Monday, December 21, 2009

Mother Goose 2K9

I was seven when I published my first book.

My dad set me up on Storybook Weaver at his giant gray-yellow block of a Macintosh. I sat on the cushy chair, feet dangling, typing into the text box and assembling clip-art illustrations. I don't remember what the story was about. But I do remember waiting, itching, by the printer as it spooled out my work. There was even a cover page. My dad helped me staple the sheaf together. "By Allison Stadd", it read.

Even at that time, the dissonance between traditional and high-tech publishing was ostensible. I reiterate the assertion that my age bracket is situated in the problem's perfect storm: we grew up with Shel Silverstein hardcovers, AOL usernames, Highlights magazines, Oregon Trail computer games, Peanuts comics, and, all in equal measure. Too young to remember a time before e-mail existed, but not young enough to forget when "buy stamps" was a weekly entry on Mom's fridge-magneted to-do list.

The Internet's cannibalization of print publishing has been remarkable (Canadian web marketing agency Dialect moved from documenting traditional publishing's decline to officially declaring it dead with a formal elegy). To the extent that the collision between old and new affects both my personal and work life, to keep afloat I take a unicycle position: pedal forward, pedal back, swivel this way or that, arms out for balance, senses always attuned, can't stop-content- or you'll fall.

So it isn't simple. Every pressure point between traditional and 21st century media has infinite facets to consider both in developing an opinion on each matter (say, you can boycott the idea of citizen journalism, but also subscribe to ten average Joes' RSS feeds) and in negotiating the effect on cultural consumption (Do I buy a Kindle? Do I cancel my Time subscription? In my case, the first answer is "not yet", the second is "just did"). But the conflict's complexity doesn't mean that every new publishing development is equally tangly.

What about something as crisp-autumn-day clear as giving kids the opportunity to create their own books? Storybook Weaver planted a seed for me. Today the software has a newfangled cousin in the form of, for one example, A fresh-faced approach to children's publishing, Tikatok markets itself as a “free creative community” for children 13 and under to become published authors. Two mothers developed the idea in 2007. Tikatok kids write and illustrate their story ideas, then can order the finished products in paperback, hardback or eBook form. Joining the site is free, and the editing software is available right from the site. The kernel of the idea is that Tikatok is more than a crafting venue for budding Hemingways; the site includes features for collaboration made capable by the Internet. It's a refurbishment of the Storybook Weavers of my own youth. Tikatok cultivates the notion that the act of writing centers on more than the physical application of utensil to paper. Writing should be a social outlet, thriving from the cross-pollination offered by a community. Tikatok features book clubs, discussion threads and other opportunities for social networking.

It's hard to imagine people taking issue with the facilitation of constructive dialogue among children who want to write, or with the opportunity for these children to self-publish. But critics may claim that the ease of the process deemphasizes the idea of writing as a honed art. Or that it doesn't hold kids accountable for the building-block-instruction necessary for coherent, cogent writing. Or that their time would be better spent on math homework, or learning vocabulary lists, or getting mulch in their shoes from running around the playground with their friends- in person.

I'm not a parent, or a teacher, so I can't weigh in on how I think my kids' or students' time would best be allocated. But I do know that a tool like Storybook Weaver, forebear of Tikatok, enshrines the practice of story-telling so endangered in our Internet-driven society.

Ben Macintyre of The Times in London writes in "The Internet is killing story-telling",
"Storytelling is the bedrock of civilisation. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else... [But] the internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture."

In his elegant blog "Anecdotal Evidence," Patrick Kurp writes, similarly,
"[St]ories, telling them and listening to them, are primal human acts. They entertain us and help make sense of the world, and most everyone outside of the nation's English departments enjoys them."

Sometimes, too, storytelling is a way to preserve, like pressing flower petals flat. In "Spin" from They Things They Carried, soldier-cum-author Tim O'Brien writes,
"[S]ometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
It's also a release. O'Brien writes later,
"Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exatly what had happened to me."
Storytelling can be an unbottling that quenches both server and drinker.

The Tikatok homepage nudges kids to "Imagine a Story. Create a Book." Equal emphasis on each step. A lifeline, then, for the ritual of narration; a story circle for the modern age.

When I was twelve and thirteen, I published two stories in “Stone Soup” magazine (my first official paychecks!). Later they were posted on the publication's website, with a soundclip of my narration. Learning, through a computer game and a website, that publishing my own writing was possible was a beacon for me. I would have drooled over the chance to talk about writing and publishing and stories and character traits and plots with other kids. What better use of the imagination and energy of the Internet than to channel the imagination and energy of children?

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