Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Reading Remixed

Far from killing reading, digital technologies are helping young readers become more engaged in books than ever.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

According to Nicholas Carr (2010), "For some people, the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old-fashioned … like sewing your own shirts or butchering your own meat" (p. 8). Experts like Carr decry what they perceive as a movement away from books. But as librarians and teachers, we notice a parallel movement in another direction. The reading experience, the relationship between author and reader, and the book itself are evolving. And these shifts mean that many young people are embracing books and reading as never before.
As far back as 1999, Eliza Dresang and Kate McClelland observed that books for young people were beginning to diverge from traditional expectations to appeal to a new generation of readers, incorporating interactivity and other digital elements:
We do not believe this is a passing phase. We believe authors, illustrators, and those with whom they work will find more creative ways to promote interactivity, connectivity, and access in handheld books. We believe children will continue to expect these qualities in their books, just as they do in the digital resources they encounter. (p. 166)
In an October 2011 conversation, Dresang remarked on the accuracy of her earlier prediction, noting that "a decade and a half later, this perspective continues to ring true … There is no end in sight." But these changes need not mean an end to reading and writing. In fact, as Henry Jenkins (2006) notes, "before students can engage with the new participatory culture, they must be able to read and write" (p. 21).

Reimagining Books

Many young people are as attached to books as we were when we were children. Some, perhaps, are even more attached. They talk about books with enthusiasm. They sprawl on the floor, completely absorbed in their reading. But the experience of reading is no longer confined to traditional text on a printed page or books on the library shelves.
Many of today's authors are experimenting with new forms designed to appeal to young readers who have grown up surrounded by multimedia content. Published more than a decade ago, Walter Dean Myers's novel Monster pulled young readers in with a combination of first-person narrative, news clippings, and transcripts of court proceedings. Graphic novels, a newly respected form, occupy a remarkable share of shelf space in bookstores and libraries as well as their own sections in review journals. Brian Selznick defied genre with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 550-page Caldecott Medal–winning hybrid picture book. His recently published Wonderstruck weaves together two stories—one in text, the other in images.
Authors of otherwise traditional novels often use instant message transcripts, e-mail exchanges, and Facebook-style status updates to introduce chapters and characters. Sonja Sones and a host of other young adult writers employ prose poetry and short chapters familiar to students who are used to reading pithy status updates and texts. Sixteen-year-old Kathryn explains the appeal of this style:
My favorite author is Ellen Hopkins. Hopkins's books are different. She writes verse, and the sections have different voices. I can get to know characters because I can hear their voices. The themes are about troubled teens—about suicide, anorexia. I also like to read Jodi Picoult. She also writes books with different voices—you can hear the characters talking.
The growth in popularity of e-books has expanded our definition of what constitutes a book. The iconic Project Gutenberg, a collection of more than 36,000 public-domain e-books, inspired a growing movement of e-book portals. Available free on the web and as an iPad app, the International Children's Digital Library presents more than 4,000 children's books from 64 countries in 54 languages. Commercial services like Tumblebooks and Scholastic's BookFlix offer schools and libraries substantial online collections of animated, narrated, and readalong titles. Students can also search Google Books and read sample chapters or the full text of an almost infinite number of books.
The earliest e-books replicated text in its most bare-bones incarnations, but increasingly, digital versions accomplish what print could not. The enhanced Penguin iPad edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road and the Touch Press version of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" incorporate multimedia files. The digital novel Inanimate Alice includes text, sound, images, music, games, and an imaginary digital buddy.
Patrick Carman's multiplatform 3:15 series directs readers to listen to audio content, read a short story across a few dozen mobile screens, then view a culminating video. Neither the video nor audio versions replicate the text; cross-format consumption is necessary for full comprehension, as no element stands alone. The Amanda Project is a story told through both an interactive website and a book series. Readers become part of the story as they help search for missing high school student Amanda Valentino.
Publishers are reaching beyond the limits of print with quick response (QR) codes that link to online resources. When included in a physical book, QR codes can lead the reader to mobile-friendly background information; media about or created by the author; updated content; playlists of music that enhance the reading experience; or related maps, photos, or video. Today's younger readers, growing accustomed to increased interactivity built into applications for picture books like Pat the Bunny and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and chapter books like the 39 Clues series, will only expect more cross-platform content.
Yet for many teen readers, a physical book is a talisman. Some teens will buy a favorite title in multiple formats so they always have access to it. For 17-year-old Lana, her e-reading device is nice but not a perfect substitute for the real books she prefers to hold:
I love my Nook. It's so convenient. And e-books are so much cheaper. On the Nook, a really expensive book would be only $10. It's very convenient for trips because I don't feel like bringing 50,000 books with me. But it's not exactly the same.

