The Kids Are Alright! Why Digitization and E-books are Good for Literacy

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By Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC)

After several hundred years with a stable model, some of our most basic ideas about books and reading are now under the microscope. The most pessimistic opinions tell us that the book as we know it is dead, but I don’t believe it. It is important to separate what is happening to the business of the written word from what is happening to the culture of the written word. The first is struggling, the second is blossoming.

Which devices, which portions of the market and modes of distribution will win out in the future, are all questions none of us can solve with any certainty right now. I’m confident that a new model will emerge, and although it may look substantially different, there will still be people writing, and other people reading, and some smart people in the middle filtering the good stuff in some way.

I’m much more interested in the question of what KIND of readers are going to be there once we figure these things out. Will they still be interested in books? Will they have the attention span? Will they care about ideas? As someone who works in the part of the industry where these future readers (and customers) are hatched, this is a fascinating subject.

The Drive Toward 100% Literacy

I have to say, I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of books and the potential of upcoming generations. Why? I believe that the drive to use new technologies is going to achieve what more than 150 years of public education could not: nearly 100% literacy. Research, like this 2005 study from Cambridge University has already shown that today’s children are much more literate than their peers from the pre-computer years.

I can’t help but think that this is ultimately a great thing for the cause of reading and “publishing.” Over and over history has shown us that whenever there is an increase in literacy, there is always a corresponding expansion in content for those hungry readers.

But the ability to read is only half the story. Success in the new digital world requires literacy skills both in the traditional sense (reading, writing, comprehension) and also in a completely new, socially interactive sense.

Participation, collaboration, intuitive problem-solving, critical thinking, mindful attention and radical creativity — these types of literacy will be equally important in the globally networked world. We want active and empowered readers who control media, not the other way around, and new technologies along with traditional reading experiences are going to shape the future reader. If you don’t believe me, *watch this.*


What we’re seeing now is not the death of literacy and the book, but rather the transition from something old to something completely new — what technology-in-society expert Don Tapscott calls “a whole new mode of production that’s…beginning to fundamentally change the way we organize capability.”

Of course, all this newness is making traditional publishing very anxious. As a friend of mine dryly observed: “There is turbulence at the edge of the unknown.” We have a stronger sense of loss than gain because we can only see backwards with any clarity, and there are many dollars and livelihoods at stake in the current model. It’s only natural.

Traditional books and digital content will live side by side into the foreseeable future. I think we have to trust in the book’s usefulness as a tool for transmitting knowledge. There is a reason that the technology of the book has been with us since 400 AD. As humans we find something deeply satisfying in the reading of a physical book, and a certain percentage of us will continue to do so.

This is the age of consumer choice, which means accommodating an infinitely variable range of customer behavior, which in turn means serving content in many ways to many people.

That’s really the big issue in publishing. We have a model designed to move “objects” at a time when consumers need “ideas” wrapped in many different packages. It’s not a black and white, digital or paper, either-or scenario but rather a limitless range of grays. For the young girl in the video above, the idea of “book” is no longer going to be bound by one particular format.

Certain kinds of books will be a natural fit for digital consumption (mass market fiction, text books, non-fiction, reference) while others will always make more sense in hard copy (board books, coffee table books, picture books and pop-up books, for instance.) Some books will find a completely unique expression in their new digital versions like the playful Alice for the iPad.


Most books will live happily in many different kinds of platforms, and will be read in multiple ways, even at the same time.

For instance, I was sitting next to man on a flight recently, and he was using an e-reader. He travels frequently, and he often loads his e-reader with whatever hard-copy books he is reading at home and takes them along. He is essentially buying two books, but from his perspective, it beats carrying 10 bulky books when he travels, and he says that he is actually reading more these days.

Children and E-books

For children’s books, the first evidence that the sale of e-books isn’t going replace the use of traditional books is even stronger. For instance, earlier this year App Developer ScrollMotion released the first iPod e-reader platform for children’s books, Iceberg Kids.

Early anecdotes from consumers indicate that parents aren’t using it to replace a traditional book, but rather they are choosing it over a GAME that they would otherwise be downloading for those in-between times when they need to keep their kids amused.

Josh Koppel, co-founder of ScrollMotion, told me: “Parents tell us they love having an alternative to games and videos on their mobile devices. Digital books give kids an interactive, educational experience. We’ve found that parents are eager to substitute that for a game or passive viewing.”

Most significant of all is the fact that in the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study on “Media Use Among 8-18 year olds,” far from losing ground to flashier media, “time spent reading books remained steady, and actually increased slightly over the past 10 years (from 21 to 25 minutes a day).”

All these stories tell me is that the book is still highly valued, and that experimentation with digital content will actually expand the market for books.

So how can we in the industry help support the development of a strong readership in the new digital marketplace? Ironically, I think it will have everything to do with reinvesting in the good editorial values that have been the hallmark of our industry for many decades.

The traditional book — especially the picture book reading experience — is one of the most perfect exercises for building the kind of literacy needed for the 21st century.

Picture books are actually a very sophisticated learning tool — readers control the story, absorb information visually, immerse themselves in an alternate world, scroll back and forth, touch and point, anticipate developments, and ask thoughtful questions. This creates great analytical skills and an empowered reader, the kind of reader that will hopefully go on to ask better questions of all media, and make thoughtful decisions about what is worthy of their attention.

And this is at the heart of it, no matter what age we are talking about: books help us make sense of our experiences. In the overwhelming information environment of the Digital Age, a well-conceived book will be MORE valuable as it draws order and organizes meaning in a chaotic world. As Tim O’Reilly posited in this great interview with Adobe’s Michael Gough last year, “The book is a user interface to a body of information…As there is more and more information…it’s the selection that matters.”

Books will be just as useful to us in the future as they have been in the past, no matter what form they take. In the end, the future will require a sophisticated humanity to make the best use of all that sophisticated hardware. That’s a cause for great optimism for those of us that love the written word.

Kristen McLean is reader, writer and industry observer who lives in Miami, FL. She is also the executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC), a non-profit trade association founded in 1984 that networks the children’s book industry and supports the vitality of independent children’s bookselling. Find out more about ABC at You can read more of Kristen’s work at

DISCUSS: Has your child gone digital?

READ: Our interview with Antonio Faeti of the Bologna Children’s Book Fairs about how quality children’s books prepare kids for the digital world.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.