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Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Books

Opinion | December 1, 2010

For the past few years, picture books have experienced a sad but steady decline in popularity. Picture books symbolize a moment in time when children learned to read with books rather than with computers, television sets, or iPads. Back then, children belonged to the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss, Waldo, and the Magic School Bus. There are numerous reasons for the decline of picture books, but perhaps the most significant among them is that they are being replaced by interactive books and other technology-based activities.  It is worth exploring the benefits and detriments of such trends.

A recent New York Times article suggests that one reason for the decline of picture books is that parents are pushing their children to read text-heavy paperbacks earlier in their lives. Not only are these books deemed more educational, but they are cheaper than their hardcover and colorful counterparts. It makes sense—why would parents be willing to spend the high prices that picture books incur when they can buy several paperback books for less?

The benefits of picture books cannot easily be replaced, however. According to a New York Times article by Julie Bosman, “Publishers praise the picture book for the particular way it can develop a child’s critical thinking skills.”

Technology also plays a huge role in the decline of picture books, according to the Wall Street Journal. iPads and similar electronic tablets, which can all be enormously kid-friendly, are quickly coming up with book “apps” targeted specifically at children. These applications include interactive animations and complementary sounds effects in addition to the original text of what used to be picture books.

One of the more popular book apps is called “Alice for iPad,” which is Atomic Antelope’s tablet version of the classic “Alice in Wonderland.” The application depicts interactive objects moving around the screen, such as a shrinking Alice or a flying pack of playing cards. The application even highlights the words as a voice reads them out loud.

According to the founder of Miami-based Baby Stars, Edith Peisach, who is an educational psychologist by training, these technological quick fixes can be a blessing in disguise for the busy working parents of today’s society. Technology makes it easy for parents to spend less time with their children.  “Working mothers do not have time to read books for their children, which is why they are turning to technology that essentially does the job for them,” says Peisach, “but this also means that kids are spending less time with their parents.”

However, recent findings by Candlewick Press, a childrens’ book publishing house located here in Somerville, suggest that these technological alternatives are supplementing picture books rather than wiping them out completely, according to Laura Rivas.

For the over-stimulated children of today, turning the pages of a Clifford book for the tenth time may not be sufficiently exciting, especially if their friends have iPads that allow them to play fun games and read interactive books.  Nevertheless, picture book publishing companies such as Candlewick Press remain optimistic as they explore new and different ways in which to engage their young readers. Candlewick’s SVP of Sales and Digital Initiatives, John Mendelson is excited to explore what new technologies can offer to the industry.   “We are testing new formats, forming relationships with third parties, and investigating the creation and distribution of new forms internally,” explains Mendelson.

Technology is a gateway for new forms of reader interaction, and rather than being marginalized by new technologies, publishing houses are taking the lead in exploiting them. “Candlewick is publishing picture books that continue to push the envelope and evolve in exciting ways,” says Rivas.

Right now, it is too early to tell how technologically infused reading is affecting children as they grow older. However, some publishing companies view technology as an opportunity to grow, rather than a threat.  For now, it looks as if picture books are here to stay, but it is the responsibility of parents and educators to brush aside some distractions of the modern world and focus on exposing children to reading from an early age.