Creating Buzz

Massive amounts of buzz now precede publication of many young adult (YA) titles. John Green recently fed anticipation for The Fault in Our Stars by reading the first chapter on his blog. Last year, Suzanne Collins did the same for Mockingjay, the final title in the Hunger Games trilogy. Teens stay on top of trends in young adult literature at sites like YAContemps and readergirlz. For teachers and librarians, edgy blogs like Reading Rants! and Guys Lit Wire can aid in selecting the most anticipated new books. Promotional events like Twitter's Book Birthday Parties increase readers' awareness of new content.
Buzz from fans is tremendous in the world of series fiction. The release of covers and titles for the next volume are greeted with the bated breath formerly reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. In response to this increasing awareness of forthcoming titles, many teens won't try the first book in a series if the next installments aren't yet on shelves, and publishers are compressing the time lines for publication to get subsequent volumes to readers more quickly. Suspicious of the commercial motives behind stretching what could have been a single, fully realized novel across multiple volumes, some teens eschew series entirely.
Teens' online conversations about upcoming titles sometimes reveal that publishers' plans are going wrong. In one incident, the cover design of Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar, which featured a racially ambiguous model who did not match the author's characterization of the protagonist, became fodder for controversy. In response, the publisher changed the cover to feature a black model (Larbalestier, 2009). Outrage about Simon and Schuster's plan to end Rick Yancey's award-winning Monstrumologist series led the publisher to continue the series beyond the third book (Boog, 2011).

Authors Beyond the Book Jacket

From Twitter, to Facebook, to online fan communities for specific books and authors, young readers have unprecedented access to authors. An author's online presence creates a dialogue with readers. Authors solicit suggestions for character names, verify plot points, and seek informed advice on contemporary teen life. The information available through online interviews, book trailers, contests, forums, and associated content transcends the author persona once contained in a photo on a book jacket.
Authors develop their own mechanisms for creating buzz and connecting with their readers. Using social media and other online utilities, many suggest their own books as read-alikes when a teen enthuses over a similar title. John Green enlists his readers in producing films to promote charities with the Project for Awesome. On Twitter, author Maureen Johnson coordinated contributions for ShelterBox housing for disaster relief. The Speak Loudly campaign mobilized authors and readers against censorship after Laurie Halse Anderson's young adult novel Speak was in danger of being censored because its story involved date rape (Anderson, 2010).
The Skype-an-Author network, initiated by Mona Kirby and Sarah Chauncey, is an invaluable directory of writers willing to arrange virtual visits with classrooms. Skype allowed Wendy Stephens's rural high school in Alabama to bring in authors without the cost of physical travel. Margaret Lazarus Dean's visit put the author in touch with the children of NASA technicians, a demographic she had written about but not met. Melissa Walker's visit resulted in a friendship between one particular student and the author, with the teen eventually guest blogging on websites Walker helps manage.

Social Reading

Online communities like LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Shelfari offer readers a place to share what books they're reading and want to read, network with others with similar reading interests, and discover new content. Some online communities center on specific books and authors. Members of John Green's Nerdfighters and J. K. Rowling's Pottermore join with other readers to discuss and build on the fictional characters and worlds.
Many students independently seek to extend their reading experience by creating their own content. A growing number of teens either read or write fan fiction, expanding their favorite stories and characters, filling in gaps, suggesting new plots, and creating alternate endings, often with the aid of a beta reader who reads early drafts and offers suggestions.
Book trailers, multimedia teasers used to advertise new titles, are as likely to be created by young people as they are by publishers. Teresa Schauer's Book Trailers for All website includes works by students as well as librarians and teachers. Increasingly, such products are replacing traditional book reports in English classrooms.
Teacher librarians are exploring the elimination of walls between book clubs. The Springfield Township High School Library Club recently began to use Skype and Google Plus Hangouts to connect and read with clubs around the United States in what we call the Somewhat Virtual Book Club. The most recent meeting included five schools, as well as a student studying abroad in Austria. The clubs now use their Twitter hashtag (#swvbc) for discussions between meetings.

