I opened the covers of The Empire Strikes Back Storybook and blinked, stunned. Sure it had been a long time. But how had I forgotten this?
I hurried upstairs to Heather, the thin hardcover volume in my hand.
“Look, hon,” I said, half-sarcastic, half-awed. “Words.”
“Really?” she responded in the same tone.
I held the 35-year-old book open, careful of the ancient masking tape over the binding. There, among the plentiful, full-color photographs of starships and dueling Jedi, was column after column of gray type. Not thin columns, either – roughly 52 pages of words packed like a legion of Imperial stormtroopers, a children’s book that demanded reading, insisted on it.
My wife and I looked at it for a moment in wonder, than at each other. The same thought was on both our minds.
They’d never let this get printed today.
The book had arrived in a stack from Mom, the latest round of liberating the basement from our long-ago possessions. The fact that even my picture books had been so reading-heavy didn’t completely surprise me – I’ve been an avid reader since the age of two and a half, and could even remember using the tattered Star Wars book to act out scenes with my action figures.
But I’d forgotten how much of an honest-to-goodness book it was. As opposed to a picture book with barely-disguised captions.
I don’t mean to sound jaded or old-fashioned here. But I really do wonder if the same book would survive in the hands of modern editors and publishers, when “Show, don’t tell” has all but become a mantra. And not just in children’s publishing.
For a while, one of Heather’s prize possessions was a 1985 issue of Cosmopolitan, just for sheer contrast. Fewer pictures, lengthy articles that might have to “jump” twice within the issue before being completed. Compare it to a modern issue with its splashed photos and large-font one liners and it’s like holding Robinson Crusoe next to Go, Dog, Go!
You could make the same comparison with newspapers, where the emphasis has long been on more photos and graphics, shorter stories. Or in half a dozen other genres and formats, especially when you add digital and online publishing into the mix. Folks want pictures, video, interactive graphics, cute kittens!
Now there’s some truth to that. The author Spider Robinson once noted that reading is a newcomer as a means of acquiring information and one that requires a lot of work compared to just … looking. And with the decline in children who read for fun (31 percent of kids aged 6 to 17, compared to 37 percent in 2010), it might seem like we’ve got to pull out all the stops to hook kids back in to the habit.
But I wonder.
What if the problem isn’t the format, but the content?
Remember Harry Potter? The boy wizard dragged a whole generation of kids (and their parents and older siblings) through seven increasingly thick volumes of adventures. It became a point of pride to have read each book on its publication day.
There have been other crazes since, if not as intense. (What could be?) In the United Kingdom, in fact, series like The Hunger Games and Twilight (yes, I went there) are credited with bringing up the number of child readers.
Give kids a story they’re interested in, it seems, and they’ll chew up text just fine. Adults, too, I’d bet. If you’re interested in the subject, a longer story is a blessing, not a curse.
By all means, have cool pictures and all the other bells and whistles. Heaven knows my storybooks had art that popped. But remember the fundamentals. When you want people to drive, you sell cars. When you want people to read, you sell words.
Good words. And plenty of ‘em.
We can do our part, “selling” by example – it’s almost proverbial that when parents read, kids read, too. And over time, if enough of us reward good words with a good audience, someone’s going to see the chance of making good money.
Someday, just maybe, our prints will come.