Now that e-readers are taking hold of the adult market, merchandisers are turning to the children’s market. “This is our first attempt to get organized around a children’s books strategy,” Jeff Belle, the vice president for Amazon Publishing, said in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month. He was announcing Amazon’s acquisition of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books and its plans to digitize the publisher’s backlist and current releases.
Amazon’s interest will obviously expand the options parents already have for electronic reading devices for their children. But it won’t answer the lingering questions: Is anything lost in the electronic translation of children’s books? Is there a substantial difference between traditional book reading and electronic reading?
To explore the issue, I turned to Holly Kreider. She is the director of early childhood literary programming at Raising A Reader, a nonprofit organization that straddles the traditional and electronic literary worlds. The group is based in Mountain View, Calif. (home to Google headquarters) and is funded partially by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. At the same time, its core mission is to promote reading-readiness by providing families with traditional books and encouraging parental habits like “book cuddling.”
I asked for her thoughts on how a possible explosion in children’s e-reading might, or might not, effect literacy.
Among the youngest children Kreider echoed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that those under 2 not be allowed screen time. “Infants’ brains are in rapid growth mode and benefit most from lots of human interaction and exploration of their physical world,” she said.
For older children though, the answer is less clear.
“I believe both ‘old school’ books and e-books can peacefully co-exist. Books and stories, regardless of the format, hold the potential to spark children’s imagination and incite rich conversations that lead to language and literacy development and subsequent school success,” Kreider said.
‘Old school’ books have time and research on their side – we know that the number of books in the home and family literacy behaviors, like regular shared reading between children and parents, are highly predictive of positive educational outcomes for children.
Traditional books also have other benefits that e-books currently don’t have. For example, they can vary in shape and size and texture — consider how much fun it is to touch-and-feel fuzzy books together or lift the flap to find out who is hiding behind the door or jump to the last page to see if you guessed the story’s ending.
On the other hand, children and families can potentially access lots of stories from almost anywhere using e-books. In theory, e-readers also offer an infinite supply of choices for reading time, and we do know that following children’s interests ignites their intrinsic motivation to read. It’s also the case that technological literacy in and of itself is a valuable outcome, so familiarity with devices and how to access information through technology are likely useful 21st century skills.
Finally, it’s important to remember that e-books for children are literally in their infancy, and already present other types of exploration and experiences that traditional books typically do not, for example, in the form of animated illustrations and recorded narration.
Time and research will tell us what e-readers mean for children’s learning outcomes, but chances are e-books and ‘old school’ books will proffer some overlapping and some unique benefits as well as limitations for children and families and will be best used in thoughtful combination.”
Are you ready to swipe through “Goodnight Moon”? Does your gift list include an electronic reader for a child?