From Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine to The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez
Over the last 3 years or so, I've been gathering children's and young adult texts that include some level of technology interaction, typically involving computers and other digital technologies. My goals are two-fold: to examine how these texts present and situate technology as well as to explore ways to use these texts with pre-K to 12th grade readers.
has been an opportunity to begin sharing the information
that I have been gathering on my bookshelves.
My ultimate goal is to develop an ongoing source of information for K12 teachers who may use these texts in their classrooms as
well as for college teachers who are exploring how students' literacy skills are
shaped by children's literature before they reach
the college classroom.
Several basic questions frame my exploration:
What technology resources are students likely to encounter in the
texts that they read?
What do these books teach students about technology? What messages do they
What experiences with technology do students bring to these books?
their prior knowledge affect their reading of these books?
How can we tap this knowledge of technology in the composition and language arts classroom?
Working from these questions, I've gathered ideas that urge students to think more deeply about their own beliefs and to pay attention to
the ways that technology is described and used.
This presentation is broken into the following sections:
Rather than a polished presentation, these pages share my current, working vision of these children's and young adult texts. The information is a simple and preliminary impression, one which will expand as I explore more of these texts more deeply. This presentation is just the beginning.
Parts of this text were conceptualized in Michigan at CIWIC. Examples are limited in places to the texts that I have on hand in Houghton. Most notably, I have no picture books on hand to refer to for specific details. I'll expand the information when I have all my books available.
earliest picture book that I've found, The Little Red Computer (McGraw
Hill, 1969) entertains
listeners with the tale of a computer that doesn't understand numbers but ultimately
succeeds because it is "a computer with a
mind of its own" (27). The images and story demonstrate the tension between
an objective, modern society and a humanistic desire for nature and emotions.
Like many children's books, The Little Red Computer weaves a didactic
message, but it is one what really has little to do with technologies. Instead,
the personified computer simply represents the value of the human over value
of the machine.
recent picture books shift the focus to lessons about computers and technology.
Learns How Computers Work (Prima Publications, 1993) and Kermit Learns
Windows (Prima Publications, 1993) set out to teach readers something
about keyboards, mice, and software—all from the perspective of everyone's
favorite Muppet. Getting your documentation from Sesame Street may seem strange
to readers today, but remember thatplenty of children, teenagers,
and adults have gotten advice on how to use their computers from an animated
books such as Franklin and the Computer (Kids Can Press, 2003) and Arthur's
Computer Disaster (Marc Brown, 1999) focus on the kind of lessons you
expect to hear on PSAs:
Don't monkey about with computers.
You may be playing a game, but a computer is not a toy.
If you break something, tell an adult
Too much time online make you a dull kid.
The School Library Journal describes Arthur's Computer Disaster:
[T]his episode pits Arthur against his mother for computer time.
He wants to play Deep, Dark Sea, but she has forbidden him to touch her
PC while she is at work. However, the silent machine proves to be more temptation
than Arthur can withstand. Pal Buster encourages him; D.W. predicts doom.
A tug of war, a crashing keyboard, and an inoperable computer follow. Desperate
attempts to fix it fail; in the end, Mom returns home, Arthur confesses,
suffers the consequences, and learns a valuable lesson when Mom offers, "Always
call me with your problems."
these books focus on the troubles children can get into with computers, the plots
could just as easily be about anything that the child overuses or uses without
permission. These books follow the same structures as such titles as The
Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV (Random House, 1984) and Arthur's TV
Trouble (Marc Brown, 1997).
There are picture books that break out of this didactic focus, but they
seem to be the exceptions. Patrick's Dinosaurs on the Internet (Clarion,
1999) presents a group of dinosaurs as "big brother." They have
traveled off into outer space, but Patrick finds in an Internet chat one
night that the dinosaurs are still watching over him, appearing late at
night on his computer screen. A
House with No Mouse (Mousetime Media, 2003) addresses the problems
of the digital divide directly by exploring the many houses that do not
have computers and showing the alternatives that these people use to get
Dunn and the Homework Machine (Scholastic, 1958) is the first chapter book
including computers that I've found. The book targets readers aged 912,
children just beginning to read chapter books. The chapters are short, and the
book includes numerous illustrations by Caldecott winner Ezra Jack Keats.
The book's plot is similar to that of picture books such as Arthur's Computer
Disaster (Marc Brown, 1999). My copy of the book is a more recent reprint
that situates the technology for readers on the back cover:
In the 1950s, when Danny Dunn was a young boy, it was extraordinarily unusual
to have a computer at home or at school. In fact, personal computers hadn't
even been invented yet! But when Professor Bullfinch leaves for Washington
and entrusts Danny with the care of his computer, Danny gets the bright idea
of using the computer to do his homework. He reasons that working things out
with paper and pencil is old-fashioned.
