Storytime ™

Storytime, Hallmark wants us to know, is not for reading.

That’s right –not for reading. Rather, in a current ad campaign for Hallmark’s new line of ‘Interactive Story Buddies’, Hallmark boasts that storytime is “for bringing stories to life in a whole new way”. And this ‘innovation’ to storytime takes the form of Jingle, a stuffed animal who will bark when prompted, taking storytime, Hallmark assures us to a whole new level.

Take a look: it's quite direct.

This begs the question: if storytime isn’t for reading, then what exactly is it for?

This question isn’t necessarily new. On this blog, we’ve discussed some of the issues and questions raised by the adaptation of picturebooks to various electronic formats. Is reading a picturebook on an iPad the same as reading an actual book? In the same vein, we might ask if new storybook products, like ‘A Story for Bed’, which allows parents to record themselves reading a picturebook, which will then play as the child flips through the book, qualify as ‘storytime’.

While there are no outright answers, as Ghada addressed in a recent post, one of the dangers of iPad picturebooks is the way in which the inclusion of animation disrupts the linearity of the reading process, interrupting the relationship between text and visual images which picturebooks help children to form.

Indeed, one answer to the question of what storytime is for is child development. Picturebooks play a crucial role in cognitive development, as children move from words to pictures and back again, forming connections between the verbal and visual. The picturebook medium exposes children to abstraction, and has been shown to enable children to grasp complex ideas that they cannot grasp or articulate verbally, such as irony. Parent interaction is key in this, as the presence of a parent or adult allows children to ask questions, discuss pictures and stories, and to actively engage in the reading experience as it unfolds.

To this, I would add that storytime provides a forum for discussion and quality time between parents and children, that storytime can foster a life-long love of reading, that picturebooks can open up imaginative worlds for children, and that books and stories are downright enjoyable, as some of the many ‘functions’ of storytime.

So yes, Hallmark, perhaps storytime is not just about reading. It’s about that, and much more.

Unfortunately, this is clearly not Hallmark’s message. Storytime “is not for reading”, it’s for “bringing stories to life”, a goal which, according to Hallmark, cannot be achieved by book alone. Reading isn’t real or magical on its own. You need a toy for that.

This attitude towards reading reflects a troubling trend. It presupposes that audiences will accept that the simple act of reading words on a page, of looking at pictures on a page, isn’t enough. Magic is no longer inherent to the reading process. Instead, it has to be inserted. Pictures have to move on the screens of iPads, books have to read themselves, or make noise at the press of a button. Imagination is no longer a consideration. It is only when the stuffed animal actually comes to life that the child will feel attached to it; only then will reading be magic, will something be real, will children feel a connection to stories.

The fact that Hallmark, a multibillion dollar corporation, felt comfortable using the catchphrase “storytime is not for reading” in a nation-wide marketing campaign, is appalling in itself. But even more troubling is the simple fact that Hallmark’s advertising executives probably knew what they were doing. In an ad that has aired in front of children and parents across the United States, they have implied that without their product, storytime is inherently lacking, and few seem to care.

Hallmark has put an emphasis on magic in storytime, but is in fact, removing the imaginative magic from storytime with its yipping product. There’s no need, kids, to imagine Jingle doing any of the things the book portrays her doing. Jingle, the stuffed animal, is right here, and she’ll provide a demonstration.

So keep Hallmark in mind the next time you’re buying a child a picturebook. Storytime helps to develop your child’s mind, pushing them to make visual and verbal connections, providing them with a forum to grasp complex ideas, exposing them to abstraction, providing parents and children with essential bonding and co operational experiences, fostering imaginative growth, and exposing children and parents alike to the sheer joy of literature. Magic and batteries, however, are sold separately.

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