Anne Brataas Q&A

February 14, 2022
Anne Brataas steers children away from screens and toward books.

“The early years are a period of explosive neuronal growth called dendritic arborization— yes, envision a branching tree, a burr oak wildly spreading. This growth is the infrastructure of thought. It provides the nerve-based means for processing, categorizing, organizing, interpreting all the stimuli and perceptions flooding the brain through dendritic growth and synapses that connect dendrites, thereby creating a network that supports complex thinking. Early-years growth of robust, abundant brain neuronal connections through arborization prepares a child to better interpret stimuli from the world — and understand it, the child’s own self, others, the child’s role in family, community and the world.”

Have you been producing children-authored books in different ways due to the pandemic?

March 2020 was the pandemic opener — and the day of our first and last in-person pop-up Story Scouts meeting in Grand Marais. In our book, Safe and Happy, A Children’s Field Guide to Thriving in a Pandemic, we call this inaugural meeting “the last day of normal.” We published seven books since then, all in new and different ways than originally conceived. We don’t take mobile publishing labs to schools — we’ve tried, but in our last attempt, in November 2021, the project got called off due it a COVID outbreak on the second day of working in a sixth-grade classroom in Grand Marais to have kids help illustrate a dog book that requires 18 dog characters.

Your goal is to reinvent the book as a nutritional supplement that has a tangible neuron benefit to young readers. What is lost for children when they don’t receive such nourishment?

Data show that the biology of human brain development is such that if children do not, from birth, consistently receive stimulation from embodied human language — a person in the room who is present to them, not on a screen or a recording — through kind and pleasant conversation, songs stories or books read aloud to them, brain development suffers. The early years are a period of explosive neuronal growth called dendritic arborization— yes, envision a branching tree, a burr oak wildly spreading. This growth is the infrastructure of thought. It provides the nerve-based means for processing, categorizing, organizing, interpreting all the stimuli and perceptions flooding the brain through dendritic growth and synapses that connect dendrites, thereby creating a network that supports complex thinking. Early-years growth of robust, abundant brain neuronal connections through arborization prepares a child to better interpret stimuli from the world — and understand it, the child’s own self, others, the child’s role in family, community and world. To learn. What is lost is the infrastructure of learning. As any teacher can tell you — and as the pandemic loss of kindergarten made clear — it is obvious who spends a lot of time alone with screens, with little nutritional supplement of authentic in-person communication.

You received a grant from the Blandin Foundation to fund BorealCorps Scouts, a program in Cook County in which children write and publish the Grand Maris Gleam newspaper. How is that working?

The Gleam Team is awesome and evolving. Publishing of the Grand Marais Gleam was disrupted by COVID — but not defeated. We are still formulating a way to publish regularly, without diluting our book projects. They compete for talent and time. I need both a newspaper staff and an authors/illustrators club. The Blandin grant that created BorealCorps was the pre-cursor and pilot to the 2nd Blandin grant now underway, the AIR grant, to enlarge the vision through the Arrowhead Children’s Everystory Co-operative (ACE Co-Op). Because I left the job at Boreal Community Media under which BorealCorps was created, that digital news site is under-tended, now — but may roar to life. In the meantime, I started the non-profit Minnesota Children’s Press and its Story Scouts publishing club.

You’ve said that the primary purpose of your kid-centered projects is to make meaning and not just money. Is the approach sustainable?

Yes! It’s no hedge fund, but it can pay its bills.

What is next for you?

Two things. To figure out scaling up MCP. Should we do it? How? I’m naturally a serial, entrepreneurial start-up leader. I conceive, design, build and validate rapid prototypes and then keep producing the new product for follow-up evaluation and improvements — for a bit — but I move on. My whole career in science writing with my consultancy, The Story Laboratory, has been helping create communication projects for world-class researchers, projects that don’t exist at the moment. I love that! Before that, in my career as a daily newspaper reporter and columnist prior to the Internet, journalism required creating a new product every day. That imperative to be endlessly resourceful shaped me profoundly, and I’m so grateful for it. And to start The Daily Thingy, or something like it, a child-led non-profit digital newspaper syndicate for Minnesota.