Skip to content

Bedtime stories by the light of a Kindle? Don't bet on it.

On a rainy weekday afternoon, the Bloomingdale branch of the New York Public Library is packed with children and their parents, all there for a reading of a childhood favorite, “Peter Pan.” The librarian holds the book aloft as she reads, making sure everyone can see the pictures alongside the words.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Absolutely nothing, which is what makes it significant to the book industry in 2009. As most people over 12 years old become slaves to their iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and Kindles, it is perhaps unexpected to see a group of people paying such close attention to images on a printed piece of paper. Yet on an average Saturday you will find that the children’s sections of bookstores and libraries are packed.

As if to underscore the odd discrepancy, the rest of the library is nearly empty.

The sale of print books fell by almost 3 percent in 2008 and the sale of e-books rose by more than two thirds, according to the Association of American Publishers. With print sales in decline and e-books on the rise, it’s not surprising that publishers are focusing on marketing electronic literature, considering that it is also significantly less expensive to produce than the printed word. But it’s widely believed that children’s books, which represent nearly one in every five book sales in the United States, may be immune to the digital wave that is hitting the publishing industry.

In fact, it seems likely that electronic books and handheld readers will never replace children’s literature--in large measure because an electronic device can’t display the illustrations or deliver the tactile experience necessary for a young child to get the full pleasure out of reading. Even though kids currently between 3 and 9 years old will probably spend more time in front of a computer than any generation before them, parents, librarians, and educators agree that part of an important developmental experience might be lost by teaching children to read on a computer or a handheld device.

Ultimately, it is this wall created by concerned adults that has allowed children’s books to remain immune from the rapid technological advances that have come to dominate most adult’s lives.

“There is not a feeling of ‘bar the door–no Kindles,’” said Tessa Michaelson, a librarian at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Wisconsin, “but how does it compare to the experience of actually flipping the page, that natural tension, not knowing what’s going to happen next, the way visuals truly look on a page spread?”

Michaelson said that there is excitement about new technology, but that e-books and interactive literacy Web sites are viewed as a supplemental tool for teaching children how to read. She explained that a young child cannot learn the basic elements of literacy--how to hold a book, or how to flip the page–using a handheld device or a computer.

“There is the feeling that there is an intrinsic value in the reading experience that can’t be replicated by a piece of technology,” said Michaelson.

Take, for instance, Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are” and imagine how it might look on an e-reader. “Where the Wild Things Are” is commonly thought of as a true picture book because the text and the pictures are equally necessary to understanding the story. Told in only 338 words, it would be pointless to read it on a Kindle, which would render Sendak’s beautiful illustrations in black and white. It would also be necessary to alter the 10-by-9-inch pages so that they could fit on the 7½-by-5-inch Kindle screen. This doesn’t even address the less-than-cozy prospect of curling up in bed with a child and an e-reader on your lap.

Nicola Atherstone has come to the library today with her daughter Holden, who is 4 years old. Holden is just learning to read and she can write her name. Atherstone said she buys the classics in hardcover, like “Peter Pan,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Jungle Book,” but for the most part she takes out books at the library. She does not own a Kindle and she describes herself as a bit of a “technophobe.” Holden reads traditional print books, which her mother prefers, as well as using interactive Websites like Super Why from PBS Kids. Atherstone likes Holden to sit on her lap so that they can read and look at the pictures together. She said it seems more distant when Holden sits at the computer.

Researchers at Temple University have found that reading e-books is a less positive experience than reading traditional books because reading done on the computer reduces the amount of interaction between parents and children. Overall, developmental experts have not come to a consensus on whether e-books are as effective as traditional books in early literacy. In an experiment conducted at Leiden University in the Netherlands--measuring kindergarten-age children’s comprehension of electronic and print stories--researcher Maria de Jong found that multimedia elements are distracting for children when they are first grasping the basic skills of reading. But she refers to another study that found that similar elements do not complicate understanding in a test group made up of children in first grade.

Jennifer Slackman, director of marketing at Scholastic Children, said that interactive sites like Bookflix should serve as a complement to traditional books.

“We believe technology and print can coexist,” she said.

Early readers have multiple experiences of reading, Slackman explained, including sitting on mom or dad’s lap and story time at school. Using interactive sites is just another way to introduce kids to books.

Still, some parents seem reluctant to use electronic books even as a supplement.

Andrea Mata is also at the New York Public Library to listen to the reading of “Peter Pan” with her son Oscar, who says he has never read a book on the computer.

“We like to come to the library to pick them out,” said Mata, “We like to be in bed, holding a book, leafing through the pages.”