Danny and his friends are found out, though they learn a great deal in the
process as they determine what data to feed into the computer. Even
though the computer in the book is an old, ENIAC-style mainframe, the book's
final message could still be a great discussion starter in the classroom.
In the book's
last pages, after Danny's use of the computer has been discovered, Professor
No matter how intelligent the computer is, it is only a machine. It can solve
problems in minutes that would take a man months to work out. But behind it
there must be a human brain. It can never be a creator of music or of stories,
or paintings, or ideas. It cannot even do our homework for us—we must
do the homework. The machine can only help, as a textbook helps. It can only
be a tool, as a typewriter is a tool. (120)
the professor's message is another standard PSA-type lessons like those from
books, it takes the lesson to a higher level, moving beyond basic values
to asking readers to think about technology's abilities and limitations and
the accompanying ethics. (Of course, the more interesting question the book
raises may be why a college professor leaves children to watch his very expensive
computer in the first place.) Books for older children move beyond tapping technology to teach lessons
to including the machines as a normal part of the setting. The Boggart (Aladdin,
1993) by Newbery Medal-winning author Susan Cooper draws on technology and
an e-mail pen pal to solve the problem of a Scottish boggart that has been
accidentally shipped to the Canada in a rolltop desk.
Drew #144, The E-mail Mystery (Aladdin, 1998), the young detective investigates
legal sabotage by tracing e-mail messages and log files. As was the case with
The Boggart, technology is simply part of the setting,
just like the other office equipment. In the course of her detective work, Nancy
visits cybercafes and learns about chatrooms. The technology in the book
is at times dated (e.g., there's a reference to BITNET), and can be inaccurate
from an advanced perspective. It's unlikely, however, that the book's readers
will realize where the author's knowledge of technology is lacking. The book
is clearly aimed at readers with very little computer knowledge. Details are
always defined and explained (though not always with full accuracy):
"FAQs is short for 'frequently asked questions,'" Bess explained. "Most
computer users ask the same things over and over, so it's easier to refer them to an answer sheet than reply
personally to each one. The rest of the line tells people where to find the list." (51)
It's likely that the realistic details and the natural place of technology in these books has to do with the
assumed experience and knowledge of the readers. Older readers are more likely to know enough about computers and other
technologies so they can more readily adopt them as part of the natural landscape of the novel.
From Danny to Raisin -> Books -> Young Adult Books
published young adult books (generally, books for teenagers) not only include
computer technologies as part of the setting, but they also include faux
computer-mediated messages and texts as part of the story. Many
young adult books blend technology tools
throughout the narrative. M.T.
Anderson's Feed (Candlewick, 2004), for instance, shows readers
a sci-fi vision where computers feed directly into the characters' heads,
feeding these characters just-in-time facts and information. The story includes
traditional narrative, which is interrupted with various informational and
persuasive messages from the Feed and personal messages from the protagonist's
Another example, The Dating Game (Little, Brown, 2004) by Natalie
Standiford, tells of three sophomores who design the Dating Game Web site
for their Interpersonal Human Dynamics class—complete with quizzes,
dating tips, and details on various social problems (think Cosmo Girl online).
The story includes traditional narrative, e-mail messages, online quizzes,
and Web pages.
particularly interesting about the evolving connections between technology
and young adult novels, however, is their adoption of epistolary forms based
on new technologies. The most recent of these books, The Secret Blog of
Raisin Rodriguez (Razor
Bill, 2005) tells its story entirely through blog entries. The book opens
with an explanation of the purpose of Raisin's blog:
Welcome to TwoScoopsofRaisin.com. Aka my blog. I know there
are many blogs out there to choose from. Your choice to read mine is much appreciated.
Why keep a blog? you ask.
Excellent question, I answer. (1)
Raisin goes on to provide expository details—she's moved to Philadelphia,
far away from her best friends; and her new stepsister keeps the phone tied up
so she can't call her friends. Technology in The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez isn't
discussed explicitly. We never learn whether Raisin is using blogging software,
but it seems likely since her friends are able to post comments. The secrecy
of her blog is always foregrounded however. Her first entry ends with a warning
to her two best friends, her readers:
I hope you enjoy my blog. Feel free to check for new updates as often as you
like. Please do not feel free, under any circumstances, on pain of death,
to give the address of this blog to anyone. This blog is very personal and
confidential and deals with mature subject matter.
