« Children's, Feature Articles

Falling In and Out of Love, with E-books

Editorial by Edward Nawotka


Prior to having a child, I loved e-books. After she was born, I appreciated them even more because when I would cradle my newborn daughter in one arm, I loved that I could hold my Kindle in the other arm and flip a page with my thumb, one handed. It was convenient, it was handy. Now that my daughter is 20 months old and reading her own books, I’m equivocating.

My daughter loves to read. “Book, ook, ook,” she’ll say, trying to form the right word that will get my attention to plop onto a beanbag chair, pull her into my lap, and read to her from her growing library of small, square board books. There are some A-Z books, some “colors” and “shapes” books, some Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. But most often, what she wants is something by Sandra Boynton — Barnyard Dance, Horns to Toes – books that are age-appropriate. These are books full of sing-songy prose and hippos, elephants, and dogs doing things like bathing, brushing their teeth, and pulling on pajamas — all the things she’s now learning to do herself. My daughter loves these books so much that she literally tries to climb inside them. Now that’s commitment.

I’m not trying to say that either my experience or my daughter is in anyway unique. Many, if not most, parents read to their children. Many of us have the same books — which is itself a testament to the ability of some authors to stimulate that part of a still-forming child’s mind that is universal (animals, bright colors, rhyme). Perhaps the only thing I do differently from other parents is, whenever I open a book and start to read, I insist on starting at the title page. I read the title of the book, the author’s name, and finally the name of the publisher, pointing with my finger so my daughter can follow along. At first, she was impatient with the delay, wanting to just jump right into the story. Now, if you skip it, she makes you go back.

I suppose my insistence on reading the title and author is a force of habit from more than a decade of writing and thinking about publishing for 40+ hours a week. I would also like to think that I am instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the people who made that book — the one she’s trying to climb into — possible.

Lately, as the economy has faltered, there’s been plenty of introspection, both in the trade publications and online. The predominant debate is between traditional print publishing and new, digital models; between books and e-books, bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores. The tide seems to finally be turning in favor of digitization, particularly as the industry struggles to find new ways to make money.

But what I fear, as things go digital, is that a lot of the visceral love of reading will be lost. Not the romance of paper — although, there is that — but that physical connection one gets with books from an early age. That climbing into the book my daughter is doing, the way she can’t turn the page fast enough when she’s excited, the way she flips it aside when she’s done.

Of course, there will always be children’s board books. But the question is, as more and more parents spend more and more time with e-book readers and less with physical books, what kind of example does that serve? Don’t we spend enough time in front of screens as it is?

I know my daughter responds to books because, in part, as an infant she had to crawl through what must have looked like looming towers of review copies, threatening at a moment’s notice to topple over on her. She was both curious about and wary of these piles. Would the same have happened if all my galleys came via e-mail to my Kindle?

I remain both a fan and an advocate of e-books. I own a Kindle and a Sony e-reader. But when my daughter was born, it didn’t occur to me to go out and buy her one and fill it with my favorite children’s books. I went out and bought real ones, ones I knew she could touch, feel, smell and keep until she was old enough to read and understand them. Frankly, the battery on my Kindle 1 had to be replaced after one year — who knows if it will last another five?

Prior to my daughter’s birth I bought as many volumes from and about the Mediterranean island of Malta that I could find. It’s the island her great grandparents emigrated from back in 1908. I found them in antiquarian bookstores as well as online. Some of these books are more than 100 years old (and smell like it too). They may be available — someday, or perhaps even now — as digital copies. But it’s simply not the same as having something tangible to pass down to her.

I worry that the advent of ebooks — even our looming dependency on them — is less likely to produce future generations of readers. Or at least the type of reader my daughter is turning out to be. My daughter’s love of brightly dressed animals who talk in a rhyming, omniscient voice is physical and visceral. It’s comforting and it’s very, very real — to her at least. The experience of reading is something she can feel, not just an abstract something-or-other that goes on in her head.

Of course, that goes away with age. But the memory of that emotion, that first love of reading, lingers for a lifetime.

