It's the start of vacation season, and for me that's when I become the resident book critic. As the former CEO and President of the Association of American Publishers, I'm usually asked at this time of year "what's a good book for a vacation read?" And recently, the question has been modified to "what's a good summer download?" Now, this question has special meaning when it comes from my kids looking for recommendations about what my grandkids should be reading -- or downloading. Answering these questions used to be easy, but now that technology's involved, I've had to do my homework!
Admittedly, I'm not a techie, so my experience with ereaders and iPads is limited; however, these platforms for books are becoming a growing option for children. So as a grandmother, and a former executive representing America's biggest publishers, I've been curious about the digital landscape as it pertains to kids' books. Furthermore, as a result of an experience I recently had in this arena, I've come to view digital books for kids favorably -- provided that the books are books first, and any of the bells and whistles that might be included in digital books are used to actually engage children more actively with the written words of the story.
Growing Up Growing Trend
The trend toward children relying on electronic readers and the iPad is well known, and I first noticed it in a commercial with children using an electronic tablet. "Aren't those toys for adults?" I cracked to my husband. Well, apparently not.
Author Paul Torday recently wrote in The Spectator,
[I]t looks and feels as if eBooks are reaching not only regular readers but another audience as well: the children of the age of downloads, those who might never have read a page of print if they hadn't first been hooked on reading from a screen.
Then there was ABC's Ned Potter's piece about the viral video of the baby with a magazine titled: "To a Baby, a Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work." And a survey last year by Common Sense Media reported that 39% of children ages 2- to 4-years-old and 52% of kids ages 5 to 8 have used an iPad, iPhone or similar touchscreen device. Finally, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop found that the number of apps for toddlers and preschoolers grew by 23 percent in the last two years. Clearly, iPads and apps are becoming "kids' toys too," but it really hit home when I received an email (yes, I know how to do email!).
A Digital Story Book
I was asked to narrate an original story for the iPad, The House that Went on Strike, about a family's tangle with a messy home, because of my own experience as a "House" mom, having served two dozen years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and because of the metaphorical title of my memoir 24 Years of House Work, and the Place is Still a Mess. The fact that the House on the Hill is still a mess is a whole other story, so my hope is that current members of Congress will learn from this children's tale. But I digress!
After first declining the offer because I didn't think the iPad was "my thing," I nevertheless read the text and changed my mind. The story was cute, fun and had a good lesson about respect for the home; moreover, it was explained to me that the words of the story would be enhanced by colorful graphics, interactivity and a musical score. All of this extra stuff? Would this still be a story book?
My narration not withstanding (ok, humility aside, I think I did a pretty good job, and if you don't like it there is an option to read it to yourself), the book app is meaningful because it is just that -- a storybook first that just happens to live on the iPad. The words of the story are the focal point, and it's those words that allow the images within the book app to come to life. Further, the words prompt some wonderful and fun interactivity, and impart a sense of insight and playfulness for the child.
For example, children reading the story have the opportunity to help the house close ranks around the errant family, by turning steps into slides, and plates, books and cords into obstacles that force the family to sleep outside, and then return once they've all apologized to the house for their behavior. Once back in the house, kids can help the family clean up by scrubbing walls, floors and windows on the iPad panel. Thus, children get a sense through the words and interactivity of how their own homes and appliances might feel when not cared for properly, and how to help their houses stay happy by cleaning up.
Words are the Stars
I had a great time narrating the story, and an even better time watching my grandchildren's fascination with what their grandmother did when they saw the book app. Similarly, I was amazed at how technology could enhance a book, almost to the point of making the experience of reading more evocative -- with a caveat.
I'm fine with my grandkids reading a book app, but the words of the book must remain the stars. I've noticed some book apps for kids include videos, games and gimmicks within the iPad that don't enhance the words on the panels. Rather, they distract from the story. Kids have enough distractions, so it shouldn't be while they're reading. The words in some of these book apps seem to be only making a cameo appearance. On the flip side, some book apps are just a flat-out (pun intended) re-purposing of pages from a book. You might as well just buy the book! Therefore, the subtle "seasoning" of the words through impactful interactivity, narration and music within the story allows the child to actually become more actively involved in the story via the iPad.
It gives me great pleasure to watch my grandkids read and engage with "my" storybook app -- and how impressed they are with their grandma! They weren't around to see me become the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee, or my flirting with a run for the presidency 25 years ago, or being lampooned on Saturday Night Live! However, my latest venture gives my grandkids a reason to brag about their grandma's "cool app," and gives this grandma a reason to endorse the story book on the iPad, provided that it is a storybook first!
*Pat Schroeder, in deference to the victims of the recent tragedy in her beloved home state of Colorado, will be donating to candidates this election cycle who focus on increasing mental health access to Americans, banning assault weapons and plugging loopholes in U.S. gun procurement laws.