Children’s literature and media: An interview with Annie Fox

As I wrote in a previous post, I am presenting today, along with colleague Brian Trutschel, at the Children’s Literature Association’s conference in Michigan: Children’s Literature and Media, which “seeks to illuminate the broader electronic children’s culture within which children’s literature exists and thus highlight the multivalent, dialectical relationship between literature and other media written for younger readers, viewers, and consumers.”

As part of our presentation, “Beyond Electronic Media: Dynamically Engaging Young Readers in Multi‐modal Environments”, I approached author Annie Fox for an interview on her thoughts on children’s literature and media. To my delight, she agreed! Without further ado, here is the interview.
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About Annie: Annie is an educator, award-winning author, and online adviser for teens and parents. She helps teens through Q&A, events at schools, and books like her Middle School Confidential™ series.

1. What are some differences between the books you read as a little girl and teenager and the ones being published now?

I started reading when I was 4 and my first afterschool job  was shelving books at the public library. I was in heaven! As a teen I read adult fiction, biography, plays, history, etc. If there was a genre of YA book back then, I wasn’t aware of it. When I was much younger I read Dr. Seuss , Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh and lots of international fairy tales. In 4th and 5th grade I loved Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse! LOL! Today’s picture books for younger kids are often more focused on the art than the story. Gorgeous, inventive visuals  with mostly weak stories. As if the art alone sells the book. Well, I guess it does, but that’s a huge missed opportunity. Think about what brings kids back to a certain book again and again; it’s the characters and a story that’s really about something… it’s not the pictures! As for today’s YA fiction… I read a lot of it and I LOVE the realism, the humor, and the focus on social and emotional aspect of being a tween/teen. Cherry Ames never had self-esteem or friendship issues! Today’s YA fiction really helps kids understand themselves better so they can navigate middle and high school more effectively.

2. Do you feel electronic media has affected the way children engage with reading? If so, how?

Electronic media affects the way kids think and communicate. While I adore books, I’m not a purist who believes that the relationship between author and reader is somehow sullied if a book is read on Kindle at the mall vs. reading a leather bound volume beside a cozy fire. The connection between writer and reader happens in the mind of the reader… makes no difference whether you’re on your laptop, iPhone or the Rosetta Stone. The thing I’ve noticed (and I’m certainly not the only one) is that many kids seem to be less able to focus on anything for a long time… like reading “a whole book” in whatever form simply because they are so accustomed to being interrupted by IMs and texts. Maybe whole novels should be written in tweets!

3. Do you think electronic books and media will replace the traditional book? Why?

I hope not, because there will always be the inevitable power outage and dead battery that keep you from reading when you really want to! But if you’ve got a book with paper pages and the light of day (or a candle) you’re always good to go. I also love looking at books lining shelves in libraries, book stores, here at home. The sight of book spines never fails to  give me pause as I admire the creativity and diligence of all the authors who persevered through the process and got their book finished and published! Seeing the books also stimulates my imagination as I think about how much more there is for me to learn about. A bunch of downloaded files doesn’t offer the same inspiration to me. But hey, I was born in the 20th century, so maybe a better prognosticator would be a 21st century teen.  

4. How do you think your experiences with technology have affected the way you write books for children?

My husband David and I got into computer software design for kids in 1977. Our first client was Children’s Television Workshop. I’ve spent years designing and scripting all kinds of computer games and interactive entertainment experiences. I’ve also been on the receiving end of email from tweens, teens and parents from around the world since 1997. Because of the technology that links me and the kids I am privy to the experiences that inform their growing up. In other words, I know what they want to know so I use that awareness in my writing… which is why kids love my books. They “ring true” because we’ve been having these conversations via email for so many years. “Know your reader” is the prime objective for all writers. Thanks to technology, I know mine.

5. Do you think children are engaged with and/or benefit most from linear or non-linear (hypertext, for example) literature and why?

I’ve done a lot of game designs that require non-linear story lines. They’re much trickier to write well (for obvious reasons) but I love the “choose your own path” aspect to interactive fiction. That’s what life’s about, isn’t it? At any juncture you’ve always got options. How you analyze a situation and determine your next best move based on what you’ve learned from past mistakes and successes… making appropriate and responsible choices is part of what it means to grow up healthy.

6. In your latest books, The Middle School Confidential series, the pages are written partly in graphic novel style and designed to look like a magazine. What made you decide to write the books in this  manner?

I had experimented with webdramas (serial stories with various characters whose relationships and plot points intersect) and LOVED it! I wanted to use a fictional universe to help tweens better understand themselves and their relationships with friends/family… I love graphic novels and had a vision of a book that was a hybrid : part graphic novel with middle school age characters and part smart-talk life skills. I’m very grateful that my publisher Free Spirit was keen on the idea and that they chose my illustrator, Matt Kindt who does his own amazing graphic novels. As a result, the Middle School Confidential series works on so many levels. Kids LOVE  the books! 
 
7. What are some ways you use electronic media to reach your audience?

Email, blogging, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, games, multi—media presentations to live audiences. I do it all.

8. How do you feel this way of connecting with your audience has enriched or hindered your work?

It’s all only made me a more informed and compassionate YA writer.

9. Do you have any recommendations for educators on how electronic media can be used to reach children and foster a love of reading?

Foster intelligent use of the Internet by providing strong guidelines and by making net research part of every  classroom assignment. Reading is reading… don’t get  hung up on whether it’s a book on Kindle or a “traditional” book. When writing speaks to the individual child, he/she will gobble it up and ask for more.

10. Do you have any tips for parents on fostering a love of reading for their kids in today’s electronic world?

Read to your kids. Let them see you reading! Go to the library together! Take books on CD on car trips (have each family member vote on what the selected books will be)  and have everyone listen to the same story at the same time (so you can talk about it!) Read book reviews. Ask children’s and YA librarians for recommended reads. Take your kids  to see visiting authors on tour.

Thank you for the interview, Annie! For more information about Annie Fox, her books and projects, check out the following links:

Annie Fox’ page
On Facebook
On Twitter
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Want to know what’s happening at the Children’s Literature Association’s conference this week? 
Check out the “official” hashtag on Twitter: #chla10.

I’m Tweeting the conference as much as I can as well, so feel free to follow me: @pm_rodriguez
If you’re on Facebook, you can also join the CHLA unofficial page.

Have fun with children’s lit!

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One Response to Children’s literature and media: An interview with Annie Fox

  1. Matildadarcy says:

    “Think about what brings kids back to a certain book again and again; it’s the characters and a story that’s really about something… it’s not the pictures!”

    You are so right Annie! I’d never really thought of it that way, but even as an adult I go back to certain books I read as a child because of the story…encouraging for us aspiring writers :0)

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