Tuesday 20 August 2019

How the tablet has replaced the teddy bear

Giving a small child these devices is bad - or perhaps just lazy - parenting, disguised as good

The joy of reading: Louisa Cameron in Raven Books, Blackrock
The joy of reading: Louisa Cameron in Raven Books, Blackrock

Lucinda O'Sullivan

If Michael Noonan sat in restaurants and hotels as often as I do, watching very young children staring goggle-eyed into tablets while their parents, equally goggle-eyed, checked their Twitter feeds, he would not be advocating that all children over five years of age should have an iPad or access to an iPad.

Giving young children a tablet is, to call a spade a spade, the lazy way of keeping kids quiet - and is also getting them addicted to the medium. It's become the teddy bear, the comfort blanket.

What should be a lovely time with families communing around a table is often being turned into the modern version of the Victorian ideal that children should be seen and not heard.

This is not a problem Mr Noonan had when his children were small - nor indeed did I, with my two boys, now being 28 and 30 - for the internet is both a blessing and a curse of very recent times.

I appreciate that we want our children to be tech-savvy but they are going to be that anyway - children pick it up like lightning.

An iPad is also far too dangerous to be in the possession of a young child, from the point of view of robbery, not to mention what they will be targeted with online, or come across accidentally.

Having an iPad is not going to turn them into geniuses. What iPad did Marie Curie have or indeed Albert Einstein? Children need to be children, not mini-adults.

I know of one young child from a very wealthy family who, at two years of age, already has an iPad, while I know of another from more modest means who just screams with delight at the wonderful illustrations in children's books.

And I know which child I think is better off.

What can replace the intimacy of a parent reading to a child from a book? My young life was buried in books and my imagination painted the pictures that nobody needed to illustrate for me. I was always Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities or Jo March in Little Women - the soap operas of the 19th Century!

I revelled in Madame de Pompadour and the scandals of King Louis XIV's court, the diamond necklace of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, her attempted escape with Axel Von Fersen, and I travelled with her in the tumbril to the guillotine!

I still have all my old books and nothing would part me from them. I travelled through history and around the world in my own head, with an illustrated children's encyclopedia - and it was wonderful.

Of course, a tablet or iPad is great for instant information - but it doesn't allow a child's brain to think for itself, to imagine all the great adventures of history.

"Nothing will replace the demand for books", says Louisa Cameron, who has created a wonderful world of escapism in Raven Books on the main street of Blackrock, Co Dublin, which has a cute little nook for kids to engross themselves in the words or magical illustrations of books. She first opened in a small location in summer 2008, just before the recession hit.

"After three years we moved in here. Being on the main street with a big shop window has made a huge difference. It's lovely to have eight years under my belt and to feel a very secure part of the community.

"Not that I ever take it for granted, but it's nice when you've seen kids, that were literally just born when I opened the doors, now reading for themselves. That's how I mark the progression. To see the buzz here when the Irish Book Award nominations were announced was wonderful, with everybody getting very excited - in particular as regards to the picture books."

Louisa showed me some of the children's books that had been nominated, including The Boy Who Fell Off The Mayflower by PJ Lynch, a wonderful story with superb illustrations. Also nominated is I'm a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail, while two nominated books have been illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, including Imaginary Fred by the current Laureate na nOg, Eoin Colfer, as well as Drew Daywalt's The Day the Crayons Came Home.

"It's really encouraging to see this enormous wealth of Irish illustration. I don't believe there is a book for all children - you have to figure out what is unique about the child, what their interest is, what's going to capture their imagination and, if they are in the early stages of reading, what will make it less daunting. You have to find that book that's going to grab them in."

Louisa says children's tastes have changed over the years, as they have so much thrown at them these days.

"This is a shame in a way, and books have reflected that, for instance, in the way they are producing fonts. Before, the font would have been uniform throughout the book, now it will be used in different shapes and sizes throughout. It's a way of keeping kids' attention when attention spans are much less these days.

"A recent example of that is David Walliams' Grandpa's Great Escape, which I did with the Children's Book Club."

Louisa says they have two Junior Book Clubs; one is held in a private residence and has been going for a number of years. This year, aided by a grant from US author James Patterson, they started in Blackrock Library and meet every month.

"Patterson is incredibly supportive of independent bookshops and literacy. His son had reading challenges growing up, so he's put his money where his mouth is.

"He started by giving $1m to independent bookshops in the US and went on to give £500,000 to UK and Irish bookshops who had a dedicated children's section and wanted funding for a particular project. I wanted to do another Junior Book Club because I've seen the difference it makes to children's lives."

Louisa's bookstore is a treasure trove of new and second-hand books for both adults and children alike.

"I like to do both. New is very important for supporting authors and publishers - but the second-hand means we get a range that new bookshops wouldn't have, out of print books, or books people buy in other parts of the world."

So, put the iPad for junior on the backburner for a while, and immerse them in the real world of books.

Raven Books, 34 Main Street, Blackrock, Co Dublin

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