Many school librarians are asked to hold conversations with parents, staff, and/or students about internet safety or life online. And sometimes, when I have done that, I’ve wished I could create a scenario that isn’t scary, isn’t about predators, but rather allows for a more thoughtful discussion about the impact of living online on our offline selves.
A new dystopian YA novel launches today. Awaken, by Katie Kacvinsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; ISBN 978-0-547-37148-1), is the story of online high-school student Maddie, who lives her entire life online. School, visits with friends at the coffee shop, sitting by the fireplace — it’s all done virtually. And no surprise, as her father was behind the movement to send all children to digital schools. Drug use, murder, and teen pregnancy have steadily declined to almost nothing. Everything is safer and more fair than ever before. Or is it?
What astonished me about this book was its opening. From the very beginning, there is an air of the cautionary tale in Kacvinsky’sdebut novel. Not preachy, but underneath the surface as Maddie rediscovers the pleasures of unplugging.
Imagine the conversations this could provoke in a book club, in a parent discussion group, or in a unit on online etiquette and safety. From the preamble to Chapter 1:
…They don’t make paper books anymore — it’s illegal to chop down real trees. They still grow in some parts of the world, but I’ve never seen one … When trees were dying off in fires and overharvested, books were the first to go. These days books are downloaded digitally and you can order any book you want to be uploaded into your Bookbag in seconds, which I convert onto my Zipfeed. It reads the words out loud to me on my computer. Simple. Convenient.
I know how to read, of course. We learn it in Digital School 2. I still read my chat messages on my phone. But it was proven that audio learning is a faster way to retain information, according to some Ph.D. researchers who studied rats in a cage. By observing rats they figured out the best way for humans to learn. Some politicians thought this theory sounded glamorous, so they changed a law that changed the world. That’s why I listen to almost all of my books.
I didn’t escape the chore of using my eyes to read. Mom still enforces it. She saved all her old novels and stores them in these wooden cabinets with glass doors called bookshelves …
I have to admit, I like the look of them. I also like to escape inside their world, tucked behind their colorful spines. It forces me to fully invest my mind into what I’m doing, not just my ears or my eyes …
…you can imagine my surprise when my mom gave me a blank book. I rarely see a book with print in it, and now a blank one – what a waste …
And I’m supposed to write in this thing. Longhand. …. It’s so slow! …
Why should I take the time to write down my thoughts when no one else can read them? I’m used to millions of people having access to everything about me. I’m used to a fountain of feedback and comments trailing every entry I type, every thought I expose … it shows that people genuinely care about me. It reminds me that I’m real and I exist. Why try to hide it all in a book? Besides, there are no secrets.
Imagine the conversations you could have just from these excerpted passages. Environmentalism and the loss of trees. The switch to digital texts. The perceived value of print books as ones you can sink into versus the implicit understanding that you don’t do that with digital ones (especiall ironic as I read it via NetGalley on my Kindle). The “realness” of online communication. The perception that comments equal care.
Might a book like Awaken be an awesome jumping-off point? And might students be able to speak more frankly about “fictional” life online before discussing their own habits? Oh, the possibilities!
Cover courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company