Moderator Ben Schrank. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan.

Whether picture books are “exempt” from the digital questions facing the publishing industry, and the perennial issue of how best to engage kids in reading, were just a few of the topics discussed during “The Voyage of the Reader: Using Children’s Books to Create a Love of Reading,” one of several children’s book-centric panels during the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival, held last week in New York City. The panel took place at a nearly full auditorium at the Institute Cervantes.

The panel consisted of four children’s book authors—Mary Ann Hoberman, Francine Prose, Meir Shalev and Vera B. Williams—and was moderated by Ben Schrank, president and publisher of Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. Early on, the conversation turned to how children’s books (and children themselves) might adapt to digital reading devices like the Kindle, before it moved on to discussions about how to develop reading habits in children and the role reading played in the panelists’ lives in their youth.

First, panelists discussed the question of reading children’s books on e-readers. “I’m very thankful I do picture books,” said Hoberman, who is currently serving a two-year term as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate. “I can’t imagine curling up with a good Kindle with a child. Are we exempt?” Williams took the view that “we are not exempt from history,” noting that “if you had asked in Gutenberg’s day what would happen to the hand-painted book, no one would know.”

L. to r.: moderator Ben Schrank with panelists Meir Shalev, Vera B. Williams, Francine Prose and Mary Ann Hoberman. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan.

Israeli author Shalev felt that the “e” question generally comes down to issues of “copyright, access to books [and] how will the author get royalties?” while Prose said that although she sees reading a “sensual act—holding the book, turning the pages,” she acknowledged that she had herself become a Kindle fan, particularly for air travel. Earlier, Schrank had held up a photograph showing two seated women—one with a tall stack of books in front of her, the other with a compact digital reader. Prose said she liked to think that the woman with the reader had previously been the one with the pile of books, and that the “love of reading comes from actual books and can be transferred.”

Sticking with the digital theme, Schrank told an anecdote about negotiating various rights with an agent who had told him “if the words got up and danced” they didn’t belong to the publishing house. “But the words do get up and dance,” interjected Williams. Ultimately, the authors generally concurred that they weren’t terribly concerned about the digital future. “I work in the oldest language written today, Hebrew,” said Shalev. “The same texts that were written 3,000 years ago are still understood by three-year-old kids. The Hebrew language survived all kinds of technological media, from stone, clay, leather, paper and computers—nothing has changed in the words themselves.”

On the question of how best to engage kids as readers, Hoberman said that sometimes when stories or poems are published in compilations for use in schools, the context and questions accompanying a poem can “mak[e] reading and what should be joyful and fun into a chore. I think there’s a great problem there.” Williams spoke of trying, as an author, to avoid a “pedagogical bent” when writing for children and emphasized the importance of repeatedly reading to children, starting when they’re babies. “Over years of this, the rhythm and nursery rhymes get into the fiber of a person,” she said. Later, during the Q&A period, Prose suggested “giv[ing] teachers more control over reading lists in their classroom,” as a way to encourage reading. “So often they are forced to teach books they don’t even like,” she said.

Prose also recounted a story of speaking before a group of New York University students who questioned the need for reading when there are so many good interactive video games that let you “become the character.” In response, Prose said she told them, “The whole point of literature is reading about people who are not you, to get into someone else’s head.”

An attendee asked whether in 10 years children “will be able to focus and read books like Harry Potter,” to which Shalev, noting that Harry Potter is “a very modern phenomenon,” said the real question is “whether there will be writers who write books that children want to read.” Asked about the viability of CGI and digital animation in future picture books, Williams said, “It will all be viable. The chief thing is that it should not be cute, sloppy, or cliché. If it’s from somebody’s heart and if it has quality truth, imagination—sure.”

Since the authors agreed, as might be expected, about the importance of reading to children, the evening concluded as the panelists reminisced about the books they had been read to or given to read as children—the answers ranged from The Bridge of Sighs for Williams, to Dickens for Prose, to Lolita for Shalev, who said his father had given it to him when he was 14. Vaguely aware that the book was controversial, he recalls asking his father if he was sure. “It’s about a girl your age—read it,” replied his father. “This was the book,” Shalev said, “that made me a reader and writer.”