Whenever I let my daughter use my Kindle, she does not try to climb into it. She just sits there, slapping it with a tiny hand, occasionally pushing a button, watching the text flicker to the next “page” mesmerized by the movement on the screen and not by the words. That too is physical, visceral, and very real – though I doubt she’s getting much out of the experience. Yet.

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  1. Posted August 7, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Great essay, Edward! My kids, 6yo and 8yo, love to read, and despite being computer whizzes and my wife having a Kindle, they still love books. That’s partly inspired by our being avid readers and owning tons of books, but also because books still play such a key role in early childhood development. Most elementary schools won’t be giving out Kindles anytime soon!

    One of the rarely discussed advantages printed books have over eBooks is that they engage multiple senses. Something as simple as being able to physically turn a page helps develop fine motor skills and serves as an introduction to our left-to-right-dominant society; pressing the “next page” button isn’t an equivalent.

  2. Thomas
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Ed. Really enjoyed your essay. T.

  3. Bridget Warren
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I am not so sure about this–“The experience reading is something she can feel, not just an abstract something-or-other that goes on in her head. Of course, that goes away with age. But the memory of that emotion, that first love of reading, lingers for a lifetime.”

    My now 19 y.o. loves to read and her younger sister is reading away her summer quite happily. From a college essay-“At home, packing books for vacation was more important than clothes…For better or worse I still remember exact scenes and faces from a book I read six years ago, often more vividly than real people or places from that same time. Those unique images and ideas are what endure.”

    In terms of early literacy and childhood development, I am with Guy.

  4. Charlie Boswell
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I believe Ed’s daughter is already a suberb teacher. I especially appreciated Ed’s willingness to name a particular author who really does grasp that very young “readers” are primarily interested in things they themselves do. For me, no reading technology will ever match the pleasure of finding a book to read, the physical act of reading, and the sheer joy of being able to interact with that book on so many levels of experience. This digital age seems to foretell the demise of quality in so many media such as newspapers, magazines, movies–not just books. But, I will always be able to read and reread my books; getting the same information from screens just isn’t the same pleasure.

  5. Karen Danburg
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Super article, Ed. As I age, and because of my tendency to like to read in bed or takes lots of books along when I travel (those weight restrictions are a problem) I understand your convenience theme and echo appreciation for the simplicity of my Kindle. “Real” books, however, whether reference or just exceptionally well written, demand a little pat on the cover which just isn’t possible in electronic form. We can only pray for the healthy longivity of both.

  6. Posted August 7, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice post. I really believe that if parents were concerned about the reading habits of their children as you are, many other problems far more serious than the platform of the story would be solved.

  7. Posted August 7, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Edward for an interesting insight into small children and books. As I read your article my smile widened as I recalled my own childhood reading. My preference was for smallish soft covers simply because they fitted in my pocket easier…where ever I was a book was always close. The books I have written are for elementary aged children (www.thepizzagang.com) and are published in a soft cover. Because most of the books I read are ebooks, and like you I find them very convenient, I have been mulling over the idea of ebooks. After reading your thoughts my sway towards keeping them soft cover is a definite.

  8. Posted August 8, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the article, Ed. My son loves Barnyard Dance, too. And realizing that rhyme was exciting for him, and for me, we’re now into the whole Mother Goose oeuvre! In book form. Such great fun with the old timey pictures and him turning the pages. I do wonder however, why it is that discussion of digital books always becomes an either/or proposition…as if the new technology can’t be a compliment to the old. As an author (of YA novels), I’m glad there’s another way for my work to be purchased, particularly to an age group that is more tech saavy than I am. And as a reader, I can devour and store far more on my Kindle than I have room for in my small 3 bedroom house. I totally agree with you that introducing children to books in digital form leaves something to be desired, because it is not a primary experience. A book is a book, and the Kindle is an approximation of that object. But it’s one that certainly has value, when applied to specific uses. Like long trips by airplane, or train, if that’s your preferred method of travel.

