Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kids: The Last of the True, Great, Old Fashioned Book Readers

Our kids might be the last of the true, great, old-fashioned book readers. I don’t mean as a generation, although that might be the case, I mean Childhood might the last sacred phase in which reading a paper, board, or anything other than of electronic, book is still commonplace.

This unsettling thought struck me as I walked the aisles of a Borders Bookstore looking for Christmas presents. The store was having a Going Out of Business Sale, which even in my distracted state of motherhood struck me as an obvious clue that times were a-changing. A year ago, I would have looked for a biography, history or a few silly paperbacks by Christopher Moore that send my husband into fits of laughter even on mass transit—but not this year. He’s moved on to his e-reader and giving him a bound book, as much as I still gravitate to them, and as easy as they are to wrap and place a bow on, would be like giving a seventeen year old keys to your horse and buggy.

The modern world has arrived.

But, giving a child a real book still has great significance. The American Academy of Pediatrics says what most parents already know: babies and toddlers show their developmental milestones in relation to books and in part because of them. They nibble on the hard covers; turn the pages; carry them around; select a few at bedtime; notice when one is upside down; call out the names of characters; and eventually, take over “the role of storyteller”.

The promise of snuggling up to find a hungry caterpillar, or zoo-dodging gorilla, or constant moon on each page of a book is the reason most kids are willing to get out of their pre-bedtime bath.

Would this happen with an electronic reader? In a way, I suppose. But chewing on one would be like gnawing on a cell phone—not recommended--and at nearly $140 a piece, it would be expensive to scatter them around a crib the way many kids do with board books, or to create the tactile and auditory sensations of squeezing a duck’s fuzzy belly and hearing it quack.

For now, Amazon and its users seem to get that. The top selling Amazon Kindle books categorized for children are: Alice in Wonderland, Dracula (ah, that childhood favorite with fangs) and Fairytales Every Child Should Know. You can get The Truck Book, and Two Dumb Ducks, and other less dense literary fare for the device, but board books have not yet lost their currency for living up to their bluntly descriptive name.

Not so in other genres.

Several months ago, Amazon announced it was selling 180 ebooks for every 100 hardcovers. The revenue from hardcovers was still much greater than that for ebooks, but an article in Wired Magazine acknowledged the trend: the price of the Kindle was dropping (this month $139 down from $260 not long ago) and with the price of an ebook averaging about half that of a hardcover, it would take only 10 ebooks to “justify the cost” of a Kindle. Not that you need one to read an ebook. A computer or Smartphone will work, too. But the appeal of the Kindle is growing: it is the number one wished for item on Amazon this year, (according to them), holds 3,500 volumes, weighs less than a paperback, has a battery life of up to a month, and has no glare. And, now, just in time for my holiday shopping, they’ve added a feature that makes it possible to give a specific book to a Kindle user.

I will not be doing that. Maybe someday I will, but for now “gifting” my husband something that he will “upload” has all the romance, suspense and affection as giving him another year of McAfee Virus protection.

Pat Zietlow Miller who writes Read, Write, Repeat, a blog with reviews of children’s books written by her and children themselves thinks paper books are going to remain a staple in childhood reading, in part because of the institutions that foster young reading, “...Most classrooms won't be able to give every student an electronic reader, but could provide a paperback. And many kids get their books from libraries.”

My Aunt, Jean Alexander, a librarian at Carnegie Mellon University, is in the thick of the digital/paper divide.

“For a long time people said that physical books would always be around, but there are so many factors working against the physical book: closing of bookstores and libraries where you can browse, expense of publishing, shipping, storing, etc. .... I believe that parents and children love the physical act of reading to babies and children, holding them in their lap, turning the pages, and so on. I think that for children's cognitive and imaginative development reading a book is preferable to looking at something on a computer. I think children love their books the way they love their toys and blankets. They are beloved objects and friends. There is something cheap and transient about e-books, although I suppose they're convenient. It may be however that only affluent families will provide books for their children, while poorer kids will be more and more deprived.”

You don’t have to imagine life far into the future to see that play out.

From the Heart, a nonprofit that promotes literacy in children living below the poverty line along with their partner in the Los Angeles region, First Book, are working to hand kids their very own books during their annual Holiday Book Give Away.

“We give each Head Start child a book chosen especially for them,” their website says. “For most, this is the first book they’ve ever owned. We also give books to their older and younger brothers and sisters – starting newborns on the path toward a lifetime of enjoying books and encouraging teenagers who are eager to read. We believe "when you give a child a book, you give them the world.”

What world of books will I give my own grandchildren someday?

I honestly cannot imagine.

 Nurse Reading to a Little Girl Date: 1895 , Mary Cassett

After a blog post, Roadkill on the Streets of Suburbia, a reader suggested I introduce the chapter book, Mr. Wellington, to my oldest daughter. Playwright David Rabe tells the story of an injured squirrel and the well-meaning boy who rescues him. We eagerly read each chapter, noticing our progress with our bookmark as we neared the end.

Top Photo credit of child reading: Tim Pierce. 


audreygeddes said...