New Ways of Reading

In an October 2011 conversation we had with author James Kennedy, he summarized what we've observed among young readers today:
The new reader is vocal and social. Not simply content to merely love a book, the readers want to actively celebrate what they read. So, if they find a title they love, they'll not only recommend it to a friend, they'll also discuss it online via a social networking site. They'll likely also create fan art or write fan fiction. They'll dress up as a beloved character [a practice commonly referred to as cosplay, for costume play]. Stories can grow beyond the page and transform because of new reciprocal relationships between authors and reader. Fans can approach the role of collaborator—to co-create in the author's fictional world. Though reading continues as a personal and idiosyncratic experience, social networking promotes fan communities.
We have no metric for determining the precise size of this movement, although we do know that John Green, as one example, has more than a million followers on Twitter. We also know that somewhere—beyond The Great Gatsby and Hamlet and Lord of the Flies—young people read. They connect and interact with authors and books in new ways.
We can celebrate traditional reading and readers. We can embrace new and emerging reading formats. Battle lines are unnecessary. As 16-year-old Jelli, short for Angelica, attests, reading still matters to many teens:
Reading is a large part of what ties my peers together. It's an everyday part of our lives. Books provide us not only with an escape, but also with something to talk about when we're together. We recommend books to each other constantly, and one of us can be found in the library at any given hour of the day. Even outside my circle of friends, a love of reading pervades my school. Lots of people think that between Facebook and Twitter, and the constant reading we have to do for school, it is easy to believe that teenagers might not want to read. However, I am constantly surprised in class to find out that I'm reading the same book as someone else who I thought would never read for pleasure at all. Teenagers still love to read, and social media has only enhanced that.

A Young Reader Speaks

We asked 16-year-old Lauren to share how her online activities have connected her to authors and other readers. Here's a sampling of her comments.

Lauren and many of her friends are Nerdfighters, followers of John and Hank Green's Vlogbrothers video blog, self-declared fans of "awesome" and combatants against "suck."

John Green will go on blog tv and chat with his readers, read teasers from a new book. Before Paper Towns was finished, he shared sections he was writing. A while back, he read two opening chapters and asked readers to decide which book he should focus on.

Another favorite author Lauren follows online is Maureen Johnson:

<BQ> [Johnson is] an absolute nut case, in the best way possible. She discusses how hamsters are controlling her deadlines and how she has to pack for this trip in about two hours. I discovered Libba Bray through Maureen Johnson's tweets. She was talking about [Bray's novel] Beauty Queens [and it sounded] completely amazing. She said it's exactly the book she wished she had as a teenager. </BQ>

Online interactions with authors have given Lauren a behind-the-scenes view of how particular books are born, as was the case with the Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology, which began with a debate between authors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier and their fans over which was better, unicorns or zombies.

Both authors pulled together teams of authors to write short stories about both creatures and published them in an anthology with prefaces to each story by Black and Larbalestier that detail how the portrayal of both creatures vary from story to story and how the symbolism around both creatures varies—plus some hilarious zombies vs. unicorns smacktalk. Zombies totally won.

Interactions between authors and readers often inspire social action.

<BQ> Interactions between authors and fans aren't simply for silly shenanigans. They can do incredible good. The Harry Potter Alliance, started by Andrew Slack, seeks to spread the message of love found in the Harry Potter books through charity work. They see themselves as a kind of "Dumbledore's Army" for the real world. </BQ>

Lauren also told us about how Maureen Johnson asked fans to give money to the Red Cross or ShelterBox after the earthquake in Japan and tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Donors were entered into a drawing for prizes donated by authors that included advance reader's copies, signed books, college essay help, and feedback on novels in progress. In another effort, Readergirlz' Operation Teen Book Drop donated more than 30,000 new young adult books to underserved teens.

The #yasaves Twitter campaign, sparked by Meghan Cox Gurden's June 4 Wall Street Journal articleabout the darkness of young adult literature, galvanized readers in support of literature that speaks to many teens' real-life concerns.

When it comes to platform, Lauren is device agnostic, but she and her friends appreciate the portability of e-books:

I know from personal experience just how convenient it is to be able to download and be reading a book in minutes. Also the ability to carry around lots of books in a very compact device is incredibly nifty.

A variety of reading communities offer reading suggestions and readers' comments on an almost infinite number of books. Lauren has a long-running pen-pal relationship with a girl in Singapore, developed through her Tumblr blog. They bonded over a mutual love of Harry Potter and the Leaky Cauldron—the largest of the Harry Potter–themed social networks. Lauren also loves Goodreads: It's a whole, cool community of readers that didn't exist a few years ago. You can put in every book you've read or books that you want to read. You can write reviews, read other people's reviews, and look at other people's taste.

