Literacy used to look like a child sitting with a book in his or her hands. Recently, however, literacy has acquired a new look.
More young children are learning to read not from a printed book but rather on a tablet, electronic reader or even smartphone.
This phenomenon presents an opportunity for authors because these flourishing platforms have a growing need for children’s e-books.
These trends have been analyzed in the recent report “What a Difference a Year Makes: Kids and E-Reading Trends 2012-13,” which seeks to understand the e-reading habits of children ages 2 to13. The report focuses on parental attitudes regarding the benefits of e-books.
The report was compiled by family-centered consumer product company PlayScience (the research arm of PlayCollective) and Digital Book World, a consumer publishing resource. An online survey was conducted in October, 2013, of 603 U.S. adults who have children ages 2-13 who read digital books in their households.
The most important finding: Children’s e-reading continues to grow sharply, with two-thirds of children 13 and under now reading digital books; 92 percent of those kids do so at least once a week. That translates into a potential consumer base of 36 million U.S. children. In addition, nearly half of those children read digitally every day.
Does this mean children are reading more because of e-books, or are they simply switching from print to electronic forms?
J. Alison Bryant, president and founder of PlayCollective, thinks the answer is the former. “There is certainly some move to electronic forms, but overall it seems to be additive,” she says.
Cindy Loh, publishing director for Bloomsbury Children’s USA, explains the versatility of ebooks: “There are more of them available since the rise of e-books. In digital, books can really be tailored to the readership without print production and inventory costs, so the reader who loves dystopian can keep reading dystopian stories long after the bulk of the print industry has moved on to another genre. Publication schedules are much more flexible for digital, too. Production timelines for digital are shorter, and publishers now have the possibility to release all books in a series within a year. E-books have also opened up the market for novellas and prequel stories that would have been more challenging to publish in print.”
The report also reveals that children want both print and e-book versions of the same title. The study offers two reasons for this: It could be that children view each as separate and unique reading experiences, or it may be that they enjoy a book so much that they want to be able to access it at all times and in multiple formats.
The other major finding of the report is that parents who grew up with print books are learning to embrace digital books for their children.
The study shows that a majority of parents surveyed feel that e-books can motivate their children to read more or to become better readers, improve their children’s reading abilities and reduce the amount of time their children spend with other media.
Parents are willing to put their money where their mouths are. In the month the survey was taken, they spent an average of $22.07 on digital books for their children, up from $12.13 a year earlier.
What criteria do parents use when selecting e-books?
“My child asked for it” is first (53 percent), followed by price (35 percent), positive reviews (28 percent) and the author’s reputation (27 percent).
Bryant sees several positives for children’s book authors in her group’s report.
“First, there are new modes of distribution for your work, and the platform seems to be additive in its effects on reading for kids,” she says. “In addition, moving to digital can offer some interesting opportunities to augment the traditional reading experience with other ways to bring the characters and stories to life. That said, our research (both in this report and otherwise) has shown that more interactivity is not better – the right kinds of interactivity that help bring the story to life are what bring value.”
As an example of an enhanced e-book that works well, Bryant singles out a favorite of hers, The Monster at the End of This Book, featuring Grover from TV’s Sesame Street.
“The developers added in interactivity where the reader really helps the story move along – your actions and interactions are required to move the story along,” she says. “Kids really love that agency in the story, and parents like that it doesn’t detract from the reading experience.”
Loh picked out Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery. “This e-book features audio narration and also fun, space-themed sound effects that take the reading experience to a whole new level! The book’s comic book structure is very cinematic, and these extra features elevate it rather than bog it down.”
She also recommends Herman’s Letters, in which e-book readers touch the letters on the screen to flip them open, mimicking the lift-the-flaps letters in the print version.
What advice do publishers offer to established or would-be children’s book authors? Their biggest point (which resonates regardless of platform): Story must come first.
Lori Benton, vice president and publisher for Scholastic’s trade division, seconds the motion.
“The hallmark of any good children’s book, regardless of format, is compelling storytelling and excellent writing,” she says. “E-books are an additional ‘binding’ – a very elastic binding. [They] can offer the opportunity to extend the story in interesting and often surprising ways that aren’t in print, and yet one must always be mindful of the reading experience and take care not to interrupt the flow of the story and pull the reader too far away from the narrative.”
Loh agrees that enhancements need to be handled carefully, particularly in picture books, with audio narration, sound effects and highlighting/enlargement features that can add a new level of interactivity. “Giving a child a chance to read along with a digital picture book can be both instructive and fun, as not only is there potential for readers to hone their reading skills, but these added elements, when done right, can keep readers engaged and entertained as well,” she says. “E-book enhancements work best when they are connected to the readership and the nature of the book. Lots of stop-and-start videos and animation can work really well with picture books, but they could be distracting or might not make sense for a YA novel.”
Digital children’s books, now in increasing demand, provide a new pathway to publication for aspiring writers. But any enhancements must be constructed upon the never-antiquated foundation of a strong narrative.
FACTS TO KNOW
Amount parents spend annually on digital books:
$22.07 per year
Potential consumer base of child readers:
Dale McGarrigle is a freelance arts writer and reviewer in Hampden, Maine.