Fractured Fairy Tales

According to a recent post on Smart Money‘s blog, nearly 50% of U.K. parents say they now read books to their kids on e-readers or tablets.

Andi Sporkin of the Association of American Publishers tells Smart Money that sales in the juvenile e-book category (books for children 18 and under), grew  233% to $64 million in the first quarter of 2012, and called children’s e-books “the fastest growing category in trade.”

For teens and preteens, who live increasingly digital lives, this news is heartening, as it gives a McLuhanite hope that books and reading will be embraced by the reluctant readers who’d never pick up a dead-tree book by choice. But for younger children, this news is troubling.

Anything that brings children and their parents or caregivers together over a book cannot be all bad, of course, but e-books, for all their positive qualities, may deny young children one of the most wondrous experiences of childhood: discovery.

When I think of my own childhood reading habits, I think automatically of libraries. Of public libraries and school libraries, and browsing in shelves and stacks, looking at books, discarding books, choosing books to take home with me. My parents/caregivers were only tangentially involved in the process of my book selections; for the most part, what I self-selected. Moreover, the books were mine to read when I wanted, where I wanted, once I checked them out.

For the youngest readers and pre-readers, the roadblocks e-books pose to this kind of self-directed reading and browsing are obvious. The transactions required to access e-books are too complex, even with child-centric devices that limit functionality and direct browsing. The number of steps between the child and the book are too many, and selection lies in the hands of parents and caregivers. So too, is the access to the books, once chosen; while many parents may give young children free reign with tablets and other devices, barriers will nevertheless exist to spontaneous reading.

But it is the element of choice, perhaps, that is most disheartening when children’s reading is restricted, even with the best of intentions. Librarians, educators and parents who’ve experienced the Accelerated Reader phenomenon decry the effect on motivation and enjoyment of reading in school-aged children when prescribed reading lists remove choice from the equation. For younger still children, whose choices may be further restricted by well-meaning or time-crunched parents and caregivers, the risk is even higher. No matter what age the reader, when the experience of browse through shelves, be they physical or digital, is removed, the worlds that reading have to offer shrink.

The ways children experience books on devices brings another troubling aspect to the ascendancy of e-books. As the Smart Money article points out, “experts say younger children like the graphics and color of e-readers, as well as the option to hear the book read aloud even when a parent is unavailable.”

Reading with a child creates a vastly different experience for the child than giving the child a device which reads the story to the child. A tablet, no matter how bright, shiny or audio-equipped, cannot automatically pause to allow a concept time to marinate in a child’s mind, nor can it sense when a child needs more or additional information to make sense of a story.

And, unless e-books are used as a way to engage children, rather than occupy them, they may be doing more harm than good to reading skills.  The Guardian recently reported on a study that found that reading enhanced e-books was actually detrimental to children’s reading comprehension:

Children reading enhanced ebooks also “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story”, said the researchers, speculating that the extra features may be distracting. But while “print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading”, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better “for engaging children and prompting physical interaction”.

But my biggest problem with the book-on-a-device idea, when it comes to children, must be seen to be appreciated. Click on the image twice (it should expand to fill your whole screen), as it just can’t be done justice otherwise:

It’s two pages from one of Richard Scarry’s books (What People Do All Day, to be exact). Scarry’s books, almost always oversized and thick, explode with details and information that simply cannot be captured on a screen, including the one you are reading this on. They beg to be looked at again and again and again; a copy of Busy Busy TownCars and Trucks and Things That Go, and Best Word Book Ever is soon smudged and dog-eared, favorite pages blurred with fingerprints where a child just can’t help but point out and touch the things she loves over and over again. That’s an experience no device can replace.

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