Last week was the most successful unsuccessful Tablet Tales program I’ve had yet. Only one family came to this pilot session at the Morgan Hill Library: a mom, a teenage girl, a 9ish year old boy and my most enthusiastic participant, a first grade girl. I had planned a family storytime, and what I did instead was sit on the floor next to my first grader and we looked at the huge books on the screen together and just read, talked and sang. We read Llama Llama. We sang and then read/sang the Itsy Bitsy Spider. We read a few Caldecotts from my recent Caldecott hunt. We guessed what the bunny would do next, we rhymed words, we made funny noises, I learned that she had lost a tooth recently, and she showed me how much she loved reading books.
Once outside the storytime room, the mother started telling me about her youngest daughter, the first grader.
“She’s not a very good reader. She doesn’t like reading. We get books but she doesn’t like to read them. What can I give her to make her read?”
The girl was standing right there, between us.
I was speechless for a moment. This mother’s assessment of her daughter, though presumably well intentioned (after all, they WERE hanging out in the library as a family, asking a librarian for help), was so destructive. I took her over to the children’s area, showed her some high-interest books, gave her some book and app lists, and told her more about what services the library offers, but I’m not sure I gave her the answer she wanted to hear. I commented on how much her daughter did, in fact, enjoy reading and singing, and she had done a very good job of reading with me, and if she liked the format of the books we read together in storytime, the library offers some similar ones through Bookflix and Tumblebooks. I described how apps and eBooks can be a wonderfully motivating format for children (I avoid using phrases like “reluctant reader”), but the whole interaction made me so sad.
I wonder about their home life. It is dangerous to make assumptions about people, but after working with people for awhile, you begin to see patterns. I strongly suspect that those children live in a media-saturated environment (ie television) and that the mother may not have known that you can sit together and sing books (digital or paper) instead of reading them (hence the teenager being surprised that a librarian might do something like that in a library program), or talk about what you see in the pictures and make up your own stories. I also wonder if the mother’s feelings about her own language and literacy skills may have been a limiting factor in the family’s reading environment.
We children’s librarians often sit in our ivory towers recommending books and only books (and paper ones at that!) and it falls on deaf ears because a lot of children now grow up bombarded with multimedia experiences, and an old-fashioned book is just not able to hold their attention in the way it “should.” That little girl was incredibly jazzed about sitting with an adult, sharing some cool books (that just happened to be digital), singing, reading and talking. I wish I’d had an iPad full of high-quality apps to give them to take home, to motivate and invigorate their family, which is probably on the less fortunate side of the digital divide. If the mother doesn’t read to her kids because she’s not very “good” at reading herself, an app or an iBook with the narration setting turned on could provide them the cuddling/bonding opportunity that they may miss out on otherwise.
That child was learning with me. We shared the experience together, and the mother did seem to pay attention as I actively involved her daughter in a joint media engagement experience. This may not look like the literacy of 10, 50 or 100 years ago, but we need as children’s librarians to work with it and make it the best it can be. In some cases we have a lot of damage to undo, and using high quality media intelligently can be a very successful tool to reach children who have already been exposed to too much of the wrong kind of media.