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Big Digital Fox

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As a child, I loved E.L. Konigsburg’s book about a brother and sister running away for a week to live in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Growing up in the Midwest, I had never seen anything like the automat where Claudia and Jamie could buy everything from pie to baked beans, and sleeping in the velvet-draped beds of the historical exhibits seemed magical. Ditto bathing in the museum’s marble fountain.

For a long time, I wanted to write a middle grade story where tweens took off on an adventure just like in The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As a professor, I felt like a college campus—with its abundance of free food, places to hide, and of course, fountains—would be the perfect setting.

But when I tried to map out the book, I got stuck. In this day and age, I felt like I couldn’t have two tweens disappear for a week, leaving behind only a note saying that they’d run away, as Konigsburg did in the 1970s. I felt sure that today’s readers would see such a long absence as dangerous instead of fun.

After all, many of the parents of my fully adult college students use Life360 to keep watch over their children. (In fact, I first learned about the tracking app on a day when my children’s literature course met in the library instead of in our regular classroom because one of my students got a call from her mother asking her to explain her unexpected whereabouts.)

As I worked through the practical problems of plotting the book, I realized I wanted to write not just an adventure filled with puzzles and mysteries, but also a book that explored the role of electronic surveillance in children’s lives.

Childhood autonomy is a theme that runs through all of my work—both academic and fiction. I am continually exploring what it would look like to treat children as fully human, in need of protection and guidance, certainly, but also worthy of respect. In Averil Offline in particular, I think I’m asking whether there is anything parents don’t have a right to know about their kids.

This question feels increasingly pressing to me in a world where apps report children’s grades on even the smallest assignments, share the mildest of behavior infractions, and map every movement. And of course, this sense that parents have a right to their children’s every thought and action goes beyond the virtual world. More and more, we see parents feeling that they have a right to control not just what their own children read, but also the stories other people’s children engage with.

In some ways, I get it. The world is a scary place, and the urge to keep our kids safe is primal. But increasingly, I think that fear should be adults’ burden to bear—not children’s.

For kids, I hope Averil Offine will be the delightful romp that The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was for me—a fantasy of freedom that they can imagine themselves into, even if it’s not yet possible in their real lives.

But for adults, I hope the book does something else. I’d like us to question the reasonableness of our demands for constant reassurance about our children’s safety, even as new technologies make those demands easier and easier to meet. I think it’s time that we take our children’s right to privacy at least as seriously as we take our own fears.

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Amy Noelle Parks is a professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, a mother of two, and the author of middle grade and young adult books, including Summer of Brave and The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss.

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