by Jacqueline Dooley
When I started writing my first book, Doorways to Arkomo, I knew I wanted to reach readers around age 10 through about 13 or 14 – an age where kids still believe in magic (I hope), but are old enough to crave a story with real depth and breadth.
My own experience as a young reader was constantly on my mind. I used to get so obsessed with books that I’d read them again and again. It was kind of personal – the experience of reading and loving a book. But this is an old fashioned notion in today’s world of oversharing.
As an author, I didn’t (at first) fully appreciate how much things have changed for young readers since the days I’d quietly obsessed over my favorite books – graduating from Roald Dahl to Terry Brooks to Stephen King as the eighties turned into the nineties.
These days, kids are able to publicly show adoration for the books that they love in a variety of ways that most authors targeting this age group might not even know about. You may be aware of the statistics – 93% of teens ages 12-17 go online, 75% of them own a cell phone, nearly 40% of them (back in 2010) created or interacted with content – sharing, remixing, blogging, and posting (comments) on a regular basis. (source: Pew Research Internet Project)
These statistics are pretty vague though. I mean, it’s one thing to read about how kids go online all the time and share every aspect of their lives – it’s quite another to watch it happening specifically as it pertains to books. But I am witnessing it firsthand as I watch my daughters and their friends turn the books they love into platforms for social expression.
I’m seeing what happens – exactly – when kids create and share content. When a book (or TV show or movie, etc.) becomes popular, it takes on its own mythology. It even has its own language.
For example, my 13-year-old daughter made me aware of a phenomenon called “shipping” that was very popular with her and her friends. It’s a simple concept. The young fans of a particular book publicly pair characters together based on how they want the story to play out. There are entire Tumblr blogs that feature graphics, animated gifs, slide shows and short stories of characters being “shipped” in creative ways. Kids then share these posts on Instagram, Vine and Snapchat (among other places).
My daughter has spent HOURS creating graphics of her favorite book characters (The Maze Runner is her latest obsession because the movie has already been cast so she has actual photos of the characters). She then shares them with her friends in various ways to get their feedback. She’s particularly interested to know how her friends “ship” the characters.
If she’s obsessed with a book that I’ve also read, then she’ll ask me what characters I would “ship” if I could. This gets me thinking about the story and how I would change it – a pretty intriguing exercise for a writer.
Kids do so much more than “shipping” characters though. They create what’s called “imagines” where they post story scenarios online that suggest different ways the teens themselves can become part of the story (e.g., “imagine that your favorite book characters came to your house for a sleepover”).
These “imagines” are played out via Tumblr and Instagram accounts which become cyber shrines for the book (or character) involved. The accounts contain a wide variety of content – edited images (“edits”), quotes, fictional conversations that involve characters, authors and readers, video clips (sometimes remixed or edited videos of movie trailers) and so much more. The most amazing thing about it all is that these interactions happen (for the most part) with zero input from authors. I’m not even sure that the kids who’ve created the content are interested in hearing from the authors.
It’s difficult to know how to leverage this kind of blind devotion which seems reserved for books that are already hugely popular. I personally think that all this online content offers valuable insight into how young readers internalize books. As writers, we can learn a lot about what moves this young audience and use this information to create stories and characters that they love.
Jacqueline Dooley grew up on Long Island in New York and studied English Literature at Stony Brook University. From August 2012 through the present, she’s blogged about her 13-year-old daughter’s battle with cancer. Learn more about Jacqueline from her Amazon author page.