University of Alberta

Edmonton, Canada

June 13, 1997

Multimedia enters the world of literature and changes the way kids learn

Peter Rabbit leading literary figure in the race to multimedia

By Lee Elliott

Your children may have inherited your hair color, your eyes and even your temper, but they didn't inherit your world. Today's children live in a world filled with multimedia technology that adults are still trying to master and understand. The influence of new media is enormous and may have even changed the way children learn.

Dr. Margaret Mackey
The challenge, according to Dr. Margaret Mackey of the School of Library and Information Studies, is to discover what influences multimedia has on the way children learn and to find ways to adapt our schools and teaching methods to keep pace.

Mackey has spent the last several years searching for the influence of media on children as they explore literature. She did both graduate and postdoctoral research in the area and recently received a $50,000 SSHRCC grant to continue her research over the next three years.

What she's found so far is that children are drawing on other media to illuminate their reading. In one part of her research, Mackey took a group of 12 to 18 year olds and had them read Wolf by Gillian Cross.

"The book had oblique references to Little Red Riding Hood throughout," says Mackey. Little Red Riding Hood wasn't named, but the reference was there. At one point, the story contains the line, Grandmother what big eyes you have. This is a pretty obvious reference for most adults who grew up hearing and reading Western fairy tales. However, when she discussed this line with one reader, he couldn't recall where he'd heard it or the name of the story, but he could bring to mind a comic image of an ugly wolf in bed with blond ringlets and a lacy bonnet.

"This was a very intelligent, well-read boy," says Mackey, "but in this case, his spontaneous reaction as far as I could interpret it came from a cartoon." While he was drawing on another medium to interpret his reading, "it was giving him the wrong emotional message," she says. "The book was drawing on the terror of the moment... his repertoire was comic."

At about the same time, Mackey was involved in another inquiry-following the proliferation of Peter Rabbit books, toys, games, videos, clothes, dishes and more-to learn more about the commodification of children's literature. The result is a book, The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children soon to be published by Garland Publishing.

Mackey has collected hundreds of versions of the Peter Rabbit story and in her travels through Canada, the US and the UK was able to determine at least 75 different categories of products related to Peter Rabbit. We're only starting to question what effect this has on kids, she says. "If I say Thomas the Tank Engine to you and your first thought is of your night light, it's a different response again... If you use your fictional experiences to organize your life as a consumer what does that do to your fictional experience?"

In another study, Mackey had children from Grades 2, 5 and 8 work with different versions of The Secret Garden in small groups. The children explored a variety of print versions, looked at extracts from five different movies, listened to three different audio tapes and used a CD-ROM version.

One video version of the story featured such new elements as talking cats and birds. "I asked the children if they thought it was all right to introduce a talking cat to the story," says Mackey. The answers varied widely, but demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of media-almost as genre. Mackey says one child said, "It would be all right in some cartoons, but it wasn't all right in this cartoon because it was a serious story." Another said, "It wouldn't be right in a movie, but it was okay in a cartoon." One child thought it was okay because the story already had animals, while another said it was acceptable because cartoons are for children, and children expect animals to talk.

When children talked about the older technologies, they talked with a very sophisticated level of analysis. Mackey says with the CD-ROM, however, they just said, 'this is cool. We didn't know you could do this.' "They didn't know the territory," she says. She also found children prefer different media depending on the circumstance - long audio tapes for car trips for instance. But they were all comfortable with a wide range of options.

"There's plusses and minuses all over the place," says Mackey. Children are now very different explorers of literature than we were and are changing as rapidly as the technology does. The challenge for school systems, she says, "is to find ways to deal with the expertise kids come with as well as narrowing the gap between those who have it and those who don't."

It's a huge task. In a recent survey of materials used in Grade 10 English, Mackey said she found a variety of books, 12 filmstrips, videos and one CD-ROM. "This is not a criticism of the teachers," she says. "What it is, is a snapshot of the shift."

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