Additionally, unauthorized reading could
potentially result in harmful side effects such as eye twitching, sudden memory
loss, dry mouth, and butt acne.
Thank you for flying Raisin. (2)
book reads like a girl talking to her friends. The protagonist records in
more detail than most teens are likely to in real blogs, but the story is
believable and the technology is generally absent from the plot. It's not
the technology that ultimately causes her problems but her own forgetfulness.
Click Here: To Find Out
How I Survived Seventh Grade (Little, Brown, 2005) explores a similar
plot—a secret Web site is meant to be a private diary, but things go
awry. While Raisin artfully weaves its tale without drawing attention
to the underlying technology, the computer tools that seventh grader Erin Swift
uses for her private blog are frequently (and sometimes unnecessarily) incorporated
in the plot. Because of the influence of her Web designer mother, Erin knows
a bit about creating Web pages, and her knowledge leads her to join an Intranet
club that will create the school's newsletter.
The Web pages that Erin creates are neatly interspersed with first person narration
of the events in her life. Like the plot in Raisin, the technology is
not to blame for things that go wrong; personal mistakes are. Unfortunately,
the book's use
of technology metaphors is frequently laughable. Further, the book often
refers to unfamiliar technical terms that are never explained. One chapter,
for instance, is titled, "TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident)"; yet teen readers,
having used Windows or Mac all their lives, would almost universally be unfamiliar
with the terminology. It's a meaningless reference for readers.
Young adult novels cover a range of technology tools in addition to blogging,
and in each, the technology is simply a fact of the setting. Although many
of the books include details on netiquette and social warnings about online
safety, the following books all communicate their stories through a technology
TTYL (Amulet, 2004) by Lauren Myracle is told through instant
p:¬) ChaseR (Candlewick, 2002) by Michael J. Rosen is told
through e-mail messages.
Heart on My Sleeve (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by Ellen Wittlinger is
told through e-mail messages, letters, and instant messages.
Snail Mail No More (Scholastic, 2000) by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin
is told through e-mail messages.
An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries (Annick, 2003) by Nina Schindler is a
blend of letters, e-mail messages, post-it notes, and text messages.
From Danny to Raisin -> Student Explorations -> Close Readings
Everything starts with close reading. Whether we are exploring the vision of technology included in these texts ourselves or we are asking students to analyze the technology, the process begins with asking specific questions about how technology is presented in the book.
To start, readers might consider such questions as the following:
What are the features of the technology mentioned in the text? What does the technology do?
How does the technology compare to the real-world equivalents?
Who would use the technology? What assumptions are made about the characters who would use the technology?
These questions can lead to relevant observations even in texts that do not foreground the technology. The young adult novel Geography Club (HarperTempest, 2003) by Brent Hartinger, for instance, tells the story of a group of students who form a geography club"a club that's so boring, nobody would ever in a million years join it" (63). Discouraging people from joining the club is actually a goal for the characters in the novel. "Geography Club" is code for a budding Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, a society so secret that not even its advisor doesn't knows what it's about.
As the naming of the club demonstrates, the novel
deals with the much more serious issue of when the characters can name themselves. As the book begins, Russel, the protagonist hides who he is from his family, his friends, and other students. It is only online that Russel can identify himself, but even then he must hide his name:
There was only one other person in the room, which made sense to me, since I figured there was only about one other gay person in my whole hometown. His handle was GayTeen, which wasn't the most original name I'd ever seen. Mine was Smuggler, for no reason I can explain. (13)
The technology mentioned in this text is never described explicitly. It's a simple, generic chatroom, much like any other chatroom. What is significant is not the technology, but how it creates a social space for the characters. It is in this online space that they are first able to identify themselves to others. Even though the technology itself in Geography Club is fairly generic, then, its ability to create a social network is important to recognize.
In texts that include details on more prominent technologies, closer reading is often an important way to discover underlying meanings in the text. The ReadWriteThink lesson plan Paying Attention to Technology: Exploring a Fictional Technology demonstrates one possible method for structuring such deeper readings. In this lesson plan, students complete a short survey to establish their beliefs about technology then compare their opinions to the ideas in a novel that depicts technology (such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, REM World, or Feed).
Class discussion focuses on the overarching question “What is the author of this story saying about technology?” By exploring the fictional technology, students are urged to pay attention to the ways that technology is described and used.
Picture books and other texts with visual representations can also lead to interesting close readings. Questions such as the following can be the basis for deeper conversations:
How is the technology pictured?
What relevant details are present, and what details are missing?
What is the relationship between the pictures of the technology and what the way it is described in the text?
