Those well-versed in history are familiar with the great debates of our time—Roe v. Wade, boxers v. briefs, Mary Kate v. Ashley. Now, after a series of articles in venerable publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, we can add to that list of life’s most pressing questions this: Should kids learn to read with e-books?
The Times last week found parents who insist their children read and be read to with old-fashioned paper books, citing things like “the experience of turning a page” and the “intimacy” of reading together without the potential distraction of Angry Birds. That, coupled with the fact that all baby showers involve the bestowing of multiple children’s books upon soon-to-be mothers, means kids’ titles are actually a bright spot in the world of old-fashioned publishing. E-books for children under 8 represent less than 5% of total annual sales of children’s books, compared with more than 25% for some adult categories.
The Journal, for its part, assessed the kid-friendliness of various e-readers, but comes to basically the same conclusion: Most of the time (excluding admirable Skype sessions on the part of the corporate traveler parent), print books are preferable, in no small part because kids are fairly fickle when it comes to the pace of a page-turn (something no existing e-reader lets a user dictate.) Even a growing cadre of children’s books with multimedia can’t overcome the benefits of print (I would add to this list of benefits the fact that toddlers have zero qualms about throwing books on the floor, something that’s much easier to accept when said book isn’t an iPad.)
Now I don’t have kids, so I can lend nothing to this debate from the perspective of a mother. I also don’t remember being read to as a child (though I know it happened frequently and is in large part responsible for my lifelong love of books.) But even as a 20-something whose immediate takeaway from these articles was “UGH, now bookstores will just have more kid shit in them,” I have to appreciate the irony. The same adults who unceremoniously made the personal switch to e-readers are citing the feel of turning of a page, the smell of a book and the silence of print when it comes to their kids. In other words, every reason I’ve avoided making the switch myself, just applied to Hop on Pop.
Now, I don’t remember moms crying foul when lullabies moved to iTunes, The Little Mermaid went Blu-ray or Dora showed up on HD televisions. And I suspect e-books will become equally non-controversial as publishers catch on to parents’ gripes and begin making kids e-books better. I also think things like page-turn pacing will become less important as kids cease to know what a “page” is (see: baby not understanding a magazine.) Our kids can’t simultaneously be the last bastion for print and the first generation that won’t understand it.
But it does make me wonder if there’s an untapped market for My First E-Reader, a gadget tailored to the 21st century toddler. An e-reader that lets parents set the speed of page turns, record their version of kids’ favorite stories (something the Nook currently, and awesomely, does) and blocks, disables or simply goes without distracting online games. A device with like 2 buttons maximum, that comes in bright colors and is virtually indestructible. A gadget cheap enough for parents and schools—the latter could save tons of money and paper by not buying 40 paperbacks for every book they assign—but high-quality enough to last for years. An e-reader to take you from Dr. Seuss to R.L. Stine. (My brain is exploding with potential ad campaigns.)
Now, it’s true that the Luddite in me approves of this parental print nostalgia. I may not remember being read to, but I remember the books of my childhood. I see them in stores and get a warm fuzzy feeling, the same one I got a few weeks ago when the opening chords of Beavis and Butthead played on my TV for the first time since 1993. I remember that caterpillar being wicked hungry, and that cat wearing a hat and fucking up those kids’ house, and that bird who couldn’t figure out that his mother was most definitely not a tractor. I understand that these books, perhaps more than those we read as adults, do exist as unique experiences, and do take on certain individual personalities created by their size, shape, page thickness and illustrations. I understand that kids have visceral reactions to their books’ physical presence—my sister used to freak the fuck out (from excitement) whenever we got ready to read The Stinky Cheese Man. Books are always special, but they’re extra special when you’re a kid. I get it.
But attachment to the status quo hasn’t kept us from advancing anywhere else, and I have to assume that it will be the same with children’s books. Honestly, it seems a foregone conclusion that the children of 2050 will read Goodnight Moon on a tablet while being babysat by a personal robot butler. My only hope—and let’s be honest, it’s a big one—is that they still fall in love with it. (Reading, that is, not their robot butler.)