When I was growing up, there were no books in my house. It was the '70s, and my dad loved the TV so much that he wouldn't turn it off, even when no one was home to watch it. I'd often come home from school to an empty house and find Perry Mason arguing a case in my living room or Gilligan drinking out of a coconut. This was the era that gave us Evel Knievel, Stretch Armstrong, Kiss, Asteroids, Star Wars, and Fantasy Island. There were a thousand manufactured worlds, and I fell under the spell of them all. Books were a distant fourth, behind my turntable, the idiot box, and the local movie theater. Against these odds, I still became a reader.
Fast-forward to the present day, and people of all ages are reading less, which is hard for me to imagine, since my parents didn't read at all (they have both since bucked the trend and improved in this area). There are more distractions for young readers today than there were when I was a kid—and there's a fundamental difference in the types of distractions kids are faced with now.
Today's teens and preteens have an overwhelming need to stay connected, and while adults may not appreciate it, we do have to live with it. My wife and I face this reality on a daily basis with our 14- and 12-year-old daughters. We've surrounded them with books, read to them endlessly over the years, and encouraged quiet time away from their friends and the consuming force of the computer. Yet it's a challenge to keep them engaged by the written page. You begin to see the need for a lifeline.
And that, truly, is what I envisioned when I began working on the book-video hybrid series Skeleton Creek three years ago: a lifeline back to books. I imagined millions of disengaged readers finding the biggest carrot I could think of: getting to watch part of the story unfold on video. Read 25 pages, watch an online video, repeat. I would go back and forth with them—me in their world, them in mine—until we reached the end of the story. Meet me halfway and we'll get through 200 pages together. That was the message.
And it worked. Three hundred thousand copies later, thousands of life-changing e-mails from librarians and teachers eager to tell me about nonreading students finally reading again, and almost two million videos watched have proven what I knew was true: if we meet young readers halfway, they'll turn the pages we so desperately want them to read. Just this week, I learned about three middle schools reading Skeleton Creek together. In each case it started with just one kid and tore through the entire place, including the kids who never read.
Young readers understand this simple message: we want you, we understand you, and we will create books for you. This scares some people, all of them adults. Pundits may cry over technology as the beginning of the end for books, but I see it as a new beginning. If technology gets kids excited about reading, a book can spread as virally as a cool app. I've spoken in auditoriums full of kids at 750 schools across the country, and I've watched as a sea change has occurred in the lives of young readers. How we react to these changes as writers, publishers, librarians, and book lovers will set the stage for the next decade of reading and the ultimate fate of books.
Our reaction requires two things: an open mind and the courage to step into young readers' worlds. We can see the number of engaged readers skyrocket if we embrace the opportunity to reimagine what a book can be.
Don't get me wrong. I love traditional books. I've written a dozen of them and plan to keep writing them. But I'm convinced technology is not the enemy of reading. It's our job—as the adults in the room who love books—to create a strategy that links kids back to books. They want to be connected to stories, and their tool of choice is technology.
I still think 19 out of 20 books for young readers should be traditional, but there is room now in my worldview to include a story that seamlessly blends words, videos, and the Web. I would like to think we're smart enough to reimagine technology as something that creates millions of excited young readers instead of fearing the opposite.