ILLUSTRATION: ROMAN MURADOV

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.

Professor William Gleason
Professor William Gleason
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

The New York Times fueled the debate last November when it reported, with seeming approval, on the reluctance of media-savvy parents to provide their children with digital books. In “For Their Children, Many E-Book Fans Insist on Paper,” Matt Richtel and Julie Bosman asked parents who are “die-hard downloaders of books onto Kindles, iPads, laptops, and phones,” but who have consciously withheld such devices from their children, to explain why. “I know I’m a Luddite on this, but there’s something very personal about a book and not one of 1,000 files on an iPad, something that’s connected and emotional, something I grew up with and that I want them to grow up with,” said one parent. “When you read a book, a proper kid’s book,” said another, “it engages all the senses. It’s teaching them to turn the page properly. You get the smell of paper, the touch.” Yet another worried that his 5-year-old son would prefer to use electronic devices for play, not reading: “If he’s going to pick up the iPad, he’s not going to read, he’s going to want to play a game. So reading concentration goes out the window.”

But Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of the website Digital Book World, says it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions about the impact of electronic reading on young readers. “There is still no academic evidence that reading e-books with your children is bad for them,” Greenfield argues in response to the Times article. “And the fact that we feel that it’s so, or that a few parents are of that opinion, is no substitute for rigorous study of the issue.”

So far, studies offer talking points for both sides. Where some academic research has shown e-books to improve children’s word recognition, phonological awareness, and story-recall ability, other studies suggest that the interactive features of digital books can diminish comprehension by distracting young readers.

The rapidly changing e-book landscape introduces its own complications. The digital media available when the earliest of these studies were conducted — primarily CD-ROM story­books — have been displaced by a range of devices and formats, making direct comparison among studies difficult. Could findings based on research using Apple’s iPad, for example, be generalized to all children’s digital reading ­experiences? What matters most when we study e-books for children?

For Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, what matters most is the give-and-take between parent and child. Writing for Time.com in December 2011 (“Why E-Reading with Your Kid Can Impede Learning”), Guernsey publicized two studies of digital reading and parent-child interaction that suggest e-books may unintentionally do more harm than good.

Pointing first to a 2006 study by Julia Parish-Morris at Temple University that found preschool and elementary-age children who read e-books with their parents showed diminished reading comprehension compared to children who read traditional books, Guernsey reports: “Instead of talking with their children about the content of the books, parents ended up spouting ‘do this, don’t do that’ directives about how to use the devices. All this chatter may interfere with comprehension. When Parish-Morris tested how well children understood the stories on electronic devices, the ­
e-book users did significantly worse than those who sat with their parents reading print. Parents may have interrupted more often because it was hard to get used to the device or too many images beckoned to be clicked. Either way, the kids ended up with ‘a jumbled version of the story in their brains,’ [Parish-Morris] said.”

Guernsey then describes research by Gabrielle Strouse of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University: “Strouse asked parents of 3-year-olds to watch Scholastic books on video over several weeks, assigning the parents to ‘co-view’ in different ways. She finds that the children with mothers who merely pointed to something on screen or who didn’t talk at all showed fewer reading skills than those whose mothers were trained to ask questions about what might happen next and why. Strouse said it appeared that parents had to be trained on how to ask questions and prompt their children to talk about the video story, as it didn’t come naturally with the electronic version.”

Is the device to blame, or the parent? As adults grow more accustomed to using digital books, will they read more “naturally” with children, spending less time spouting directives and more time talking about content?

Or will the medium itself always make the difference?

In the broader context of today’s digital age, that’s certainly what some believe. In his widely read 2008 essay for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr hypothesizes that spending too much time online is remapping our neural circuitry. “As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information,” notes Carr. “They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

For Carr, these changes are most noticeable in his reading. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” E-books for children may not necessarily mimic the experience of going online. But Carr’s critique isn’t far from the minds of those who worry that digital reading for children may carry as many risks as it does rewards.

To elementary-school literacy coach Julie Hume, however, those rewards matter a great deal. The subject of a June 2011 article Guernsey published in the School Library Journal (“Are E-books Any Good?”), Hume used a grant to assess the usefulness of digital picture books in improving reading fluency among struggling third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade readers in her University City, Mo., school district. Dividing the roughly two dozen students into two groups — one that used computers to read and listen to animated, talking e-books through the Internet, and another that read the traditional way, “with Hume sitting at a table and assisting them as they read along in their paper books” — Hume found that the digital learners progressed much more quickly than their traditional peers. (Hume’s computer students accessed their animated books online through the TumbleBook Library, a subscription service.)

