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).

 

White Mom, Brown Kids

White Mom, Brown Kids

The other day I was at our local library with my daughter. While checking out our books, I got into a conversation with the librarian: How old is your daughter, what does she like to read, etc.?

The woman in line behind me couldn’t help but overhear. She asked where my daughter went to school. When I named our local school for the 3rd-5th grade, she looked pained. Turns out, her son attends the local K-2nd grade school. The mother explained they were thinking of moving because, “No one looks like my blonde hair, blue-eyed son.”

Yes, she really said that. Because when she looked at me, she saw a white lady. (In my previous blog I explained how I frequently “pass”, because most people can’t see the Lebanese part of me.)

But did she really not see my brown-skinned, black-haired daughter?

I found myself embroiled in a conversation about the minutiae of recent Board of Education decisions. I explained just how good our schools were, while she complained that they couldn’t possibly be good because of this, that, and the other typical “white flight” argument. I countered with my kids’ stellar scores on state exams, the level of work I saw them doing, the quality of the teachers and administration, and the fact that my son had just made Junior National Honor Society.

She summed up her arguments with the classic, “But our property values are going to drop. I mean, who would want to move here?”

I have no idea what I said to that, because at that moment I noticed my beautiful, brown-skinned, black-haired daughter had wandered far away from her embarrassing mother who argues with strangers about sensitive racial issues in public places. Some how I ended the debate and got us out of there.

But all the way home I fumed. Who would want to move here? I would want to move here! I moved us here on purpose! When I heard work was taking us to the New York area, I saw it as an opportunity to find a town and school district that matched our diverse family. I did my research and found a place with a true racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic mix.

And I mean a real mix. In our little city, people don’t just move into the neighborhood that looks like them. People meet each other and marry each other. Our white-Arab-Latino family doesn’t look strange when we show up at school functions. My kids have plenty of friends who also don’t “match” their parents. Chinese/white, black/white, black/Latino, Latino/Arab: these are just some of the combos in my children’s social set.

So there, racist white-flight mommy! That’s what I so judgmentally and self-righteously thought. Until I realized that I was not so different. She wanted to move to a place that reflected her family because she believed it would make her son more comfortable. I had moved us to a little city that reflected our family for that same reason. Just because my family is mixed and I moved us to a mixed place, am I any less racist?

Not that I’m going to deny white privilege and the whole history of our nation. But I have to admit you’re kind of judged if you do, judged if you don’t when you’re white. Move into a racially or ethnically different area, you’re guilty of gentrification. Move to an all-white area, you’re guilty of “white flight”.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we all walk around with these big racial/ethnic/religious/socio-economic chips on our shoulders unless we actively work to remove them. And it’s not just white people who need to do this work.

I was at a school function where our wonderfully educated kids were presenting research projects on deep, difficult topics. A mom I know asked me, “What did your son do?”

“Rural Guatemalan Poverty,” I proudly answered.

“Rural Watermelon Poverty?” The mom had misheard. She’s also black, and she believed I had allowed my son to use a Southern black stereotype to discuss rural poverty. *

“No! Guatemalan Poverty,” I explained. She was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, we both laughed, and then we were okay with each other. But there it is: a highly educated, racially and socially aware mom who knows me and my politics well can suddenly think a very strange thing about me or my son based on a misunderstood word.

So how many times do I misunderstand what someone is saying to me? Maybe I hear the words, but I bring a whole lot of my history into the mix, and I miss their history as a result. I don’t hear their context, or I misread their emotions. I don’t know why they think the way they do, and before I give them a real chance to explain, and before they give me a chance, we’re squaring off in our typical, polarized corners. To mangle Mathew 7:3, maybe I need to remove the log from my own shoulder, before I point out the chip on my neighbor’s.

 

 

*If this confuses you, please see “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope” at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/