With the death of Ray Bradbury last night and the loss of Maurice Sendak in May, two of Time Magazine’s “5 Famous Writers Who Loathe E-Books” have left us within the past month. As the Village Voice recalled today, Bradbury mistrusted all digital technology, and only last year finally allowed Fahrenheit 451 to be issued as an e-book.
And in a memorable appearance on the Colbert Report this January, Sendak railed against the growing popularity of e-books for kids. “Fuck them, is what I say. I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead, I won’t give a shit.”
“I don’t write for children,” the revered author of Where The Wild Things Are told host Stephen Colbert, confirming his status as a lovable curmudgeon. “I write, and someone says, ‘That’s for children.’ I don’t set out to make children happy, or make life better for them, or easier for them.”
Sendak’s rough-around-the-edges sensibility is a provocative counterpoint to the growing list of digitally enhanced children’s books that incorporate kid-friendly animation and interactive elements. Consider the recent iPad makeovers of these classics: An e-book iteration of The Three Little Pigs allows young readers to help the wolf blow down the piggies’ houses via the iPad’s microphone, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit is tricked out with touch-and-hear text and pull-tabs that literally “pull” readers into the world of Beatrix Potter’s classic illustrations.
So before deciding whether reading your child to sleep while curling up with a back-lit screen is good or bad idea, consider a basic question: with all the digital bells and whistles, what does a “good” book even look like these days?
For Brooklyn-based Michelle Knudsen, author of over 40 books for children, the heart of a good book remains a compelling story. Knudsen notes that pinpointing what made her most popular title, Library Lion, such a hit isn’t totally obvious, but the elements that resonate with young readers have more to do with emotions than electronics.
“I think what they most respond to is the emotion – the feelings of the characters for one another and the themes of friendship and belonging and sacrifice,” says Knudsen in an email. “I didn’t sit down to write a story about any of those things at the outset, but I think the fact that there are real emotions at the heart of the story makes people care about the characters and what happens to them in the books.”
“The key point for a good book is universality,” agrees E.J. Altbacker, author of the Shark Wars series for middle grades, and a writer for cartoons and kid’s shows. “Whatever magical land you’re in, there has to be something anchoring it that kids can relate to. Either the character is an outcast, or an orphan, or he’s different somehow.”
Altbacker notes that those who grew up listening to storytellers spin yarns around the fire might have experienced similar feelings about the transition to print. Initially, a story without a teller may have seemed stale, the page revealing nothing about the subtlety of tale. “Everyone knew the stories, but it was the skill of the performer who was giving nuance to the words,” Altbacker says.
While stories can be told in many different formats, picture books leave plenty of room for a child’s imagination. There’s even the “picture book proclamation,” a tenderly illustrated manifesto spearheaded by children’s book author Mac Barnett and signed by numerous prominent writers and illustrators. “We believe a picture book should be fresh, honest, piquant and beautiful,” it declares, insisting that printed children’s books are “a form, not a genre.”
Print and e-books each have their strengths, and aren’t mutually exclusive: readers young and old still cherish the tactile experience of reading a picture book. Knudsen suggests that while apps or games can supplement a book, letting young readers enjoy characters in an extended format, the story should still always come first.
“The words and the pictures draw the reader in, inviting her to meet the author and/or artist halfway, helping to bring the story fully to life in her mind,” said Knudsen. “If books become too much like games, if it becomes all about touching the screen to see what happens, I worry that sense of connection will be lost.”