“Three months after starting the project,” reports Guernsey, “the average fluency rate for the TumbleBook group was 23 percentage points higher than that of the ­control group.” Within five months, all the children in the e-book program were ready to return to their regular classrooms. The control group, however, lagged behind, taking two months longer to achieve the same level of fluency. It’s a small sample, to be sure. But for Hume’s struggling students, reading online seems to have accelerated their learning rather than hindered it. 

Professors Eliza T. Dresang and Bowie Kotrla likely would not be surprised by Hume’s observations. Drawing on Dresang’s influential “radical change” theory, they argue in a 2009 article for the Journal of Aesthetic Education that while we may lack conclusive data to determine whether the Internet age is making our brains more or less able to conduct higher-level thinking or reflective reading, we nonetheless can observe the “digital-age behaviors, interests, and preferences of youth in relation to media.” These preferences, interests, and behaviors, they assert, show conclusively that children — surprise! — are deeply attracted to digital technology. This is true for children “across all settings and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Dresang and Kotrla report. This makes today’s digital youth — sometimes called “the Net generation, digital natives, cyberkids, and Generation M (for Media)” — measurably different from previous generations. For better or worse, children today are typically more comfortable receiving information visually, seeking information in nonlinear ways, and multitasking when reading.

What we might not fully appreciate, Dresang and Kotrla maintain, is the extent to which the digital age already has begun to change, at times radically, some of the very books children are reading. Identifying three characteristics of digital technology whose impact has been most ­pronounced on contemporary children’s literature — interactivity, connectivity, and access — Dresang and Kotrla catalog the formal and aesthetic changes marking these texts: “graphics in new forms and formats; words and pictures reaching new levels of synergy; nonlinear or nonsequential organization and ­format; multiple layers of meaning from a variety of perspectives; cognitively, emotionally, and/or physically interactive formats; sophisticated presentations; and unresolved ­storylines.”

Some of these books have been kicking around on children’s bookshelves for more than two decades. Dresang and Kotrla focus much of their analysis on David Macaulay’s 1991 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, Black and White. Each double-page spread of Macaulay’s book features four panels, reflecting (it would seem) four different stories. Navigation through these stories, Dresang and Kotrla argue, is not preordained. Instead, readers choose how to combine and recombine the sequence of the tales, leading to “infinite readings” with “multiple resolutions.” As they note, the book’s own title page issues a warning — and an invitation: “This book appears to contain a number of stories that do not necessarily occur at the same time. Then again, it may contain only one story. In any event, careful inspection of both words and pictures is recommended.”

Whether the possible readings of Black and White are truly infinite, for Dresang and Kotrla the book’s sophisticated, nonlinear design is both integral to, and constitutive of, its special appeal for digital-age youth. A more recent example they offer is the Caldecott Medal winner for 2008: Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 533-page book whose “vivid visual appeal” and synergistic combination of sketch and text creates an aesthetic experience “somewhere between a graphic novel, a picture book, and a film” — and which itself was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 motion picture, Hugo. These books, plus many others, they argue, exemplify the digital-age transformation of children’s literature. Even a book like Goodnight MoonGoodnight Moon! — though first published in 1947, may be said to anticipate elements of the changes to come through its invitation to child readers to develop their own nonlinear stories among its visually rich, quietly busy pages, Dresang and Kotrla ­suggest.

Where will this transformation take us? To the imagined world of Goodnight iPad, where fed-up parents confiscate digital devices and replace them with paper books? Or to an even more immersive online experience, in which the line between “traditional” and “digital” books enthusiastically blurs? Last spring, during the final lecture in my undergraduate survey of children’s literature, teaching assistant Dan Johnson, a Department of English graduate student interested in media theory and storytelling, offered this hypothesis: To know the future of children’s literature, look to video games.

Video games not only are immensely popular with digital-age youth, they embody the interactivity and connectivity Dresang and Kotrla say mark the ways digital culture shapes children’s books. Elements of video-game logic and structure already are surfacing in children’s literature. Think of the Marauder’s Map in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Johnson suggests, a device that displays “user” locations in a format strikingly similar to video-game navigation maps. Or books that encourage readers to linger on a page, for the pleasure of discovering details that may or may not have a direct relation to the book’s ostensible plot. Most of Richard Scarry’s books work this way, Johnson notes, each page filled with the diverting exploits of “minor” as well as “major” characters.

For a more contemporary example, consider Hervé Tullet’s delightful Press Here, one of the most popular children’s picture books of the past year. Tullet’s book invites readers to press, rub, and tap the small colored dots on its pages, which then change color, multiply, or shift places when you turn the page. It functions, in other words, almost exactly like a touch screen, responding to user commands. Press Here has been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 14 months. Our ENG 385 students loved it.

Is this the future of children’s books? I’m excited to turn the page — or click the icon — to find out.