How do the characters in the images interact with the technology?
What text appears? What relevant information is missing?
What assumptions are made about the characters who would use the technology based on the image?
Even without knowing the plot of the story, readers can learn much by simply looking at the cover of Arthur's Computer Disaster (click on the thumbnail to see a larger image). The computer featured on the cover is a generic PC with a color monitor. Readers with more technology experience may recognize that the machine is datedmore modern representations would probably show a flat-panel monitor, a CPU with a smaller footprint, and at the very least a two-button mouse (if not a three-button or scroll-wheel mouse). Young readers approaching this book, however, probably see only the computer.
The relationship between Arthur, the pictured character, and the technology also reveals details about the book and the character's understanding of technology. Arthur's face and the book's title reveal that there is a problem, and the visual details of the technology contribute to this message. The colors on the screen and the highlight in its middle mimic the look of an explosion, but more importantly, Arthur doesn't seem to know how to use a mousethe mouse is backwards, and the character is holding it up in the air (like a remote control) rather than sliding it along on the desktop. Readers can conclude from this image then that Arthur may not understand much about technology, and they can therefore predict that Arthur's misunderstandings lead to the disaster that the title warns them about.
From Danny to Raisin -> Student Explorations -> Role of Games
Role of Games
For the purposes of this section, games refers to video and computer games. To limit the exploration to a reasonable area, I won't consider fan-fiction sorts of role-playing games (RPGs). The books I'm exploring have characters who may play games of some sort; however, the plot of the books is not following a character in a role-playing game.
This section is limited to a few notes on books that include game references. I didn't conceptualize this section of the presentation until I was far away from my bookshelf.
Games come into play frequently in books for younger readers. In books such as Arthur's Computer Disaster (in Spanish as Arturo y el Desastre de la Computadora) and Franklin and the Computer, computer games are the seductive element that ultimately leads to conflict for the protagonist.
For Arthur, the temptation to play the game Deep, Dark Sea leads to trouble when he and friend Buster play the game even though they were instructed not to touch the computer. In the process, they break the computer in the process. In Franklin and the Computer, protagonist Franklin becomes so obsessed with his friend Beaver's computer game Dam Builders that he forgets promises made to his real-world friends.
In Susan Cooper's The Boggart, main character Jessup and friends are developing their own computer game over the course of the story. The group dresses as characters from the game for Halloween:
Four of the five members of the Gang of Five were waiting for Emily at the Volniks' house, dressed as characters from their new computer game. This game, which was called Black Hole, was in a constant state of development; the Gang never seemed to finish it, because one or other of them was always having a new idea. It was all about spaceships which discovered numbers of different worlds while trying to avoid being dragged through black holes in space. Emily's vampire came from one of these worlds, adn so did the spider-like creature represented by Chris's costume, which had a round black body fitted over his head and most of his own body, and six extra legs the same size and shape as his own. (86)
Other characters from the novel dress as the spaceship that game players travel in and as the hazards that game players encounter, Fire Burst and Ice Death. For these characters, the real world blends with the game designand it is this blend between real and game worlds that solves the problem that the characters encounter.
From Danny to Raisin -> Student Explorations -> Social Networks
Just some working notes. This section has the most interesting potential, given the number of books that now include faux messages ranging from e-mail messages to instant messages and blogging. To be developed eventually...
In many young adult books, text messages and e-mail messages replace the note passing of the past. Students without computer access may first experience the format of
instant messages and e-mail in these novels, and students' experiences with the
netiquette and social issues surrounding technology issues may stem
just as often from picture books and novels as it does from what they see
on television or at the movies.
So much of the young adult audience's world focuses on cliques and social networks that
it's little surprise that books such as TTYL (Amulet, 2004) and p:¬)
ChaseR (Candlewick, 2002) have evolved.
In these books, we see the characters' social networks at work as we are invited to read their instant messages and e-mail messages.
From Danny to Raisin -> Student Explorations -> Future Visions
This section will one day talk about sci-fi sorts of discussions of technology in children's and young adult literature.
Books to consider in this section will include Feed and Be More Chill.
This young adult novel explores the consequences of a technology out of control, one that ultimately reduces the mental abilities of the humans in this future world. The feed is a technology that is implanted in every baby's head, putting a world of information at every person's mental fingertips. The novel's protagonist, Titus, describes the background and use of the feed:
I don't know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It as all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That's one of the great things about the feedthat you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit. (47)
Anderson's irony is clear here: everyone is "supersmart" now that they can instantaneously look up the "battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in." In truth, these characters have become so dependent upon the feed that their own ability to think and understand the world around them has been lost. Everything is negotiated by the feed. Titus explains further, "the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in . . . and they make a special profile, one that's keyed just to you . . . so all you have to do is want something and there's a chance it will be yours" (48).
