the freedom, independence, and anonymity of their phone-less existence.

 

*(“Ancient ways” are dirt footpaths originated by the Wampanoag, still in use all over the island; see www.samlow.com/vineyard/ancientways.htm).