There's a lot of chatter about the future of the book. From eBooks to iPads, the form and content of what we read is rapidly changing. Blogs, tweets, and short, easily digestible entries comprise much of what we read. As the parent of two school-age children I think the most urgent question is what does fiction mean for the future? In this world of brave new literacies, does the book narrative still matter? I think it does, although my husband, an art director for feature animated film, likes to play devil's advocate: what's so important about books anyway? Why do books matter more than other narrative forms?
As I watch my children learn to read, it's clear that reading fiction is important for reasons beyond basic literacy. The more kids read the more they can read. Reading builds foundational academic skills. As literacy matures children learn to sort out Hansel and Gretel's problem and that more complicated word problem in their math book. It's important to read books to kids that are slightly harder than those they might read to themselves. Then, they hear more complex language, engage more sophisticated narratives, and are challenged by new ideas.
Fiction also teaches empathy. Narrative can expose children to other worlds: historical worlds, international worlds, worlds different from the one they know. In my family difference has often first been introduced through fiction, opening crucial and ongoing dialogues about race, poverty, sexism, war—injustice in its many forms. This is not to say fiction should be didactic. (It shouldn't be.) But fiction can make abstract political concepts real to children and thereby develop their ability to understand and empathize. Whereas we parents might insist on unimaginative and proscriptive telling, fiction can show a truth. Fiction makes an imaginary garden for the real toads of the world.
Reading fiction also requires rich and complex thinking. E.M. Forster wrote that the story is the straightforward and simple narration of events: The king died and then the queen died. But as soon as you introduce causality, well, then you have plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief. Plot creates the bedrock of narrative energy, and according to Forster it demands intelligence and memory. A reader must understand how and why events are linked. She must remember significance. He must string together a series of events, behaviors, episodes, and make sense of them all. Fiction implicitly asks us to understand and to solve problems. It requires active participation in making meaning. All good fiction—from those first early picture books, to the compelling chapter books, to middle readers, and young adult novels and beyond—makes these demands on readers. Fiction asks us to think not just about character, that bedrock of empathy and the reason most of us think reading is good for children (this is the "other worlds" argument), but to think as a fundamental way of being in the world.
Fiction asks kids to figure things out. It requires that they remember. It urges them to consider how one event leads to another. It demands that they slow down, maintain focus, develop an idea. It asks them to think in complete sentences. Fiction requires sustained thought, over a period of time and any number of pages.
I think it's no accident that my daughter, like so many other children was first hooked on reading by mysteries: Cam Jansen, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown. Mysteries actively engage questions of plot (whodunit?), causality (why?), problem solving (what's next?). They're metafiction for the early reader set, and they engage at the level of plot all those skills necessary for creating a solid literacy: memory, causality, intelligence.
And this, I think, is the real reason fiction matters for the future. Certainly, my children need science and math, engineering and new technologies. Absolutely, they and their peers will need these disciplines to innovate their way out of the urgent economic, environmental, and energy-related problems that will continue to confront us. (Part of me hopes they do choose this path.) But they also urgently need the ability to read fiction well. Fiction will teach them how to empathize, communicate, and understand others but also how to think. No matter how well they can do their sums, they won't solve anything if they can't think intelligently about the problem being asked. No matter how quickly they can memorize test answers, they won't discover anything if they don't understand causality. And no matter how many brilliant ideas they have, none will amount to anything if they can't sustain a thought for the hours, weeks, or years it may take to solve a problem. They must develop an intelligence that will enable them to ask (and answer), what comes next? how? and why? Good readers are good thinkers. Good thinkers are good problem solvers. And really, what more is education about?
Intelligence, memory, causality. That bedtime story is pure pleasure of course. But it's also more, and more urgent.