Get kids reading, keep them reading

July 22, 2005|by KRISTIN WILSON

With all of the entertainment choices surrounding today's kids and teenagers, picking up a plain, old book might seem rather dull.

And so, with youths spending more and more leisure time playing video games, programming iPods and perfecting their Instant Messenger lingo, book publishers have decided to make some changes in the way they do things.

Well ... at least as an attempt to get kids reading. Book publishing companies have learned a lesson from the Harry Potter phenomenon: Getting media-savvy youth to read is sometimes easier - and more profitable - with movies, video games and product tie-ins.


"I am sure that you will find everyone is following the Harry Potter lead," says Mark Bauerlein, director of the office of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts.

This year, actor Jim Carrey took Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" to the big screen, generating a buzz about the author's book series.

And Disney plans to help children discover (and adults rediscover) C.S. Lewis' classic book "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" with a movie release later this year.

"I think that's one reason why kids go to the books - they want to find out what the movie is all about," says Donna Parks, head of the children's department at Washington County Free Library.

While the multimedia brands centered around a featured book are an industry trend, there is no doubt that publishing industries do want to get more kids reading books and continue to experiment with different reading "hooks."

Parks says she has noticed publishing companies trying to push new book series with the hope of catching kids' attention. Specifically, she notices mystery and "sleuth-style" series are popular at the moment.

Dawn Barnes is one author, under publishing house Scholastic, who is getting into the book series market.

Although only the first installment of her series "The Black Belt Club" has hit bookshelves, she already is working with video game and movie developers to bring her series to multiple media channels.

Barnes says she believes the extra media outlets will generate more interest for her book among her targeted 7- to 12-year-old audience.

While multimedia book brands are helping to sell certain titles, Bauerlein says it is unclear whether a buzz around certain books equals more overall reading.

"I think that it's great that publishers are trying to use the Harry Potter phenomenon to market more books to kids," he says. "But whether publishers have found a way to bridge the Harry Potter phenomenon to regular reading habits ... We don't see that yet."

Reader, interrupted

Research suggests kids are increasingly immersed in multimedia-saturated environments when they read.

In March, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that found children between ages 8 and 18 spend 8 1/2 hours a day interacting with various media, including television, videos, music, video games, computers, movies, Internet and various print media. However, the study also found that kids are "multitasking" when they interact with media, experiencing 8 1/2 hours in about 6 1/2 hours.

Twenty-eight percent of the more than 2,000 children who participated in the study said that they use another form of media - such as listening to music or watching TV - when they read.

With 32 years of experience in the library system, Parks says it is definitely harder to get kids to sit down and read today than before.

"Their attention span is a lot shorter because they're used to constant movement. It's harder to get them to focus today," she says.

Bauerlein says the multitasking media trend spells deeper trouble for the written word since it is virtually impossible to read a book while talking on a cell phone or while text-messaging friends.

"The fact is that teen leisure life is very much oriented around these multiple activities," he says. "Kids go home ... and go online and compose their blog diary and other kids read it and write comments. That is sort of a new model of verbal activity. A lot of these habits are working against the conditions required to build reading habits."

"Book reading requires a more solitary concentration," Bauerlein adds. "If you are in a standard teenager's bedroom, there is a television, a DVD player, a computer ... in that world, you cannot read. The cell phone rings, the computer dings, the TV show beckons. To build up reading habits, kids have to build up the custom of doing something without interruption for an hour."

Hybrids to the rescue

In addition to connecting multiple media to popular book series, publishers are experimenting with book form to address the concentration issue.

Barnes' "Black Belt Club" is considered a hybrid graphic novel, the first of its kind that Scholastic has published.

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