Monday, 23 August 2010


There's been the drone of contstant chatter and natter in the press, on TV and radio, on readers' and writers' forums, no doubt in pubs and parlours around the world and certainly in the blogasphere of late lamenting the passing of teenage literacy and sustained reading interest.

Some links to follow, but I came across this today at a massive 50,000-member forum for ebook reading folks:

More and more young people will lose literacy as encounters with any sort of long-form text disappear in an onslaught of video and aural bombardment and interaction. Critical thinking is a skill developed through learning to take a longer view and time to consider multiple aspects. Slicing everything into bite sized pieces doesn't lay the ground work for that training.

Yesterday morning, I'd have readily agreed with that. Last night changed my mind completely.

My sixteen-year-old schoolgirl granddaughter, Robyn, is over in France with Skovia and me for a wee holiday with her mum and dad and other grandma and granddad. Uncle Alex (who some of you know from BeWrite Books) arrives tomorrow.

I reckoned Robyn was pretty much representative of her age group, judging by her fun FaceBook posts and text messages in some kind of odd teen-jargon that I can hardly understand: All phonetic spelling, obscure abbreviations, no capitals, no punctuation.

After my epiphany, I certainly hope she is representative.

Last night, she suddenly became still and hushed on a lounger on the terrace. She was reading a YA paperback. After two or three hours, she toddled off to bed and I took a look at the book. It runs to around 400 pages, is intelligently written ... and a bookmark showed she was well into it.

She'd been utterly absorbed in her novel and its world, while three handy computers lay idle.

Maybe I misunderstood all along and was too qiuck to judge.

Here, on the other hand, is what some prophets of doom have been saying over the weekend:

The popular An American Editor blog

There's no shortage of gloomy articles on the net forecasting the death of teenage reading. None impress me as much as wee Robyn's simple and quiet evidence to the contrary.

Happy reading and writing, people. Thanks for your company. Neil


  1. There is competition out there, but a good book can still attract and capture a young reader's attention. I don't see that ending in the future. Possibly the way to market to the YA market may have to change...

  2. Certainly, Terry. Do you also feel there may be a change in presentation, style and content of YA material (over and above updating topical relevance of contemporary work)? Best wishes. Neil

  3. As with any rule, Neil, there are exceptions. For some teenagers, comic books are the path to learning to love to read. This was the the path I understand, for example, Mike Cane took. I, in contrast, rarely read a comic book in my youth; I didn’t find them interesting. I much preferred the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books.

    But an exception such as Robyn doesn’t prove the broader statement is incorrect; it simply proves that there is hope for some and that Robyn is the exception. Just as you can cite Robyn, I can point to a half dozen of the children living on my block who will be lucky to graduate high school because they cannot understand/comprehend the mandatory texts or are so disinclined to read them that they simply ignore them. Does my 6 prove or does your 1 disprove? Actually neither proves nor disproves.

    The issue with literacy is not whether people read; the issue is level of comprehension. Comic books and graphic novels are written at a lower comprehension level than a standard history or science textbook. That one voraciously reads comic books and understands (comprehends) every Pow! and Bam! does not mean that one will comprehend the causes of the American Revolutionary War or the function of the aorta.

    There is nothing wrong with reading graphic novels and comic books; there is something wrong if they define the extent of the reader’s literacy.

  4. Your good point is well taken, AE.

    My own point in my casual wee post here, though, wasn't that Robyn is representative of all kids on the block so much as that I had earlier thought that the ALL kids on the block were equally semi-literate.

    My mistake was compounded by blindly accepting similar views expressed by adults both informally over a beer or dinner table and in the media.

    The widely held belief that the strange language our youngsters use in their casual texts and network posts reflected the overall reading and writing skills of an entire generation, that it was the only form of written language that ANY could or would understand, was my leap to midjudgement.

    I am not so much of a cockeyed optimist to dream that all Robyn's pals are bookworms (though I've since learned that several in her circle are) -- can only go so far as to hope that many more are, and that their very real desire to read and their understanding of what they read could so easily go unnoticed by those who don't realise that text-language is largely a joke language ... a disguise rather than a revelation.

    Its use grew around a desire to exclude adults from the secret-loving teen scene. It can accurately be compared to the Liverpool back-chat so widely used by schoolchildren when I was a kid; and something a little like Cockney rhyming slang, which also developed as a means of speaking in code to baffle outsiders in general and schoolmasters and police in particular.

    On your other point about comics, AE, I agree entirely.

    A good reader of books will create visuals in his mind. Graphics (like movies to an extent) simplify the process for a broad-target readership so that understanding clearly isn't a matter of the reader requiring the patience and imagination to paint vivid scenes and characters himself with words on a page as his inspiration and guide.

    Whether comics encourage or discourage more profound text-only reading I cannot say. They're used in vastly different ways for vastly different reasons.

