eBooks: New Era on Children’s Literature

The boy in the coonskin cap fears nothing in the iPad-only children’s book “I’m Not Afraid.” Penned by Tulsa parents Eric and Nathalie Lee, the tale features a wild child who hollers “I am courageous! I am the bravest!” even when a giant animated spider lurks overhead, and a swarm of monsters growl and snap. The boy fears not, because he’s much bigger than any pesky spider and, well, monsters aren’t really real … are they?

What’s real, though, is that “I’m Not Afraid” is part of a growing trend that finds young readers, like the Lees’ 1-year-old son, Calvin, engaged in paperless tales complete with narration, sound effects and
interactive characters.

In the Tulsa couple’s ebook, each word is highlighted one-by-one as the story is told by the fearless boy wonder and a cowardly monster voiced by Nathalie and Eric, respectively.

The Lee’s iPad-only ebook costs $1.99 in the iTunes app store. Other ebooks are available on e-reader devices such as the Kindle and Nook. As a whole, the modern e-readers put to shame the primitive CD-Rom electronic books of the 1980s. After all, Eric recently placed Calvin in his lap, then used his index finger as a magic wand to bring to life the vibrant pictures of “I’m Not Afraid.” That single finger wound a jack-in-the-box, flicked on a flashlight and, at the end of the story, drew Calvin a freehand monster.
More importantly, it put a smile on Calvin’s face. At the same time, somewhere in a Tulsa library, a print children’s book just about fell off its shelf with envy.

Ebooks are a hot item in the Tulsa City-County Library system, according to Cathie Sue Andersen, who selects books for newborns to late teens. There are roughly 130 ebook titles available for children and also young adult readers on the library’s website, Andersen said. Trouble is, the ebooks are almost always checked out.

Eric, who is the animation director at Tulsa’s Steelehouse Productions, attributes the success of children’s ebooks to how they are, as he said, “the pop-up book for a new generation.”
Eric’s wife, who is a former elementary school language arts teacher, saw the effect of ebooks on a generation of school children.

“I love,” she said, “the way that you don’t have to prompt kids, and beg kids to read and write when they have something electronic in front of them.”

The Lees have plenty of print books at home, but Nathalie is torn as to what side she is on when it comes to digital and print books.

“I’m kind of biased, because I’m a school teacher,” she said, looking down at her own ebook. “I don’t want this to replace books, because there’s something special about holding a book in your hand and loving that book, and turning the pages and falling in love with reading like that.”

Then again, ebooks have their advantages, Nathalie said.

“Calvin loves everything that lights up, makes noise and has bells and whistles,” she said. “(An ebook) can hold his attention a lot longer than a picture book can. And he can interact with it, which you can’t when you’re looking at a picture book. You can imagine what the things are doing, but with this, he can actually make them do what they are supposed to be doing, which is really neat. I think it will help with his imagination in the long run.”

Yet Michelle Blocker, a children’s library associate at Schusterman-Benson Library, questions the worth of electronic literature for young children.

“You know, I personally think there’s enough animation in other places, but in a book, the whole point is to imagine,” Blocker said. “If Billy is bouncing the ball, imagine it. The fact that on the Nook, or the iPad, you can actually make certain things go, or they can jump rope, well, that’s the whole point of reading the book: Making your imagination go wild and flow. (The ebook) is doing it for you. It’s just taking it a little too far. What’s the point of the book if you can animate it? Well then, just watch a cartoon.”

Allison Geary, a University of Oklahoma-Tulsa instructor in early literacy, sees the benefit of ebooks for older readers, such as her own children ages 9 and 12. However, Geary does not recommend ebooks for preschoolers through, perhaps, third grade.

“I don’t know that I would put an ebook in their hands right away,” Geary said. “They might be interested in that, and that’s great, but I think they really need to be more solidly grounded in how print operates in the conventional way, because of what the expectations are going to be of them in school with books.”

Although a child could simply rely on an ebook’s narrator to read the story, Geary emphasized a parent’s role in child literacy.

“If you want to have the richer reading experience with them,” she said, “I really go back to the lap-sit reading, where you have a chance to have the human interaction and the extensions that are part of that — it’s not just the reading experience. I mean, that can be achieved on any sort of platform, but what you miss is the adult saying, ‘Well, what do you think about that?’ or ‘Why do you think he did that?’ ”

Blocker, the children’s library associate, prefers print books over ebooks during her Wednesday morning story times at Schusterman-Benson. In front of a gaggle of children, Blocker pairs a print book with regular attractions like a sheep hand-puppet named Bobby, or “Bah-ah-ah-ah-be,” as Blocker says it.

The kids love Bobby just as much as the way Blocker ends every story time with a rain of bubbles and plenty of hand stamps.

“Personally, I would never want to use (an ebook) for my story time,” Blocker said. “There’s nothing like holding the actual book and the turning of the pages. I really do feel like it really does have an impact on the kids.”

Of course, Blocker understands why the library offers ebooks.

“You know, I’m not against technology, I think it’s great,” she said. “I think it’s great that the library is implementing this stuff, because we do have to keep up in order to get people in the library, but there’s just nothing like owning the actual book and touching it. I sometimes feel like that’s how the writers wanted it.”

As for Eric and Nathalie, they want “I’m Not Afraid” on the iPad, where Eric’s single finger, and so many others like it, are turning the page on a new era of literature.

“This is the future of kids books,” Eric said.

Geary, though, sees a world where print and digital books can coexist.

“I think what you’re going to see is people of higher socio-economic means able to access (ebooks) easily,” she said, “whereas others might only see them at school or in libraries. Until we get to the point where there is universal access to these things, we’re going to need print books.”

Categories: Books and Literacy