E-Readers and Kids

"Some weeks I completely forgot about TV," said Eliana, 11. "I went two weeks with only watching one show, or no shows at all. I was just reading every day."

If my 11-year old said that, I would think I'd died and gone to heaven (where I would hope to meet Jane Austen and get her autograph). I am a bibliophile with a passion for good literature, and so (to a greater or lesser extent) are my four oldest daughters. Number 5, not so much. If she were allowed (she's not) she would happily watch TV or play computer games all day long. Sometimes when children struggle with learning to read, they grow into reluctant or unhappy readers. It's a bit of a vicious cycle: they must read more in order to improve their decoding and comprehension skills, but it's like pulling hen's teeth to get them to pick up a book.

I'd never considered that technology could be my ally, until I read this piece in the New York Times about the growing popularity of e-readers for children.

Monica Vila, who runs the popular Web site The Online Mom and lectures frequently to parent groups about Internet safety, said that in recent months she had been bombarded with questions from parents about whether they should buy e-readers for their children.

In a speech last month at a parents' association meeting in Westchester County, Ms. Vila asked for a show of hands to indicate how many parents had bought e-readers for their children as holiday gifts.

About half the hands in the room shot up, she recalled.

According to those in the business, it's been a trend that's been slow to take off:

Digital sales have typically represented only a small fraction of sales of middle-grade and young-adult books, a phenomenon usually explained partly by the observation that e-readers were too expensive for children and teenagers.

Gee, I don't know about that theory. I've seen fairly young teens and tweens toting some pretty pricey-looking cell phones and electronics. If parents can afford it, and Junior wants it, Junior usually gets it. In this case, I would consider it an investment in my child's education.

E-readers might just be worth a try for children who enjoy electronic gadgets (Are there any kids who don't? They usually figure out how to use the family camera, computer, DVD player, etc. long before Mom and Dad do). When it comes to literature, the idea of carrying a virtual library of thousands of books in your purse or backpack is still (pardon the pun) very novel, at least to middle-aged me. There's also an undeniable appeal in being able to download books instantly, especially for those in relatively isolated areas, where it may take weeks for a book order to arrive from Amazon, or for books requested from the public library to become available. Moreover, many literary classics are in the public domain and are available for download free of charge.

Real books will always have a place, and there are some spots where an e-book should probably never go (beach or bathtub), but I am all for anything that encourages children to read more.

"Kids are drawn to the devices, and there's a definite desire by parents to move books into this format," Ms. Vila said. "Now you're finding people who are saying: 'Let's use the platform. Let's use it as a way for kids to learn.'"

I agree. In an age when some children (regrettably) want to spend hours a day glued to a screen, they might as well spend some of that time enchanted by Little Women or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Mariette Ulrich is a Canadian columnist, blogger and freelance writer.

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