People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Storytelling has been used by every culture, throughout the ages, to entertain, educate, preserve culture or to instil moral values in the younger generation. As children, having elders read to them not only develops their personal bond and relationship, but it’s vital for developing literacy skills; not only reading and writing, but also the ability to communicate in all other ways.
Recent data suggests we are consuming more and more books but we’re also consuming stories in a variety of different media. The rise of eBooks was seen as a potential threat to the printed book, but the decline of printed books has since been reversed, particularly with printed children’s books; which have never been more popular. There’s nothing quite like holding a real book in your hand, and sharing the reading experience with a child. However, new media is not going away. New methods of storytelling will appear, while others are replaced; it’s inevitable in an increasingly digital world.
With new trends in technology and the popularity of social media, it is also well known that our attention spans are shrinking. With this trend, stories have also begun to change, with the rise of the novella; books which can be consumed in a single sitting. Novellas are nothing new, of course. They too have been around for generations, but instead of longer novels, authors are now working on releasing their stories as a series – perhaps several novellas instead of one book - as a way to hook the reader. The epic novel will still exist, but their decline may also change one day. But at the moment, this is the direction of travel.
Storytelling is also changing to fit into this new world. Storytelling doesn’t just cover books. Streaming services are developing their own unique content - well written and produced television series; which are both gripping and exciting. If HBO’s Game of Thrones draws more people to J RR Martin’s books, then how is this a bad thing? Any way in which stories and reading are promoted is positive in my opinion. Whether that be YouTubers reading children’s books online, book launches on Instagram or the use of apps to present stories in unique ways, if the end result is developed literacy skills, then surely this is a good thing. Perhaps, on the other side of the argument, there is also evidence that literacy skills are declining as a result of the increased use of technology. Only time will tell.
As attention spans shrink, storytellers must come up with innovative ways to hook readers. Fortunately, the development of technology brings new opportunities. As a writer, I now see the endless possibilities that technology may bring to readers. With shrinking attention spans, how do we engage people to read? When I was a child, I found it difficult to motivate myself to read. It was not that I found reading difficult. It was because, quite frankly, I wasn’t interested. As a science enthusiast, when my teacher performed an experiment in the laboratory, I was enthralled. If a nature documentary was on television, I couldn’t look away. But read a book? No thanks. What happens to those children who find reading boring or difficult? They stop reading altogether; impacting their education and their further development.
A eureka moment came for me at the age of twelve, when I saw a photograph in the newspaper of a Tyrannosaurus rexchasing Jeff Goldblum. A movie with real dinosaurs! Well, they looked real enough to me. My interest sparked instantly. As an avid dinosaur fan, I looked forward to it with great delight. After some careful research, I discovered the upcoming movie was actually based on a book. I couldn’t wait for the summer release, so my Mum bought me a copy of the book instead: Jurassic Parkby Michael Crichton. Using a combination of scientific theory and well-crafted storytelling, the book fascinated me. I read it from cover to cover in a matter of days. Me, a reluctant reader, who couldn’t usually get passed the first chapter. This was a gamechanger.
For a parent trying to help their reluctant reader, there are many simple and effective methods. I’ve mentioned the first: to focus on a topic of interest. Another popular and effective method is to use stories with humour. From joke books to rhyming picture books, everyone loves to laugh. We always think of books as the only option, however comics and graphic novels can also be a great starting point. Perhaps, rather than reading first, it may be better to practice the words after listening to them read out loud. There are so many audio options available now: from audiobooks to podcasts to YouTube videos. Any one of these innovative methods could be the starting point your child is looking for.
Sometimes, there can be other reasons why a child is reluctant to read. They may be struggling and need extra support. But by employing a few simple methods, change can happen. And it can happen quickly. When you read about a subject you’re passionate about, it becomes easier. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read widely in other genres or on other topics – the complete opposite, in fact. But if you’re struggling to get your child motivated with their reading, you just need to start small. Something you know they’ll love.
Just as reluctant readers sometimes struggle, writers too face problems with motivation. How do we approach this? We follow a similar process, by writing about what we know and love. I enjoy all areas of science, from biology through to astronomy and physics. After accepting I’ll never get to travel around the Solar System myself, I settled for the next best thing: learning as much about it as possible. I even did an astronomy course. This study eventually led me to writing a series of blogs called #OurSuperSolarSystem. There were so many new discoveries being reported each day, I wanted to share them with people; especially children.
As with any writing, ideas are generated and stories begin to form. I imagined what it would be like to go into space, unguided and unprepared. A character appeared in my mind, yet I didn’t yet know how this character would come to life. An opportunity finally arrived when I was approached by the innovative storyteller and director, Michael Sokolar. Michael and his colleagues at Little Lights Studio were in the process of developing a wonderful new iPhone app, called Bedtime Stories - read & tell. A storytelling app for parents, the app allows you, the parent or guardian, to become a storyteller, to develop your own stories to share with your children. A new method of engaging reluctant readers, perhaps.
I was asked to write for the app and I was of course, over the moon – literally. No, seriously, I wrote a story about going over the moon! The name I had written down a year before, finally came to be… Cornelius Comet. The story begins with Cornelius in science class, where he meets a new student - Anna. And then, these new friends, two unlikely astronauts, go on the journey of a lifetime. How do you visit space if you can’t go yourself? You do the next best thing and create your own journey around the Solar System.I realised when I was writing that this was the journey I’d always wanted to make. By writing about something I was passionate about, my writing flowed and my interest sparked.
As such, Cornelius Comet’s Astroadventuresare very close to my heart. I hope that Cornelius and Anna’s stories inspire children to find their own passion for a subject, whatever it may be. Who knows where it might take them? There are so many exciting worlds out there for them to explore, in books, comics and on screen, and there will always be something for everyone. Your child just has to find the one that’s right for them. Afterwards, the sky’s the limit.
Paul Ian Cross is a scientist and author from London, who writes science-inspired stories for children and young adults. The Bedtime Stories – read & tellapp, which Paul contributed to, is now available for iPhone. Full of many different story-worlds, written by authors from all over the world, there is definitely something for everyone.