Eila and her friends are devouring the Magic Tree-House series: 50 or so books in which American kids named Jack and Annie travel to distant times and exotic places. Before chatting with Z I’d thought that the only things wrong with the series were (a) condescension for any culture or historical period not our own, and (b) writing so wooden it’s hard to imagine it’s not being done deliberately.
But Z adds that the whole scenario has a computer-like feel. The kids get to where they need to go by pointing to a picture in a book and saying, “I wish we could go there.” This is the fantasy of the internet: that pointing and clicking opens for you the riches of the world. And, of course, these riches are defined pragmatically: once they’ve arrived at their destination, the kids receive little bits of information from their book each one of which answers a practical need of the moment. Oh yes, a few life-lessons are larded in as well (Thomas Edison tells them that “genius is 99% perspiration”) as is some generalized feminism (Annie is annoyed when they visit locales where girls can’t do the same things as boys). But the general idea is the presentation of a short series of uncontextualized, momentarily useful facts. There is absolutely no character development, nor is there even really a plot. Or maybe it’s just that every book has the same plot: point and wish, find out a couple of things, encounter a threat, run away, come home.
Z’s analysis provides the context and rationale for my previous criticisms. Of course the books are condescending, as nowhere Jack and Annie visit has the magic they have, the magic of the computer. Of course they’re badly written, with no development or plot, as the medium in question is conducive only to the presentation of info-bites.
Parents who say, “at least they’re reading,” have already bitten the apple.