Photo by: Joe Santos

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

Photo by: Joe Santos

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.

Sarah M. Vander Schaaff writes the weekly blog column on parenthood, Lunch Box Mom. When she is not reading books with her two kids, she spends her time picking them up off the floor.

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