  9. Keith
    Posted August 9, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article. It’s interesting that no-one, including the author, spoke of the pleasure children get from being physically close to their parent and interacting with them in a close, comfortable, secure environment. While the stories and colors etc are important I suspect that chance to spend quality one-on-one time with Dad is a major benefit. I’m sure it was for my kids. My 11 year old son still enjoys the odd session of Dad reading to him.

    As for e-Readers, they obviously have their place, the publishing industry though is still trying to figure the business side out. Unfortunately they are too wedded to the past.

  10. Sr. Ma. Edna Billones,op
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    I was just browsing and I found your article it’s great about books! I love to read books that’s why… keep up the great job! TCGBU!

  11. Posted August 10, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    What a sweet article! I echo your sentiments about children’s books. I too love the convenience of e-books, but I just can’t imagine a Kindle ever being the best option for a toddler. While I’m all for the great on-line early literacy game sites for kids, they’re no replacement for a more traditional story time routine.

  12. Posted August 11, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely agree. The reason I love books is, in part, the tactile experience and I can’t imagine a kid falling in love with e-books….

  13. Posted August 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Set in today’s day and time, Me and My Best Friend is about a young boy, his faithful companion and their exciting adventures.

    Henry and Liam are the best of friends and they do everything together. They can run and play all day long. But when Henry the puppy gets tired and tries to take a nap, three-year-old Liam keeps waking him, wanting him to play some more. Will Henry get any rest?

    Get your children involved with this beautifully illustrated book. Your child will love to match up words and pictures, and find Liam, who keeps hiding in his bedroom. Perfect for the young reader!

    About the Author

    J.S. Huntlands is the author of Nick Twisted Minds and is currently working on more books in this series, as well as 23 more books in the Me and My Best Friend series. Huntlands is a full-time writer, as well as a mom to a wonderful four-year-old boy. This book is dedicated to her son in hopes that he never forgets his best friend.

  14. Posted August 13, 2009 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Agreed. The ‘tangible’ aspect of paper plus the ‘artifact’ that an old book becomes are hard to imagine in e-books. A bit like sleeve notes in CDs, and artwork on old LP records. – Peter

  15. Nick Weir-Williams
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Yes, Ed, you are spot on here. One of the main reasons why print books will never go away. A screen no matter how impressive will never replace the physicality of the experience for the child. Plus I agree snuggling up with your mom or dad doesn’t work with an e-reader. We(four year-old and I) have great fun playing video games together on screen, but in no way does it compare or replace the regular night-time book reading experience.

    Which is partly why e-books will take their place in the arsenal of available product in the same way as audiobooks have – perfect for certain types of book and places, but never a replacement..

    Nick W-W

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Paper or Plastic: Why Not Both? « Follow The Reader on November 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    […] Have you noticed that there are some bookish types who like to pit electronic against paper as if it’s an either/or proposition?  That more often than not, discussions about utilizing new publishing technologies, quickly become polarizing arguments where one must supposedly choose: paper or plastic? Consider, for example, the Green Apple Bookstore videos poking fun at the Kindle — funny? Yes. silly? Yes. But, many a truth is said in jest, and a lot of people seem to think digital means the demise of the paper book. […]

  2. […] of my favorite posts were Nawotka’s own “Falling In and Out of Love, with E-books” op-ed, and the interview “Grupo Planeta CEO Jesús Badenes: ‘We Must Not […]

  3. By Cradle Puppy Love Matching Comforter on September 10, 2010 at 11:25 am

    […] Falling In and Out of Love, with E-books Prior to having a child, I loved e-books. After she was born, I appreciated them even more because when I would cradle my newborn daughter in one arm, I loved that I could hold my Kindle in the other arm and flip a page with my thumb, one handed. For me, no reading technology will ever match the pleasure of finding a book to read, the physical act of reading, and the sheer joy of being able to interact with that book on so many levels of experience. […]

  4. […] written about my own reticence over introducing my daughter to e-books and, in particular, the lost sense of closeness I get when […]

  5. […] for very young children. They aren’t very tactile or interactive. At most, my own daughter would simply bang the buttons on my Kindle 1 (RIP); now that she’s older, she’s also shown little interest in my new […]

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