February 23, 2012

This past weekend, Dan Poynter – a legend in the self-publishing and small press community – was on NPR on a program entitled “The Future of Children’s Books.” He said all children’s publishing will transition over to tablet-based e-readers. I had been pondering a response to his thesis, which I think has some merits, but goes too far, when I was contacted about it by Sheila Ruth, a parent, homeschooler, fellow publisher, co-list Mom at the SPAN Self-Publishing List and distribution client with me at Beagle Bay. Inc. Since Sheila is all over the children’s book community (see her bio), I invited her to write a guest post. Her reply was interesting, well-documented and lengthy. So we’re making this Part I. Part II tomorrow.

The king is dead. Long live the king. NPR and Dan Poynter would  have us believe that print books are dead, and ebooks and interactive book apps  are the only path with a future. While no one can deny the growing importance  of digital books, I don’t think that we can yet say a requiem mass for print  books for children.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think that ebooks are evil. Interactive ebooks, in particular, have a lot of potential for helping children learn in new and exciting ways, and for encouraging reading in the digital age. As one of the organizers of the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (Cybils Awards), I was involved in the decision this year to add a category for book apps, and to allow “born digital” ebooks in the teen categories. In fact, when winners were announced last week, I was excited to see that the book app I nominated, The Monster at the End of this Book, won the book app category award. Monster is a great example of how interactivity can take an already great book and make it better.

However, I don’t think that we can, or should, write off print books just yet. Both types of books play an important role. With their engaging interactivity and non-linear exploration, ebooks can encourage and enhance a child’s curiosity and learning. However, that interactivity can actually be a barrier to learning the kind of sustained concentration needed to read a non-interactive book. Interactive learning is different than reading in-depth. Both are helpful ways of learning, but the brain reacts differently to the stimuli of interactive learning and the concentration of sustained reading.

For older children and teens, reading on a tablet or computer encourages multitasking as they jump back and forth between reading and social media. Studies have shown (see the links below in “Sources”) that, not only does multitasking reduce our efficiency and interfere with deep learning, it also gives the brain a “high” which makes us crave more multitasking. Imagine what experiencing that all the time would do to children whose brains are still developing.

Interactive ebooks can also interfere with the development of imagination. As much as I love The Monster at the End of this Book app, the fact that it shows children the  knots breaking and the brick wall falling down means that children don’t have
the opportunity to visualize those things themselves, as I did when reading the
original book as a child. Einstein is famous for saying, “Imagination is more
important than knowledge,” and imagination is an important skill in any field
of endeavor.

Print books also provide a tactile experience that is lacking in interactive ebooks, such as turning the pages, manipulating the book, and in some cases, lifting flaps or patting the bunny. Poynter dismisses that tactile experience with a cavalier, “You’ll get over it,” but what if you won’t? What if the tactile experience is important to a developing brain? I wasn’t able to find any studies that provide hard data one way or the other, but since the areas of the brain that are used develop, and those that aren’t used atrophy, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a diet too heavy in the digital and too light in the tactile will have a negative effect on brain development.

Interactive ebooks help children develop digital literacy. Non-interactive
books are still better at teaching some traditional literacy skills. Children
of the twenty-first century need both.

Reading “regular” ebooks on dedicated ereaders, such as the black and white Kindle, Nook, or Kobo readers, is more like the experience of reading a print book, and less likely to have some of the issues above. There are still some issues: they still lack tactile experience, and also currently don’t benefit from good design. For now, books displayed on these readers have a visual sameness. While this may not be a huge issue, design does impact the way we read a book — in the print world, children’s books in particular are carefully designed to maximize a child’s reading at different stages of development. But the web started out with that same kind of sameness of design, and advancements in technology and standards have given web designers the ability to create web sites that balance beautiful design with device independence and usability. Developments in ebooks will allow that same kind of balance to develop on
future devices.

The digital divide

A larger social issue with the idea of replacing all books with ebooks is that it will further increase the digital divide.

“In some of the poorest areas of the country, it’s hard to find books for sale. A study (pdf) of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, for example, found a ratio of one book for sale for every 300 children. Tens of millions of poor Americans can’t afford to buy books at all. [The study also found fewer libraries over-all, and fewer with staff who could teach children to use computers (let alone e-books)].”

For families in poverty, even a $99 black and white ereader may be out of reach. If all books are digital, those who are in greatest need of them will have the least access to them. As long as libraries are available with an abundance of free books, there is at least a possibility for children growing up in poverty to break the cycle. If these children no longer have access to books, what hope do they have? This is an issue that will have a huge impact on us as a society.

Sheila will look at the digital children’s book business tomorrow in Part II tomorrow.

Sheila Ruth has been active in children’s book publishing since
2004. Her publishing company, Imaginator Press, publishes YA fantasy and
science fiction. She is a past president of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers
. For over six years she has been writing about children’s books on
her Wands and Worlds book blog and moderating a successful community of teen readers. She is a founding organizer for the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers
Literary Awards
, better known as the Cybils.

Aguirre, Blaise (December 18, 2011). “Dr. Blaise Aguirre: The
myth of multitasking.” Wicked Local Lexington

David Bornstein (May 16. 2011) A Book in Every Home, and Then Some The New York Times

Hazard Owen, Laura (January 23, 2012). “New Stats: Kids Find
E-Books ‘Fun And Cool,’ But Teens Are Still Reluctant,”

Susan B. Neuman; Donna Celano (Jan-March 2001), Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods

Richtel, Matt (November 20, 2011). “For Their Children, Many
E-Book Fans Insist on Paper”, The New
York Times

Sumner, Karen (January 16, 2012). “Multitasking Undermines Deep
and Sustained Learning, Research Shows,” OurKids.

Walsh, David (July 9, 2011). “Can Kids Multitask?” Psychology Today.

University of California – Los Angeles (2006, July 26).
“Multi-tasking Adversely Affects Brain’s Learning, UCLA Psychologists Report.” ScienceDaily.­/releases/2006/07/060726083302.htm




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  • Yeah, Sheila … are you sure you don’t want to join us on the literacy bench?

    Like you, I love the potential that digital books offer, but “hard copy” products play a very important role.

    There is a growing school of thought that says the tactile experience is critical to development (isn’t it why we say kids need to play not memorize?).

    So the preschooler’s brain may not get over not having a page. Why? Because learning to hold a book and turn a page are small motor skills that later contribute to being able to write … or type!

  • Awesome blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused .. Any tips? Cheers!

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