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Sunday, June 05, 2005

From Danny to Raisin -> Books -> Chapter Books

Little Red ComputerDanny Dunn and the Homework Machine (Scholastic, 1958) is the first chapter book including computers that I've found. The book targets readers aged 9–12, 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.

Naturally, 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 Bullfinch explains:

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 BoggartThough the professor's message is another standard PSA-type lessons like those from the picture 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.

Nancy Drew, The E-mail MysteryIn Nancy 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.

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