Thanks for the great article. I agree that we can encourage reading with the printed page - I believe that electronic books are a nice compliment, but should not take the place of paper. My daughter has become more interested in reading through books that include audio and music. One in particular that comes to mind is called, Jazz Fly 2 by Matthew Gollub, who performs jazz music for kids along with a wonderful story to follow that actually teaches them Spanish. It's books like these that can really enhance reading.

Tim Morrissey said...

This post is another one of those "universals" you are so adept at uncovering, and it struck a huge emotional chord with me. As I look to my left, here in my office at home, I see hundreds and hundreds of hard-cover books. One particular section of my library contains my "special" books. Among them, a copy of "When Pride Still Mattered", which your dad was kind enough to inscribe for me after I'd interviewed him (on Madison radio) about the book. There's Tom Bates' book "Rads", with an inscription from Paul Soglin about our days on the UW Campus in the 60's. These are treasures beyond price, and our adult children - both avid HARD-COPY book readers - understand their significance, their value, and have pledged to "keep them in the family" long after my wife and I are gone. There's an autographed copy of Stephen King's "The Stand"; an inscribed copy of Vince Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" from my L-A days; and scores and scores of just plain "good books" that I simply love to have near me. And, I still prefer the tactile stimulation of actually holding and turning the pages of the morning newspaper.

What a great post, Sarah - I simply can't imagine the future children of my future grandchildren holding my iPad (or Kindle, take your pick - I have the former) and thinking "Grandpa read books on this." By that time,books and bookstores may be a thing of the past, but I believe the printed page will live forever in the collections of my generation. As usual, you have provoked great emotion and deep thought with this beautiful essay.

Lunch Box Mom said...

Audrey--thank you for the comment and the book suggestion of Jazz Fly 2. I just checked it out and it does look like the best of both worlds--and ingnites the imagination.
Tim--I got such a sense of your home office and the books that make it personal. It is wonderful your adult children share your love of those books.
I look at my special shelf--and the ones my dad has written--and think about what it means to hand them to my girls.
I imagine in your business, you interviewed a lot of writers and have connections to many, many stories connectd to the ones written about in the pages of those books...

audreygeddes said...

You're welcome :}. Enjoy!

parenting ad absurdum said...

LBM - great topic. I adore books now, and I adored them as a kid - I adored the feel of the cover and the pages, and the different kind of type and of course the illustrations, and sitting on the floor in the library surrounded by them...I would be so sad if that feeling of utter paper glory went away!! I think those of us who walk into a bookstore and immediately want to feel the textures of all the different covers will keep it around for a while yet.

Sonja Milbourn said...

A memory I cherish? Walking into our local library with Molly (then, about seven years old) and my breath catching on her, "Ooooo! I just love that smell!"
This, I thought to myself, is truly my daughter.
A future without libraries and bookstores? I can't imagine my world without the the sensory experience of books. Nonetheless, as my eyes pan the walls of our home and the shelf upon shelf of books (and stacks making impromptu tables), I have a vague vision of book coops. Communities of readers and book collectors who pool their resources to establish literary havens.
Thanks, Sarah, for yet another wonderful article.

Anonymous said...

There's something so comforting to me when I see my books lined up on their shelves. I cannot imagine ever going paperless. Although, when I see my friends read via their smartphones or Kindles, I think of how convenient it would be to pack for a weekend and not try to figure out how many books to bring.

I hope I find a compromise.

Anonymous said...

I need to write my first book before publishing a printed book becomes obsolete! Here's my wee tale...
When my grandparents died and other family members were busy carting off the sets of Belleek and Lenox, I was scouring the bookshelves. I got both my Grandpa's daily missal which he carried to church, books of poetry he treasured, a first edition copy of The Boys of Summer, and many other less "valuable" books. And when I opened the books I could smell my grandparents living room. I leafed through the pages of the poetry book and saw scribbles in the margins. Inside the prayer books, occasional Mass cards were tucked away. Likewise when Granny died, I became the curator of some of her treasures, gorgeous illustrated copies of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from the early 1920s and even a bound copy of a poetry anthology written by the girls of St. Elizabeth's...including a couple by Margaret Higgins, my Granny. I found out that I wasn't the first of my family who loved writing and treasured the written word. Like your dad, Sarah, my dad wrote a book which I will cherish til I die. I know how much it meant to him to get those words on a page for others to read and hold and think about. I think my children caught the love of paper and ink and the next generation is already drunk with the printed word. The most effective discipline technique my son and daughter in law have is to take away books.

Kristi said...

I hate the idea of e-books! It's just not the same as a paper book in hand or a paper magazine for that matter. You can't take the Kindle in the bath with you. And what about all the magazine pages I rip out of magazines and store to refer to at a later date? It's sad just thinking about not having my paper around!

Mike said...

"all the romance, suspense and affection as giving him another year of McAfee Virus protection."


Over from the NYT and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this thoughtful post. Ebooks scare me for what they will eventually do to neighborhoods, which is deprive them of bookstores. I love just popping in to a bookstore and fingering through the covers until I find a good one to read. How will that be possible for our grandchildren, if everything is bought at home and downloaded? Great post.

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