Books and Electronic Publishing: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

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The bedtime story is one of the most sacred of childhood rituals. We curl up on our parents’ laps, snuggle up with our blankets and velveteen bunnies, as we listen, follow along with our fingertips, and eventually sound out the words of our favorite stories.

A famous publisher and author of children’s books, Emilie Buchwald, said that “children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” We know this to be true, because for generations, this is how we learned and taught our own children to read. When it was illegal to teach Black people how to read in this country, our forefathers and foremothers got their hands on books, by any means necessary, so that their children might learn to read and have a better life. How will the next and future generations adapt to this world of iPads, electronic media, and, yes, even blogs like the one you’re reading?

A while back, I was doing a reading at a library in Alexandria, VA. The parents were really into my reading, I thought was doing a pretty good job, it seemed as if I’d engaged the children. But not long after I finished, a fifth grader ran up to me and said, “Ms. Charisse, your books are cool and all, but can I get them on my iPhone?!” Children don’t know a world without the Internet. Their brains are changing to keep up with the times, and the times are changing fast.

E-books are not going away. Earlier this month, Amazon announced a hard but not surprising fact – eBook are outselling hard cover books. Days later industry experts confirmed the same stats from major publishers. Electronic publishing brings up a lot of interesting considerations and possible changes: how will media change the way children learn? How will children change the way adults publish and produce new technologies? What does all this mean for the future of children’s books, which currently aren’t even available on the Kindle? Once the technology catches up with itself and with our needs, what about the costs? Will everyone be able to afford a Kindle? Will everyone be able to afford the e-books, or will they be available for free, just like at the public library? And, what will happen to the libraries? Will the digital divide grow wider at the same rate as the technology, leaving those who cannot afford to keep up in the dust? Will the book, as we know it, become obsolete?

We are just beginning to explore these newfound technologies, assessing their capabilities and challenging their limitations as well as our own. Our classrooms have gone from chalkboards, to dry erase boards, to smart boards, in order to help our children keep up with the speed of our own technological evolution. As a parent, anything that furthers my children’s education, increasing their imagination and chances of future success is something to which I can happily subscribe. As an author of children’s books, however, I cannot help but wonder about the fate of my own imagination and future successes.

I think, what matters now, is that we remember the words of Frederick Douglass: “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Whether we teach or learn on a paper page or multi-pixel screen, the lessons are what really matters.

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