I have been reading articles, blog posts and chatter on Twitter about print books vs. ebooks a lot lately. In the market for children’s books, the rapid cultural shift from print to digital book apps in particular seems to have turned the world on edge. Authors, illustrators, publishers and now developers have a lot to say about this transition. Some seem to think it is a miracle, others fear it is the end of reading as we know it.
I suspect both points of view are right in some ways. From the perspective of cultural change, the fear that ‘reading as we know it’ is over would be accurate, but only because life as we know it is always ending – it always has been and it always will be – that is the nature of the human condition. We do not live in a static cultural environment. It’s an environment that is more akin to a river than a pond. The technological changes in children’s picture books sometimes feel like the cultural equivalent of white water rapids, though. But what parent would send their child downstream alone? As an adult these changes can feel threatening, foreign and even unnecessary. But as a parent, it feels like an imperative to find a good raft that will hold both children and adults safely. Staying on the shore does not feel like an option.
I can remember reading ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a pre-teen in the 1980′s and over-hearing an adult ‘tsk tsk’ at the idea that it was a ‘real’ book or even qualified as ‘reading’. I also know that the introduction of interactive book apps has a ‘miraculous’ feel – at least at first. Watching my child spontaneously begin to read after so many books with text highlighting as it is narrated feels pretty miraculous. But I also understand the fear and concern expressed by those who say an ebook app is not ‘real’ reading material or not ‘proper’ or even that it is not good for literacy.
At times my child has been unable to focus on the storytelling in some of the book apps I have reviewed at Digital Storytime because of excessive ‘features‘. The selection of book apps is growing fast, though. As someone who has reviewed almost 150 children’s book apps (and previewed hundreds more), I think young readers can get many of the same benefits from digital books that they gain from reading print editions. In my opinion, anyone who feels that “an app book is more app than book”, simply hasn’t looked at the market deeply enough – there is a lot of variety out there.
But these ebooks are a complement, not a replacement to the print books I share with my child. I think this is how most children are experiencing the digital revolution in the books they read and have read to them. I have not yet met a single parent who has replaced print books wholesale with digital publications. As with most cultural battles, those of us in the real world know it is not an either/or situation but one of balance. We have new choices to navigate, but that also brings new ways to inspire a love of reading in another generation.
There are always downsides to cultural change. But instead of resisting change, we need to compensate for it by being thoughtful and engaged in the process. The effects of technological ‘revolutions’ in the past, like radio, television and the internet, have not been universally good changes for our communities, families or society in general. But with the exception of a few isolated cultural groups (e.g. Amish), most of us will move forward into the new cultural landscape, even if it takes longer for some of us to adjust to it than others.
This doesn’t mean the important benefits of print reading can be delivered by ebooks automatically, just because there are still words on a page. The essence of the reading experiences I grew up with cannot be ‘scanned’ into digital form like the text can be. Being interactive, narrated or even animated is part of the challenge, certainly, but even the lack of a more tactile experience changes how we interact with these new books. So we will have to invent new ways to interact with our new and very real books. Like generations before us, we will adjust to our new reality.
I think this is an enormously interesting and important conversation. In fact, it is gratifying to see so much attention paid to children’s books in general. When was the last time our culture put the children’s book at the center of our conversation? If things hadn’t begun to change so dramatically in the last year in particular, I wouldn’t even be thinking about this topic, let alone writing about it. The rapid change has ‘woken’ me up to thinking more deeply about the learning process for my child, myself, and the other children I have educated over the years.
I may be a digital immigrant with a digitally native child on my hands, but I find the opportunity to explore this new cultural landscape more exciting than scary. I am also grateful for the opportunities the digital revolution has given me to connect with others. There are conversations and debates going on today with a scope and scale I could not have imagined even a few years ago. My excitement wins out over my fear in large part because of the community of amazing individuals I’ve met through conversations on Twitter, email, Facebook and other ‘techie’ ways of re-connecting. This follows years of having digital technology produce mostly isolation from others. The ‘digital age’ may be a new challenge, but it is one we do not have to face alone.
The following articles inspired this post – in addition to Twitter discussions about these articles and #tocbologna (Tools of Change – Digital Book Conference/Bologna, Italy):