Lauren is also part of the fanfiction community, in which readers write stories set in their favorite fictional worlds:

It lets people do things with characters that they already like, and it gives young writers a way to get recognition for what they write. For instance, Cassandra Clare, who wrote long fan fiction about Draco Malfoy [one of Lauren's favorite Harry Potter characters], is now a published author. [In online fanfiction communities], there's a worldwide connection between other readers and writers. You have an instant audience. It's an amazing experience for editing. Beta readers from around the world offer feedback and help you edit and improve your work and grow as a writer.

Explore the Online World of Young Adult Literature

These sites represent only a small sampling of online resources and communities to engage teens with reading.

  • <LINK URL="http://community.alan-ya.org">Assembly on Literature for Adolescents Online Community</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://professornana.livejournal.com">Goddess of YA Literature</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://guyslitwire.blogspot.com">Guys' Lit Wire</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.jacketflap.com">JacketFlap</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.readkiddoread.com">James Patterson's ReadKiddoRead</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://sdst.libguides.com/content.php?pid=192765&amp;sid=1665283">Reading 2.0 LibGuide</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.readergirlz.com">Readergirlz</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.readingrants.org">Reading Rants!</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://readingtech.wikispaces.com">Reading 2.0</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://skypeanauthor.wetpaint.com">Skype-an-Author Network</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.storysnoops.com">Story Snoops</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://teenlibrarianstoolbox.blogspot.com">TLT: Teen Librarian's Toolbox</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://vook.com/what-is-a-vook.html">Vook</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://yalitchat.com">#YALitChat</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://13rwproject.com">13 Reasons Why Project</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.the39clues.com">39 Clues</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.theamandaproject.com">Amanda Project</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.cathysbook.com">Cathy's Book (and app)</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/9263.The_Chronicles_Of_Vladimir_Tod_Fan_Club">Chronicles of Vladimir Tod Fan Club (Goodreads)</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com">Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog)</LINK>

  • [[[[[ **** LIST ITEM IGNORED **** ]]]]]

  • <LINK URL="http://www.inanimatealice.com">Inanimate Alice</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://jamespatterson.com">James Patterson</LINK>

  • [[[[[ **** LIST ITEM IGNORED **** ]]]]]

  • <LINK URL="http://libba-bray.livejournal.com">Libba Bray</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com">Maureen Johnson</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.fanpop.com/spots/meg-cabot">Meg Cabot Fan Club</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://mockingjay.net">Mockingjay (The Hunger Games series)</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.randomhouse.com/teens/nickandnorah/home.php">Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.patrickcarman.com">Patrick Carman</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.rangersapprentice.com">Ranger's Apprentice</LINK>

  • [[[[[ **** LIST ITEM IGNORED **** ]]]]]

  • <LINK URL="http://www.fanfiction.net">Fanfiction Net</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.squidoo.com/fanfictionsites">Fanfiction Site List</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.unknowableroom.org">The Unknowable Room</LINK> (Harry Potter fanfiction)

  • <LINK URL="http://www.mitaliblog.com/2009/03/ya-authors-on-twitter.html">Mitali's Fire Escape</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.thecontemps.com">YA Contemps</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://palibraries.libguides.com/content.php?pid=261432&amp;sid=2158278">YA Lit LibGuide</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/end-publishing">Dorling Kindersley UK. The Future of Publishing</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://jameskennedy.com/90-second-newbery">James Kennedy's 90-Second Newbery</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://booktrailersforall.com">Teresa Schauer's Book Trailers for All</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.childrenslibrary.org">International Children's Digital Library</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://gutenberg.org">Project Gutenberg</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/bookflixfreetrial">Scholastic BookFlix</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://www.tikatok.com">Tikatok</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://tumblebooks.com">Tumblebooks</LINK>


Anderson, L. H. (2010, September 22). The power of speaking loudly. Retrieved from Laurie Halse Anderson's blog at http://madwomanintheforest.com/the-power-of-speaking-loudly

Boog, J. (2011, August 22). Mostrumologist series to return after fans complain [blog post]. Retrieved from Galleycat at www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/monstrumologist-series-dropped-by-simon-schuster_b36480

Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton.

Dresang, E. T., &amp; McClelland, K. (1999). Radical change: Digital age literature and learning. Theory into Practice: Expanding the Worlds of Children's Literature, 38(3), 160–167.

Dresang, E. T. (2008). Radical change revisited: Dynamic digital age books for youth. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(3), 294–304.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media elements for the 21st century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation.

Larbalestier, J. (2009, July 23). Ain't that a shame (updated) [blog post]. Retrieved from Justine Larbalestier's blog at http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/07/23/aint-that-a-shame/

Joyce Kasman Valenza has contributed to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 112021.jpg
Reading: The Core Skill
Go To Publication