Children's Toy & Media Reviews Since 1978

E-Readers and the Future of Picture Books

It’s no secret that e-books are the new publishing phenomenon. In the case of blockbuster books, first-week sales and sometimes overall sales are equally divided between print and electronic versions. Last year, some ten percent of all book sales were digital versions of texts that consumers downloaded to their Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and other electronic reading devices. That percentage is expected to double in 2011.

Libraries are also keen on e-books. At a recent meeting of the American Library Association in San Diego, professionals explained how their patrons “borrow” digital books, downloading copies from library servers. Librarians from across the country told me how huge crowds showed up whenever they offered how-to courses about borrowing electronic materials. Indeed, judging by the turnout at my local library for such a class, Christmas 2010 must have been a watershed year for receiving e-readers as gifts.

Of course, when folks talk about e-books, they are mostly thinking about offerings for adult and young-adult readers. These e-texts consist mostly of words and all that’s needed is a black-and-white reader; Amazon’s Kindle (currently, $139-$189) is a popular device in this category. But children’s picture books present a greater challenge since what’s needed is a more sophisticated device that can display color and images. At the moment, there are only two readers that can do so: Apple’s iPad and Barnes and Noble’s NOOKcolor.

The iPad

Given the way it is being marketed, you would think Apple’s iPad is the ideal device for reading picture books. At its launch and even now, advertisements for the iPad feature A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh with Ernest Shepard’s illustrations; indeed, the device ships with a free version of this beloved classic. I hasten to add, however, that one devoted adult reader has complained to me that Apple is manipulating Winnie-the-Pooh nostalgia because they are using colorized versions of Shepard’s illustrations rather than the original black-and-white pictures.

Another part of the iPad experience is the recently launched iBookstore which, I am sorry to say, is a disappointment. Hunting for picture books at the iBookstore is an arduous endeavor since there are no subcategories beneath the huge selection “Children & Teens”; and even after a few hours of sorting, I could only come up with some three dozen picture books. Worse, when I downloaded a “sample” to consider a purchase (in this case, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus), all I got was a blank page and five title pages. I expect this situation will change over time.

There is, however, another shortcoming to the iPad that just appeared on the horizon. Previously, Apple saw the device primarily as hardware that hosted thousands of “apps” (applications) created by outside companies and individuals. In the realm of e-reading that meant, for example, that you could download the Barnes and Noble app, buy books from them, and view your e-text purchases on your iPad. No longer.

Apple has recently decreed that booksellers must route their sales through the iBookstore; and if booksellers are unwilling to pay a 30% “toll” on their sales, Apple will no longer host their apps. Like the situation in the story “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” this demand may backfire. If it can no longer display texts bought at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere, then the iPad is less versatile as an e-reader than it once was.

The NOOKcolor

If you want a terrific e-reader for children’s picture books, you should buy Barnes and Noble’s NOOKcolor. To be sure, this is a dedicated reader; so, in comparison with the iPad, you lose the utility of a jack-of-all-trades tablet computer, though this version of the Nook does come with a browser and ways to store and view files and documents. On the other hand, as a reader, the NOOKcolor is terrific and a lot less expensive ($249) than the iPad ($499-$829).

This new version of the Nook is an attractive tablet, about half the size of an iPad and lighter. It comes with wi-fi (for downloads), an SD memory card slot, and an intriguing hole in one corner through which (or so I imagine) one might run a cord. My one complaint is that its speaker is on the back so that when the NOOKcolor is lying on a table, sound is muffled; of course, one could hold it up or plug in an earphone.

Not surprisingly, the NOOKcolor is seamlessly tied into Barnes and Noble’s online bookstore. Unlike the iBookStore, you will find here logical categories and abundant subcategories, as well as an easy way to locate picture books. More than 240 picture books have been digitized and are available for purchase; these include individual titles (e.g., Polar Express) as well as many classic and contemporary series offerings (Thomas the Train, Berenstain Bears, Curious George, Olivia, Richard Scarry, Skippyjon Jones, et al.).

Equally impressive is the NOOKcolor’s uniform and consistent interface. (With the iPad you get whatever interface the provider has made use of in their app.) Many of the featured books offer a choice between “Read By Myself” and “Read to Me” where a professional and dramatic voice talent provides an audiobook version of the text and, possibly, a break for weary parents. Each of the texts is presented in landscape mode as a double-page spread (two facing pages are always seen) and page-turning is easy. Pictures can be “zoomed” (pinching or tweaking by fingers can grow and shrink parts of a page), and the display and colors are bright and vivid. If you’re in the market for a dedicated reader, one that can do a job with kids’ picture books, the NOOKcolor is the one to get.

What to Consider

●Age. Most manufacturers recommend these devices for ages three and up. That seems about right. My own experience with my grandson suggests that kids around that age easily pick up the technique of “swiping” a screen to turn a page. There’s also another age-related issue: Given the cost of these somewhat fragile electronics, you might want to consider when to let kids make use of them in an unsupervised way.

●The false either/or. Should you buy a digital reader, people will inevitably ask you questions like: “Can you take an e-book into the bathtub?” “Can you imagine holding a kid on your lap and using an e-reader?” Don’t get trapped in this false either/or. Digital books will never replace their print versions. They will always be used in addition to print books. And let me add that if you’re traveling on vacation, it’s nice to have your kids’ favorite reading in one compact place.

●Are you good with sharing? E-readers are “family readers” and that means you have to consider sharing or buying multiple devices. If your offspring wants to read Olivia, are you prepared to give up the novel you’re in the middle of? Meanwhile, please note your partner is in the wings and waiting to read the online New York Times.

●How hip is your library? Contact your local library and ask what provisions they have for electronic borrowing. (Most often you will hear about a system called “Overdrive.”) Check how extensive. their children’s holdings are.

●Looking down the road. As with any evaluation of new technologies, this information will soon be out of date; as I write, more than thirty new tablets–each a competitor to the iPad–were announced at a recent tech expo in Las Vegas. Another feature than may become more important is the ability to view videos; for weeks now, the toddler in my life has been especially keen on YouTube videos featuring construction equipment and music. Finally, expect other kinds of clever interactive programs since publishers are already reexamining the “book model” and wondering whether this new medium invites “thinking outside the box”; to see a cool example of this, download to your Apple device the app “The Three Little Pigs and the Secret of the Popup Book” ($3.99) or watch its creation on YouTube.

●Costs. On average, digital picture books cost the same as their paperback or hardcover print equivalents (usually, $4-$14). If that seems like a lot, remember that picture books are unusually “cost effective” since they are often read over and over again.

* * * * *
About the Author
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. His most recent book is Feeling Like a Kid.