A friend witnessed the future of the book on the Metro the other day. A mother and daughter were sitting side by side, reading. Nothing unusual there – but my friend was amused to see that the mother was reading a book on her Kindle, the e-book reader from Amazon, while the daughter was listening to “Black Beauty” on her MP3 player. At one point, the girl’s face crumpled and tears sprang to her eyes as she listened, prompting the mother to reach out and pat her daughter’s hand. Clearly, “Black Beauty” can still reduce readers – and listeners – to tears, whether they are reading a physical book or listening to a digital audio edition.
Digital books are much in the news these days, with some pundits predicting that the ink-and-paper book is on its way out. Bookseller Andy Ross says, “There is going to be a tipping point where e-books become the dominant medium, thus ending 500 years of the Gutenberg Age." Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab proclaimed at a recent technology conference that “It’s happening. It’s not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years.”
Anyone who’s watched a toddler handle books, sniffing the pages or planting a kiss on the picture of a favorite character, knows that the physical object is still important, at least to our youngest readers. But the advent of e-books for the iPad, including Dr. Seuss titles and “Alice in Wonderland,” brings the experience of a traditional picture book in digital form closer than ever.
E-books can sometimes fill needs unmet by our physical book. Recently one of our reference librarians went online to the International Children’s Digital Library to help a local man find books in Farsi that he could read to his children. The library could never afford to purchase the over 4,000 children’s books available free in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish.
The library’s e-book collection, including our downloadable audiobooks, is becoming more and more popular. Audiobook listeners are especially pleased that more publishers are releasing iPod–compatible editions.
Though publishers have not abandoned traditional books, increasingly they’re looking for creative ways to tie them in with online content. One of the most successful is Scholastic’s popular “39 Clues,” billed as a multimedia adventure series.
“Book One: The Maze of Bones
” was written by Rick Riordan, who also mapped out the story arc for the nine books that follow. A brother and sister embark on a quest around the world to solve 39 clues ahead of any other members of their sprawling Cahill clan. Their reward will be discovering the secret to success of the most powerful family ever known. The books, each written by a different well-known author, use action and cliffhanger endings to keep kids ten and up glued to the pages.
The publisher has also created an online “39 Clues” game, collectable cards, and a way for readers to win prizes IRL (in real life). The final book, written by Margaret Peterson Haddix, is scheduled for publication at the end of the month, bringing this highly successful hybrid to a close.
Personally, I’m not sure what devices kids will be using to read books five or ten years from now. But as long as publishers keep bringing us compelling plots, fine writing, and distinctive illustrations, kids will keep reading, whether on paper or pixels.