In February, Professor William Gleason, now the incoming chairman of the Department of English, presented a lively Alumni Day talk on children’s and young-adult literature. The audience was enthralled — and perhaps a bit alarmed. We asked Gleason to adapt his talk as an article for PAW readers, parents and nonparents alike.
Last October, Blue Rider Press published a timely parody of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s children’s classic, Goodnight Moon. Marketed to adults, Goodnight iPad reimagines Brown and Hurd’s soothing “great green room” as a noisy hive of digital distraction:
In the bright buzzing room
There was an iPad
And a kid playing Doom
And a screensaver of —
A bird launching over the moon
After cataloging a seemingly endless array of electronic devices, the book introduces a “fed-up old woman” who does more than simply whisper “hush.” Confiscating armfuls of tablets and smartphones, game consoles and Nooks, she heaves every last one out the window. “Goodnight MacBook Air,” the book purrs at its close. “Goodnight gadgets everywhere.” On the final page, the room quiet at last, the old woman reads a copy of Goodnight Moon — an actual book, not a digital substitute — with an enthralled child.
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Pseudonymously penned by “Ann Droyd” (actually children’s author David Milgrim), Goodnight iPad playfully foregrounds many of the central questions — and tensions — in contemporary debates over digital technology and children’s reading. How hard should parents work to untether their children from digital media? Are electronic children’s books just as “good” as traditional books? Is the digital age changing the way children read, or the kinds of stories they are being told? Although Goodnight iPad appears to side with the traditionalists, it also hedges its bets. After all, the Penguin Group, Blue Rider Press’ parent company, offers digital editions of Milgrim’s satire for precisely the array of devices that the fed-up old woman tosses out the window. Which is to say: You can read Goodnight iPad on your iPad.
Little of this would matter if sales of digital books for children weren’t suddenly on the rise. Once a laggard in electronic purchases — a gap often attributed to parental reluctance to give up the tactile intimacy of reading with their children the “old-fashioned” way — children’s books now represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the e-book market. In March, the Association of American Publishers reported that net sales revenue for children’s and young adult e-books jumped a staggering 475 percent for the month of January 2012 over the same period in 2011, presumably an effect of new e-reader and tablet sales during the year-end holidays. And the numbers show little sign of slowing. Over the first quarter of 2012, the latest period for which data are available, net sales volume of children’s and young-adult e-books remains up a robust 233 percent over the same quarter last year.
While it’s true that the raw dollars of e-book sales still make up a relatively small percentage of children’s and young adults’ book sales overall (only $19.3 million out of $140 million in March 2012, for example), and while it’s not clear how much of the growth in this e-sector may be due to the young-adult side of the equation — especially when massively popular young-adult series like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games have shown significant levels of crossover adult readership — the data suggest that the reluctance to purchase digital books for children may nonetheless be softening. If so, is this cause for celebration, or concern?
It depends on whom you ask.
Critics of children’s digital books say they encourage skimming over deep reading, that children who use digital devices are more interested in playing games than in turning pages, and that parents who read digital books with their children don’t interact with young readers the same way as when reading traditional print books. Proponents of digital books for children, on the other hand, argue not only that reading comprehension is the same for digital books as for print, but also that children prefer digital books, a preference that may lead, in the long run, to more reading.