Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The future of picture books as ebooks

I have been pondering the future of picture books this past week, after some interesting ebook information from Maureen Crisp. Apparently illustrators are working on technology to make picture books into ebooks.  Maureen says (in answer to my query):
One of our top illustrators here in NZ has been working with a digital development company over the last few years on visually interactive books. He showed us at a festival a few years ago and it was amazing. The kids put on goggles and read a book where the illustrations started to move like an animation when they moved a wand over a spot on the page. The goggles provided a 3d experience...and it was still in development then. These were ordinary picture books with optional enhanced content...the animation was similar to a video they are experimenting out there...
It sounds fascinating, and from an adult perspective, it sounds wonderfully stimulating.  But would such technology be appropriate for children? I am thinking of the target audience for most picture books, and having animated ebooks might not be the best option for young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2.5 not watch television (they do not specify other forms of video, but I would imagine they fall under the same umbrella), and that children over 2.5 be exposed to it in limited amounts. Why no video for the toddler set?  According to the AAP, children who are watching television/video are not doing other important activities, such as:
  • Asking questions
  • Solving problems
  • Being creative
  • Exercising initiative
  • Practicing eye-hand coordination
  • Scanning (useful in reading)
  • Practicing motor skills
  • Thinking critically, logically, and analytically
  • Practicing communication skills
  • Playing interactive games with other children or adults (helpful for developing patience, self-control cooperation, sportsmanship) 
Now an X-box-like picture book experience may well be a better alternative to standard video and television. Presumably, parents are still reading the books to the children, which would foster communication and thinking skills. Eye-hand coordination skills would be developed through use of the "wand" to animate the pictures (taking the place of lifting a flap, for example), but many of the other skills noted above would be missed. But perhaps many of them are when reading a paper book, as well. 

I am particularly concerned about the ability of ebook Readers (e.g., Kindle) to read to the children. This may sound like a benefit at first... children can sit down and read stories even when parents don't have time. Great! But what do children miss in these situations? Potentially a good number of the activities listed above.

Children could not ask questions about the story (or get an answer out of the Kindle, at any rate). They could not  take the initiative to go through the book at their own pace, to scan through the images and identify objects they recognize (this may be possible, given particular settings, I don't know that much about the upcoming technology and am speculating, here). And it would limit their creative expression. I know my oldest likes to make up stories about characters in the book (why someone looks angry, for example... what happened just before that part of the story). When the images are animated, this level of curiosity is overwhelmed by the brain's need to process what they are watching. 

And I sincerely hope parents wouldn't take this as an excuse NOT to read to their child. In today's busy world, it would be a tempting excuse to let the child entertain his- or herself. 

I wonder, too about the ability of young children (those for whom picture books are a staple, particularly the board books) to understand what they are seeing in an animated book.  In their article The Medium Can Obscure the Message, Troseth and DeLoache describe the results of an experiment in which young children (aged 2, 2.5, and 3 years) were shown a video monitor of someone hiding something in another room, then asked to find that item. Only the 3-year-olds could do so. But when shown a picture of the room and having an adult point to the location of the hidden object, 2.5-year-olds were also able to find the object. Clearly, children are able to process still images and determine the symbolic meaning behind them (the images, after all, represent actual objects) earlier than they can draw meaning from animation.

So where does that leave us for the future of picture books? I think the animated alternative could be great, if it is used only for books geared toward older children. I could easily see my travel adventure stories in an animated format, but they are intended for the 6-8-year age range. I think that any book geared specifically for toddlers should remain in paper format (who says all books need to transition to ebooks, after all?). I simply hope that we think before we leap into this new world, to avoid performing a giant, irreversible experiment on our children and their mental and physical development.


  1. I agree with you absolutely! Children don't always process information at the same rate. Also, there is a strong correlation between being read to in close proximity and developing a life-long love of reading. I would be sorry to see books for ages one to five in ebook form because much as we would wish otherwise, I'm afraid they would be used as another form of baby-sitting.

  2. There's no question... in fact, they would relieve the guilt some parents feel when they plunk the kiddies in front of the TV... at least an e-book is more educational. Sort of like how the Baby Einstein DVDs are acceptable in the minds of many parents who would not otherwise allow their young children to watch TV/videos.