e-troducing the e-book

[Sara Hudson joined our team of contributors last year, bringing her perception and love of children's books to the book reviews she has written for us. You can read more about her on our About Us page, including an allusion to her travels that have centered on book collections around the world (and, in fact, we first met Sara at the International Youth Library stand at the Bologna Book Fair last year...). With this post, Sara introduces a short series focusing on e-books for children that will include an overview of multicultural e-books and interviews with two authors who have embraced the e-book format, Janet Wong and Hazel Edwards.

- Marjorie]


e-troducing the e-book

The degree to which debates about e-books can polarize begins to make sense after we consider how we often frame their presence as a question of alleged murder. “Will the e-book kill off traditional books?” It’s the perennial question at the front of the mind of cultural critics and librarians hovering at the back of any crowd rushing out for the latest Kindle, iPad, Nook or other e-reader. In turn, the question of e-books draws its roots from deeper long-standing concerns, those surrounding the question “Is the book dead?”

Despite decades of worry, the book is not, in fact, dead; nor has the e-book yet killed off traditional books.  E-books developed from work in the mid-1970s to create image- and text-based publications for computers – themselves still a fairly new and ungainly technology. Advances in technologies and software programs ricocheted the development of e-books and their subsequent e-readers forward in the 1990s. Today e-books are visual and/or aural publications readable on digital devices, which often cost a fraction of the price of traditional books, and offer the advantage of portability and accessibility to large numbers of texts at once.

That said, the e-book industry remains in its infancy, and its approach to all books, especially those for infants and children, evolves every day.  E-book readers pose considerable technical issues. Amazon and Apple, two companies historically known not to play well with others, if at all, both have proprietary restrictions, so buyers can only read book purchases on Kindles or iPads, respectively (although you can download a Kindle reader to your PC). Additionally, as evidenced by the overarching debate about e-books, “Will they kill off traditional books?”, e-books evoke enormous emotional responses from readers. “Traditional” readers argue, for example, that reading a book on a machine cannot substitute for reading a physical book, that the medium is part of the message, that a machine is a sterile substitute for the tactile experience of reading.

The emotional questions of e-books reveal themselves nowhere as strongly as they do with e-books for children, particularly picture books aimed at early readers. As this recent article from The New York Times reports, “[e-books for children] represent less than 5 percent of total annual sales of children’s books, several publishers estimated, compared with more than 25 percent in some categories of adult books.” Children’s e-books present practical arguments (teething toddlers + expensive electronics = definite disaster), practical unknowns (when do bells and whistles enhance and when do they distract?), and questions of the practices of adults themselves, particularly those of middle class income, many of whom rely on their own ability to flip through a book – or that of a librarian, teacher, or fellow parent – to select it for bedtime reading.

Over the coming weeks, PaperTigers will explore questions at the intersection of children’s books, multicultural books and e-books. We’ll interview two authors who have written e-books, survey a sampling of multicultural children’s e-books, and start to frame some of the different perspectives that go into writing, illustrating, distributing and creating e-books for children. There’s sure to be a lot of ideas and opinions about e-books – don’t keep them to yourself; please join in the discussion by leaving a comment below…

3 Responses to “e-troducing the e-book”

  1. Marjorie Says:

    Welcome to the PaperTigers Blog, Sara. This is an area I have a lot to learn about, so thank you for this great article. And I love the image conjured up of a toddler + teeth :-)

  2. Margaret McKay-Lowndes Says:

    It’s a very interesting debate – one I suspect which could re-iterate arguments surrounding the replacement of radio with TV (didn’t happen) or the replacement of cinema with video recorders (a non-event). E-readers do have their place, but I for one have too much respect for the experience of getting away from a screen for an hour or two to curl up with a physical book. As for e-readers for children – a print book is always going to win on the budget front. Who wants to buy a relatively expensive e-reader for a child only to watch it succumb to the physical challenges imposed by toddlers?

  3. Sara Says:

    You know, I return to this commentary after more than a month, having just baby-sat for a wonderful friend of mine, who has decided to read books with her child on an e-reader (age 3 and a half). Margaret, I’m right there with you – get me away from a screen as much as possible! Plus I have the fetish for the physical objects that all book collectors recognizes (and anyone who walks into my apartment wonders at, as it I have more children’s books than many public libraries!) But on the flip side, Janet Wong made a very interesting argument in her interview on PaperTigers about e-books for kids, that worldwide it might be cheaper to get e-books out than physical books, and that is why my friend did it as well. One e-reader, which she and her husband also use, and she can buy e-picture books for much cheaper than their physical counterparts, so the long term investment is less.

    She, however, continues to use both forms, physical books and e-books, as she also believes in not having her child grow up in front of a screen. Thus for her it’s a supplement, rather than a replacement. Another interesting take… (and one we continue to “argue” about!)