As a once-upon-a-time English major, a paper and pen kind of girl, and a hoarder of books (which often necessitated storage units or piled up in precariously stacked book boxes during my apartment-dwelling years), I used to view the emergence of eBooks as a literary option for kids, tweens and teens with a sense of trepidation. My favorite moment of every day with my preschooler is that stretch of time before bed when we devour two, three or even four books with shared glee. But the latest findings from Pew Research, and early indicators from our own YouthBeat study (eBook ownership among youth households is up from 6% in 2010 to 15% in 2011; from 1% of youth owning the device on their own to 3%), suggest that the eBook is on the rise, and most likely, here to stay.
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the conference, “Children's Publishing Goes Digital.” Listening to industry experts reminded me of the many reasons why eReaders deserve a second look by suspicious parents, and serious consideration by companies and organizations seeking platform and promotional partners. Additionally, more and more educators have been studying the potential and the possibilities for eBooks among youth and specific sub-groups within this broad category. So here’s what gives this old school book ogler reason to rally behind this reading innovation:
- eReaders don’t fundamentally change books. A look at the list of highest selling eBooks suggests that a book is a book is a book. Dr. Seuss still sells, regardless of whether his rhymes are read in paper form or on a portable digital device. Content is still king, and a move to digital doesn’t mean that a great story doesn’t constitute the first hurdle for publication. As long as stories are still evaluated for their narrative quality, and not their cool quotient, it shouldn’t really matter how we read them. And if we can’t give up our paper products, I wonder if books have just become fetishes that we like to look at on our shelves? (Note: I write this in front of a very, very large bookshelf, populated by a lot of pretty lit).
- eReaders might bring in more readers. Reluctant, struggling readers, and readers with special needs can all benefit from the way in which eReaders reinvent the reading experience. Being able to hear a tricky word pronounced by touching it, or getting to play a game for finishing a chapter might seem like unnecessary supports or incentives, but from the perspective of kids who haven’t yet found reading to be rewarding (and the parents of those kids), eReaders might make the difference.
- eReaders make books more complex – not more superficial. For today’s digital natives, every experience – whether it’s watching a movie, playing a video game, or even hearing an idea in school – comes with the expectation that you can go deeper on your own. Why should books be any different? And doesn’t the desire to learn more about an author, or “hear” a song described in a book actually sung, or find a land you’re reading about on an actual map all speak to a need for a stronger connection with books – not a weaker one?
- eReaders make reading more cost effective and environmentally friendly. Yes, that first device costs a lot, but a download is much cheaper than a bestseller at cover price. And what about all that paper? Maybe eReaders will make it easier for this earth-conscious cohort to indulge in words without worrying about wasting more trees.
Perhaps the most important benefit of eReaders is that their mere existence has inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators to think carefully about reading! Books are no longer nostalgic baubles, but have once again become catalysts for changing the way we live.
Still, some caveats exist. Most researchers (and many speakers at the industry conference) affirmed that familiarity with old-fashioned books still serves as an important foundation for literacy. Infants benefit greatfully from the education that comes from sitting on a caregivers’ lap and learning that stories work sequentially, that pages turn in one direction, and that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Games and puzzles might be fun, but shouldn’t interrupt the carefully crafted flow that an author intends. And does the art work that often separates a good picture book from a great one always translate to a digital device?
And, of course, there are outstanding questions. Can a digital bookstore ever capture the magic of a physical one? (Check out this homage to the bricks and mortar bookstore that is making the rounds on YouTube). How does “discovery” happen in the digital world (a problem which many of the entrepreneurs at Children’s Publishing Goes Digital seem to be working on)?
But for now, we find ourselves inspired by eReaders’ possibilities more than pessimistic about what it might mean to reading.