Are Printed Children’s Books Nearing Extinction?

I must confess, that after decades of loyalty to my library, from which I take home up to five books a week (often to be read in the bathtub, and fortunately not one has had a mishap). I have now surrendered to technological advances, and downloaded the “Overdrive” app on my new iPad. (Thank you brothers Chip and Tigger, who gave me this for my last major birthday!)  My iPad gives me the ability to sign into Overdrive with my library network, and ‘borrow’ and download up to six books at a time, and it’s free.  Because I am an inveterate traveler, I have often lugged three or four hardcovers across the country and back. Now I have room in my suitcase for my favorite sandals, and I’m not stuck in the same shorts for the entire vacation.  The portability and flexibility of the iPad is working beautifully for me.  And you can’t be overdue, because the books alert you on the iPad when it’s time to return them.  

But what about children’s books?  At what age will children be equally happy with the experience of curling up to read a print book, versus reading on a screen?  If reading is the foundational skill that we will all need to succeed in life, to do well in school and learn, to earn a good career – which medium is better at motivating a young child to read?  Can both be valuable?  Can one enhance the other?

According to All Things Considered, $3.1 billion in children’s printed books are sold each year. Thirteen percent of all book sales for children are e-books. However, that percentage is growing.  And there aren’t just e-books – i.e., the same pictures and print that can be ‘paged’ on a reading device, as a child would see in print. There are all sorts of digitized products available, with animation, sound effects, and interactive software.

It is my belief that part of what motivates a child to learn to read, and to love reading, is the intangible warmth and comfort of curling up with a parent or caregiver and a book.  Since 80% of a child’s brain is formed by age three, the earlier parents can read with their children, the better.  Even if it is the parent doing all the talking at first, pointing out elements of the story in the pictures, or the colors, or identifying birds, dogs and shapes, a newborn will respond and will begin to develop a love for the experience, and coo or babble in response. This is the beginning of language development. This is the newborn developing dialogue with the parent, a back-and-forth, in response to shared reading.  With a picture book, a child uses his imagination as each page turns, and envisions himself in the story.  While an e-book can offer the same page-turning and visuals, is the experience as warm and cozy as with an actual book? Also, is the parent tempted to plunk the child down with a screen device (phone or kindle) instead of interacting WITH the child?  And with animation, the imagining is done for the child, often with so many actions and colors that a child may be distracted from actually hearing the story itself as it unfolds.  Animated storytelling is a more passive experience. Reading drops the child into a story and engages his imagination.  And there is some evidence that indicates that reading with a digital device can actually intrude into the story. The child and parent become involved in the technology itself, distracting from the reading and the dialogue between them.  Until a great deal more research has been done, we won’t know the comparative impact on a child’s developing vocabulary and language skills.

E-books are coming, as are a plethora of other digital storytelling devices.  E-books are cheaper to distribute and don’t require the overseas printing and shipping that is so costly for publishers.  With the advent of tablets in schools, more school-aged children will be able to explore more wonderful worlds through reading, even if that means reading on a screen.  But for the young readers 0-5, I hope the picture book won’t go away anytime soon.  We have learned so much about how children respond to books – and we know much less about how these youngest learners will respond to e-books.  I hope we will tread slowly and carefully.