By Merilee Kern, MBA
Stories are wings that help you soar every day. These are the inspirational words emblazoned on this year’s International Children’s Book Day poster amid this annual event intended to stimulate a love of reading and to call attention to children’s books. Initiatives like this are profoundly important when one considers the number of children aged eight to ten who read for pleasure has plummeted 30% to 50% over the past 10 years.
Indeed, the trend statistics surrounding kids and reading is disheartening. This includes research, by Nielsen Book “Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer” 2012-2020 revealing that only 23% of 0-17s read for pleasure “daily or nearly every day,” down from 26% in 2019 and fully 38% in 2012. Meanwhile, other citations of this research underscore the number of children who read for pleasure “never or rarely” had grown from 13% of children in 2012 to 20% in 2020. And while more than half (56%) of children aged eight to ten years—a key reading age—read for pleasure in 2012, that was cut to one third by 2020.
A new approach is needed.
While reading inside the elementary school classroom is mandated, once students leave the school environment engagement with the written word drops profoundly. This as the digital age ensues, now with the Metaverse promising to take children further away from tactile real-world activities. There simply needs to be a better approach to instill kids with a life-long love of books.
Initiatives like International Children’s Book Day, which for fifty-five years has encouraged reading among children and lovers of children’s books worldwide, are certainly admirable and necessary efforts. However, encouraging kids and actualizing their life-long thirst for the written word is proving more and more difficult. The reasons for this decline have been slowly revealing themselves amid the advent of new technologies and a changing world—further exacerbated by a pandemic.
Less Pure Engagement – Too Much Screen Time
One of the more obvious reasons for this lack of engaged reading by children is that their leisure interests have been dominated by screen-based entertainment, especially since the proliferation of smart devices. Time spent online has increased rapidly, too, only made worse during the COVID-19-related lockdown.
For all too many kids, the ubiquity of screens has made devices the “go-to” default to fill every spare moment of “down-time.” Unfortunate when that time used to be–and still could be–filled with engaged reading. Re-building this path to a love of reading is a matter of actively making time for books—and making it alluring to do so. Re-setting and establishing new habits to replace other choices, behaviors and activities.
Reading aloud is one easy and hugely effective means of cultivating a love for words. In her recent book, “The Enchanted Hour, ” Meghan Cox Gurdon provided an insightful look at the importance of reading aloud to children. Her findings point to research that shows reading aloud regularly is the most effective way to encourage a child to read for pleasure independently. As Gurdon puts it, “Reading every day with children can’t guarantee perfect outcomes for any family—not in grades, not in happiness, not in relationships. But it is as close to a miracle product as we can buy, and it doesn’t cost a nickel.”
All Jacket, No Story – Fighting A Lack of Compelling Content
Digital device screen time doesn’t just serve as an obstacle to reading, it presents kids with a thrilling alternative. Like it or not, this means that children’s books must move into a space where competing with screens is actually possible.
There are numerous elements that can create engaging content that drives kids to read for pleasure. This includes crafting inspiring stores not only with captivating illustrations and characters that kids can identify with, but also enhanced with multi-sensory elements, like music and audio. Interactive and technology-enabled stories—like those with embedded QR codes—and a companion web site with activities related to the book, story and characters can create a content universe appeals to parents, teachers and kids, alike. Of course, a good message, or a takeaway, as the book’s anchor is paramount for an optimized family reading experience and the adjacent online experience should maintain the look and feel of a “real” book to keep it at the center of the experience.
Most parents want to engage their children in reading but struggle to find books that will meet the needs of the modern young reader. Finding books that will keep the child’s interest, as well as being easy and fun to read for the parents, can be easier said than done. But it’s not impossible.
A Little Spark With Big Impact
Fortunately, there’s one book designed to engage all of a child’s senses by integrating all of the elements listed above: Chris Parsons’ “A Little Spark. ” Because it does, it’s obviously not your typical book. A Little Spark tells the story of a small mouse named Spark who shows the world of Zuroam that he’s more than meets the eye. Not coincidentally, the book itself is also much more than meets the eye and is helping redefine what’s possible within the children’s literature category. The book features an original custom-scored soundtrack; QR codes throughout the book linking to the soundtrack and other interactive features; and an audiobook with embedded music that brings the book’s crazy characters to life. The related “Be That Spark” website features a Resource Library with over 50 fun activities like Word Search, Dot to Dot, Mazes, Direct to Draw, Music Lessons and Fun dance videos. It’s a sweet suite of engaging and enriching content that truly captivates the hearts, minds and imaginations of young children.
Zuroam Media, which Parsons started after years in the tech world, wants to engage children in reading important stories from an early age by creating reading experiences “that inspire, educate and entertain.” While A Little Spark does all of those things, it is apparently only the beginning. Zuroam is already planning additional books following the same approach, utilizing multisensory elements, engaging characters, music, audio and fun activities. Of course, throughout it all Parsons reinforces an important overarching message for kids to “Be That Spark” by finding, and doing, good in the world.
Even Books Can Be More Than Just Books
In order to change the impact of storytelling, Parsons felt it was necessary to conceive of something that was more than just a new story. While the story of Spark, the mouse, is certainly inspirational, Parsons endeavored to look outside of the normal avenues to tell this character’s story. He chose music, as well as the audiobook format, to make the book even more accessible with an understanding that, beyond entertainment value, some children learn better from hearing than from seeing. The music even aids in the processing of the information by attaching certain musical and emotional themes to specific characters, increasing their impact.
“Music is a hugely important aspect of the reading experience,” Parsons says. “What would our favorite movies be without music? Think about the theme from Jaws or any of the songs from The Sound of Music. Think about how music affects mood and emotions during a film—how the right tone can calm or excite. Why not use the same techniques with books?”
A Spark Spurs Action
After he started work on A Little Spark, Parsons realized that a children’s storybook in this unique multimedia combination needed a testing ground. He worked with the help of a teacher advisory group, developing the “Be That Spark” elementary education lesson plan that incorporates the book and all of its multi-media assets. A pilot program was recently conducted in several first grade classes to see if the lessons of the book were easily received with this novel delivery approach. The results were incredibly positive.
Given its success, the “Be That Spark” scholastic program will now move on to other classrooms, with the goal of helping inspire positivity in the children, create a love of reading and motivate them to always Be That Spark for themselves and those around them.
“It’s such a great program and they get so excited about it,” notes Mrs. Hokamp, a first grade teacher in Dallas, Texas who participated in the pilot. “It’s really, really just a fun program, definitely something I haven’t seen with any other program we’ve done with all of the bells and whistles that come with it…so many creative touches that I feel like these kids love and need right now…even our beginner readers loved it and were excited to hold that book in their hand. It’s just such a well-rounded program.”
Despite the clear cut problem that children’s literature is suffering lackluster love for the activity, with yet more immersive technologies like Metaverse sure to exacerbate the problem, all is not lost. As progressive authors and content creators like Parsons turn attentions to this issue, crafting books that are more fun and entertaining, inspirational and engaging, there’s great hope that interest and adoration for kids’ reading time can be duly redeemed.