The feed that is presented as a technology that combines the characteristics of computers, television, and radio and that provides just-in-time information keyed to the every experience of the person whose brain it resides in. The examples of the feed in the novel are extreme satire of the media onslaught that shapes life everyday on present-day earth:
. . . attracted to its powerful T44 fermion lift with vertical rise of fifty feed per secondand if you like comfort, quality, and class, the supple upholstery and ergonomically designed dash will leave you something like hysterical. But the best thing about it is the financingat 18.9% A.P.R . . . .
* * *
. . . ONLY ON SPORTS-VOXTAKE A MAN, TAKE A GAS SLED, TAKE A CHLORINE STORM ON JUPITERAND BOYS IT'S TIME TO SPIT INTO THE WIND WITH ALEX NEETHAM, THE HARDEST, HIPPEST, HYPEST . . .
* * *
. . . month's summer styles, and the word on the street is "squeaky." . . . (15)
Feeds like these provide suggestions throughout the story. At times, characters actively ask the feed for information; at other times, the feed simply suggests based on the character's profile and situation. More frightening than this complete control over the characters' thinking, however, is the close similarities between the feed and the broadcasts any reader might watch or hear on television or radio. Admittedly, my experience with the feed was influenced by the excellent production of the book on tape, which couples the Anderson's words with music, appropriate voice actors, and a smooth transition from the character's thoughts to the feed's suggestions.
Anderson's book is an excellent exploration of a science-fiction world that is far too close to our present-day experiences. Couple the book with the taped production for an amazing experience.
Click Here: (To Find Our How I Survived Seventh Grade) by Denise Vega (Little, Brown, 2005)
Thrill in some worst technology metaphors ever:
"The gossip superhighway at Molly Brown [Middle School] is wireless." (21).
"The news spread like a computer virus...." (36).
"I turned and glared at him. 'You can p align your butt to a different group,' I said. 'It doesn't matter to me.'
'P align is an HTML code for aligning somethin on a page.' I looked up to see Mark Sacks standing in the cluster to our right, looking at the boy beside me. 'Positioning it. You know, like left, center, right.' He moved his hands to demonstrate each position. 'She knows her stuff,' he said, nodding at me." (50)
"Her meanness couldn't penetrate my webmaster shield." (86)
"Well, maybe because I'd rather have a virus attack my hard drive than have people staring at various parts of my body the way they were staring at Jilly." (94)
"His face lit up like the DSL light on a modem." (107)
"I took a breath, then let it out long and slow. I should have been completely embarrassed saying all of that to a complete stranger, but for some reason I felt . . . relieved. Lighter. Like I'd just defragmented my hard drive." (112)
More books! Got copies of An Order Of Amelie, Hold The Fries by Nina Schindler, ChaseR : A Novel in E-mails by Michael J. Rosen, and The E-mail Mystery: Nancy Drew Digest #144. Amelie is visually the most interestinglots of images and text intertwined. The Booklist review said: "Imagine Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine series with two young, urban Canadians. Now expand their communication to include e-mails, newspaper clippings, text messages on cell phones, and notes written on toilet paper, hotel registration forms, and take-out menus." It's very different. Very cool. Now if I'd just get finished with Click Here: To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade by Denise Vega so that I can read it!
Today began with two new books: an autographed copy of Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci and a copy of Lauren Myracle's Rhymes with Witchesboth from LiteratiCat, my winnings from the contest on teenliterature.
Not exactly children's lit, but I also got a copy of Literacy Moves On: Popular Culture, New Technologies, and Critical Literacy in the Elementary Classroom. Looks like a very promising book. Includes an excellent definition of multimodal literacyvery reader-friendly:
Previously a text was seen as being "a passage of print or a slice of speech, or an image" (Lankshear et al. 2002: 45); that is, texts were seen as things written downbooks,magazines, and newspapers. They are now perceived as being much more than this. A text is now seen as a unit of communication that may take the form of something written down but also a chunk of discourse, for example speech, a conversation, a radio program a TV advert, text messaging, a photo in a newspaper, and so on. Many of these texts are drawn from children's popular culture and have changed the ways in which young readers expect to read, the ways they think, and the ways they construct meaning. (p. 8)
And thanks to Mike on Kairosnews, I found out about what looks like an short chapter book from 1958 that focuses on computers, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. Illustrations are listed as by Ezra Jack Keats. I found a used copy online, and it's on its way!