Color e-readers: boon for or bane of children's books?

Apple is making a leap into illustrated books today, adding more than 100 children’s book, photo, and cookbook titles to its iBookstore.

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    Apple positions its iPad for a move into the lucrative children's book market.
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"E-readers will be good for certain kinds of reading experiences but not others." It seemed we all agreed on that from the moment we took that first Kindle out of its box. And beautifully illustrated books were among the experiences we didn't expect to enjoy on our e-readers.

Think again.

There was the iPad, there was the Nook Color, and now here's Apple announcing a "major push" (as reported in The New York Times) into illustrated books. According to the Times, today Apple will be introducing more than 100 titles to its iBookstore, including "children’s books, photography books ... cookbooks" and "[s]ome of the most popular children’s picture books of all time."

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Among the children's book titles mentioned were some of the “Olivia” picture books, “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, “Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!” by Candace Fleming, and “When Dinosaurs Came With Everything” by Elise Broach and David Small.

(Meanwhile, titles like “Amelia Bedelia” and the “Fancy Nancy” series, have already been available on the Nook Color for about a month.)

Is it a good thing for children's books?

From an economic point of view, it should be a slam dunk. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing has been “itching to do it since e-books became possible,” Jon Anderson, the group's publisher, told the Times – and no wonder. Picture book apps allowing kids to enjoy some of their favorite titles on mobile devices have already become big successes. (The week of the iPad launch Publishers Weekly was already reporting that "children's stories held six of the top 10 paid iPad book-app sales spots.")

From an artistic point of view, the matter is less clear. The Times article points out that "converting image-heavy books into digital form has not been easy. Authors are careful to monitor how their work appears on a screen, and publishers have struggled to replicate the experience of reading a print book."

Presumably, however, with time, the process will become easier and the results more pleasing. After all, at this point, the technology is just in its infancy.

But from a reading point of view, the question becomes even murkier. Kids already get massive amounts of screen time these days. Is converting their favorite (and generally their first) reading experiences to a screen necessarily a plus? And as interactive children's e-books become more popular, will kids still have the patience required to enjoy simple text and images?

"Don't get me wrong, I love books, and I love the tactile, low tech experience of sharing a book with a child," children's book author and illustrator Jennifer E. Morris wrote on her blog. "But let's face it, how cool would it be to have your child's whole library of books available to you when you go to Grandma's house for the weekend or in the car?"

Hmm – maybe. "My kids won’t be getting a Nook anytime soon," blogger Rebekah Denn wrote here at Chapter & Verse. "They aren’t even allowed to fool around with my Kindle. The experience of holding a book and turning pages is still so different from reading on a computer screen."

Obviously, there are no right and wrong answers to this one – just different readers and different parents. But one thing is for sure. As Morris concluded: "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens.... I think the children's picture book industry is in for some changes."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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