High Variance

E-books and Kids

In my house we read a lot of books to our kids. We read after school, on weekends, while traveling, during meals and (of course) right before bed. I was a voracious reader as a kid and I hope to impart this habit and pure love of reading to my kids. There’s something about reading a book and visualizing the scenes and action in your mind that expands your imagination much more than watching a movie ever could. Reading with your kids is also a just high quality parent-child time. You never have to press pause to stop and talk about issues raised in the story.

We also run a fairly gadget-friendly household. My wife and I often work at our computers, we both have iPhones, and our iPad is pretty much our living room computer. My three-year old has almost as many apps as I do. You would think we would be actively transitioning all our reading to e-books, but we’re not.

The Good

E-books have a lot of advantages over physical books. I love that you can load up an iPad with a few hundred and it weighs no more than a couple paperbacks. While picture books look like junk (if they are available at all) on the Kindle, they look fine on the iPad. Some e-books have a “read aloud” option and will repeat words and sentences with a touch. We don’t use these features much as a parent is usually the one reading, but it’s nice to have the option.

Pricing of e-books is generally higher than the used physical book price, but I think (hope?) it’s only a matter of time before that changes. I especially hope that the publishers realize that parents would love to buy “boxed sets” for a reasonable price. If I could buy all 26 of the Curious George books in the iBooks store for $52 (that’s $2 each) I’d jump on it. Instead, they charge between $3.99 and $8.99 each and I end up spending a total of $3.99 on George. We all lose out.

Availability is a similar story–it’s lousy now but I have high hopes it will get better. The great thing will be that once a book is in digital format, there’s no reason it should ever go out of print. So when I want a mint condition copy of Amy Tan’s Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat I don’t have to wait a single minute. And if libraries can get in on the action, their catalogs will be amazing.

The Bad

As I’ve already mentioned, the current pricing and availability situation is atrocious for kids’ books. But these aren’t the only problems.

My iPad has a 9.7 inch display. The vast majority of the kids’ books in our house are a lot bigger. That means you either see a small version of the page or you’re constantly panning and zooming. Graeme Bass’ Legend of the Golden Snail is 12 inches by 22 inches open. That’s 25 inches diagonal (according to Pythagoras) and it’s going to be a long time before tablet displays get that big. The resolution on a printed page is a lot better than my iPad today, but that could presumably change in the next month or so. And you can completely forget about duplicating the Richard Scarry’s Biggest Word Book Ever! experience–it opens to 32 inches by 24 inches.

Even if I’m willing to give in on all this stuff for my three-year-old, there’s no way an e-book works for a one-year-old. We have close to 100 board books, touch and feel books, and cloth books that can withstand constant mouthing and provide good tactile feedback.

The Worrying

I’m mostly optimistic about the future of e-books for kids, but there is a trend that worries me. The kids’ e-books that get the most praise from critics and the highest ratings in the iOS app store tend to be the flashiest and most movie-like. Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book is a perfect example. It lasted about 5 minutes on my iPad before I saw my daughter’s eyes glaze over and I deleted it. The Critter books (e.g., Just Me and My Dad) aren’t much better. They at least let you read the story while you click around the page trying to make animals do funny things.

It’s not that I think interactive features are a bad thing in e-books, but I think they are a lot more appropriate in books for adults like The Elements: A Visual Exploration and Al Gore’s Our Choice. Even textbooks has a lot to gain from embedded movie clips, social network integration, and dynamic graphs. And I’m excited about the new iBooks Author software enabling a whole new wave of these kinds of books.

But God help us if children’s book publishers suddenly think they have tart up old content to get us to buy it electronically. Let my daughters and I imagine George riding his bike in the circus without turning it into mini-game. Let us laugh about Franklin’s messy closet without having to interactively explore it. And let us imagine the old lady whispering “hush” without having to hear it out loud.