    My favourite as a youngster was a UK publication called 'The Hotspur'. This was very light on illustration and each issue was a collection of short stories (maybe 1.5-2K words)that certainly prepared me for longer and more in-depth works.

    But I do know many fine writers whose love of literature grew from the wonder inspired by sci fi strips and even cartoon bears and mighty mice. They remember that early experience fondly, often with pride. I loved these fun productions, too, even though I was a Hotspur boy.

    I guess if an adult in the fifties saw a bunch of us kids squatting in a schoolyard huddle in our early teens, all enthusiastically swapping pages of Dan Dare and Donald Duck strip cartoons, s/he might have felt -- as I confess I did for far too long -- that this was as far as an entire generation would ever ascend the literary ladder.

    And, of course, AE, that would have been a correct assumption as far as most of the young comic-readers were concerned. But overlooking those to whom the comics were merely a lark to be easily shared with others in their age group would have been as unwise as I had been when I became that adult and followed my grandchildren and their friends on Facebook.

    Not taking into account the possibility that some of those comic-skimmers -- in their hours of bedtime solitude -- might be devouring Treasure Island was exactly my sin.

    Robyn taught her grandad (who's not had enough contact with children for thirty years) that you can't judge a kid by his cover.

    Cheers. Neil

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  6. Gosh yes, I remember the Hotspur. It was also a great disappointment when the Lion and Tiger annuals stopped including text stories. On the other hand I used to love the artistic skill shown in some US comics.
    I taught in three different schools from 1972, and reduced reading skill is a concern. Since 1981 I was at an independent school, so the samples I encountered were not representative. Some read books. But there was an increasing tendency to look for information on the net rather than browsing our extremely well-stocked library.
    I also remember one sixth-form student telling me "Reading makes my brain hurt!".
    On the other hand when I gave out copies of the first 100,000 words of a draft novel to selected students who knew me, they read it. They commented on it. A girl friend found me and said she'd enjoyed reading it too. Some of them can and do read. Some don't. Actually that's always been true, though I think the percentages are shifting.
    Of related concern is the way GCSE exams pander to this rather than encouraging higher standards. Okay so I'm a grumpy old man lol, but when I did O-level Maths the entire exam was on two sides of foolscap, folded. Diagrams were rare, we were expected to follow written instructions in sketching our own. Ornamental pictures there were none.
    Nowadays (yes, I taught Maths as well as kids) the GCSE exams can be 16 A4 pages. They always include full diagrams. Instead of a single paragraph of several sentences telling you what to do, each question is broken down into sections. Typically the first part is really to show weaker candidates how to start, and offer some easy marks. There is a new paragraph, rarely over two lines, for each little bit. Okay, so this minimises the impact of poor reading and comprehension skills on Maths exam performance, and I guess that’s a good thing, but it also lowers the bar on what many kids feel is worth mastering.
    I was drawn into reading primarily by Enid Blyton, subsequently banned by some librarians and teachers. Later came Arthur Ransome and Leslie Charteris. Gradually the quality picked up from there, but it was effective to start simple.
    By the way, Maryanne Wolf has written an interesting book 'Proust and the Squid'. Although it applies neuroscience to the mechanics of reading it is suitable for the educated general reader. Part of her message is that what and how we read affects how we think, and that modern life is therefore modifying how people think, in significant ways.
    Hmm. Must write future comments in a proper text editor. Seeing such a small extract crammed into a tiny window is affecting how I write.

  7. Yup, there are limits in the comments section, Nigel. You can usually get around it (as above)by breaking text into paragraphs separated by a line break. Interesting stuff, though, Nigel. Thanks. Neil

  8. YA literature is not for those learning to read, however.
    And I think we run the risk of treating as semi-literacy a new kind of literacy that is the domain of a very clever generation that started out by cutting corners, and has now mastered its domain with incredible content.
    True, it does not comply with the way of thinking of our generation, to whom correctness and conforming to rules was vital (and even necessary).
    With two teenagers of my own, I have come to see that their whole way of thinking and being and doing is different. Not necessarily inferior, though. Their brains are physically different, they think differently, their thinking patterns come from very different training from ours. Some of the stuff is brilliant, and some... I wish I could understand!
    When this whole raft of baby boomers has passed, and the next generation of different thinkers achieve their spending peak, we shall see literacy, writing, books, communication and everything digital take on a totally baffling and amazing form. We might not like it, and will have trouble understanding it, but we will not be able to deny its efficacy, ease of exchange, and speed of proliferation.
    We might be baffled: just like Aeschylus, Socrates and even Francis Bacon would be baffled by what I do.

  9. Right you are, Rosanne.

    Every generation seems to take the art in a new direction; sometimes with a step, often with a leap. It remains literature. And good literature -- no matter when it was penned -- seems ageless and speaks to all eras.

    I have high hopes for the young writers of the first half of our current century. As you so rightly say, there is so much mighty new inspiration at their beck and call. N