on paper clips & paper books (digital ones, too)

by marjorieingall on November 9, 2010

This is a safe space, right? I am going to tell you something very upsetting and shocking. My husband’s PhD research was used to develop the Microsoft Help paper clip.


After he told me this we had a cathartic cry and did some really valuable and profound work in couples therapy. We will survive this.

I share this info because it’s made me think about e-books. See, from the academy on, Jonathan has spent his entire career figuring out how people interact with and feel toward technology. And for the last few years he’s focused on media measurement across delivery systems – now that people can watch a TV show on their phones, computers, TiVos, iPads, how can you tell what people are watching?

Book people have similar questions. And it can be even harder to tell who’s reading what and how. Books have major pass-along rates, to use a magazine term, and what with libraries and bookstores and used bookstores and Kindles and iPads and yadda, and publishers have been way less obsessive about data collection than TV and music folk, there’s a buttload of panic about books going away. (A new commercial for VTech’s V Reader that begins with a perky lady voice sing-songing, “Once upon a time, there were books!” isn’t going to make anyone feel better.)

But I don’t think anyone should panic about books disappearing. The content delivery mechanism may change, but we’re going to keep reading. Humans always freak out that new technology is going to destroy old amusements, but it almost never does. Delivery systems change, but stories and play remain. The trick is letting each delivery system do what it does well.

Recently B&N announced the impending launch of Nook kids for the forthcoming color version of the Nook, which ships on November 14th. Nook kids (I’m sorry, that uncapitalized “k” is bugging me) will feature around 130 digital picture books; at least 130 more will be available by the end of the year. Quoth the press release: “Storytime comes to life using Barnes & Noble’s exclusive, patent-pending AliveTouch™ technology, inviting children to interact with words and pictures on the page, easily find their favorite story and even have some read aloud to them. And coming soon, NOOK kids eBooks will feature light motion graphics and interactivity that fits into the story and plotlines.”

AliveTouch™ makes it sound like zombies will come out of the device and eat your children. (It also sounds a bit like Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s disgusting “Cheese touch,” but maybe I’m projecting.)

Kids like technology. Children’s book publishers would be stupid not to tap into kids’ enjoyment of computer games, handheld games and beepy things. My iPhone is jam-packed with … let’s see, PegJump, Hangman, 4 trivia games, Bubble Wrap, Bubbles, DreidelTap, Lightsaber, JirboMatch, MazeFinger, Pac-Man, Scribble, Preschool Adventure, Whack-a-Groundhog, KittenJump, Talking Tom, Pocket Pond, Angry Birds, WeeMee, PopMath and Math Magic. Beepy can be both educational and fun.

But not all books translate to electronic media well, and not all circumstances mesh with reading on electronic devices. Josie, age nine, loves her DS, but she’s also a huge reader. Of books. On paper. Because in her life, digital readers don’t offer anything paper books don’t. She’s not commuting. She doesn’t go on business trips. When we go to Auntie Ellen’s for Thanksgiving, I’ll put some books on the Kindle for her, but she’s more likely to play a game on the iPad or iPhone and read a paperback. Because she chooses the delivery device that does what she needs done most effectively. Just as most adults do.

Recently The Washington Post’s fabu education blog, The Answer Sheet, featured a guest post by Gabrielle E Miller, national exec director of Raising a Reader, a nonprofit in Silicon Valley dedicated to early literacy. The post was called “Must We Have the Digital vs. Print Battle?” and her answer was “Nope.” It boiled down to this: “You cannot put a Kindle in a bathtub with a young child, but you can use a vinyl book. You do not always have room for 15 children’s books on vacation, but you can take a Kindle.”

Maxie, who just turned six, is a sometimes-reluctant reader (in edu-lingo, an “emerging reader”!) who loves stories but is utzy about sounding out text. She’s a great candidate for audiobooks. She loves listening to Russell Hoban’s Frances books on CD, read in a hilarious deadpan by Glynis Johns. If she were really resistant to books, I’d show her the web site One More Story, which has a fabulous selection of children’s classics as well as books by today’s rock-star authors and illustrators: Ezra Jack Keats, William Steig, Ruth Krauss, Melinda Long, Jez Alborough, Grace Lin and many more. Launched in 2005 by a kindergarten teacher and a former Sesame Street producer (someone who understands how new delivery systems tend to freak people out at first!), One More Story offers non-sucky books from 13 publishing houses. Each can be read to, by or with a kid. Every word is highlighted in red as it is spoken aloud. If a kid’s reading independently and can’t decipher a word, she can click on it to hear it spoken aloud. There’s cute music but it’s not all bells-and-whistles-y. It feels like reading. A subscription is $44/year or $15 for three months. Maxie would like it.

I also approve of two free programs. First there’s Professor Garfield’s Toon Book Reader. Toon, Art Spiegelman’s beginning-reader graphic-novel imprint, has clean-looking, snazzily designed books that lend themselves to a new medium. But the site doesn’t try to turn a book into a game. “There’s a slippery slope, where people start having sound effects and animation,” Francoise Mouly, editorial director of Toon Books told PW in April. “Then it’s a passive experience for the child.” I agree. That’s why I also like StoryLine Online, a sweetly low-tech site that videos famous actors reading books to kids, interspersing the images of the reading actor with images from the books. If I didn’t want to take Sean Astin home after seeing his adorable Hobbitty self in Lord of the Rings, I sure did after hearing him read David Shannon’s A Bad Case of Stripes. (Fab book, btw, though Camilla’s transformations scared the living daylights out of Josie.)

luscious hobbit

freaky Camilla

There are only about 30 stories on the site, but they’re good ones.

The problem with most story sites, I think, is that the stories are crap. And the problem with turning books into “interactive experiences,” most of the time, is that they are not as fun as actual games qua games. The answer in both cases is the same: Don’t stop looking for non-crap books that will engage your child. Instead of trying to force a book into a game box, redouble your search for book-books the kid actually enjoys. Try Wimpy Kid books, sports bios, manga, gross-out science and scary stories. Don’t give up on paper just yet. Books can be fun and worthwhile. So can games. Let’s let each do what each does well.

That’s not to say I don’t think books and computing devices can’t go together like peanut butter and jelly. I enjoy some programs that let kids make their own book trailers and digital book reports — Animoto is a good one (it’s $30/year). (Check out this video made by 4th graders about the Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights movement. Nice multidisciplinary counterpoint to having kids read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice and Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary, right?)

Big Universe lets kids write, illustrate and share their own online books, as does Tikatok. These programs are creative and they’re social. (And all these sites may wind up being supplanted by the awesomeness that is iLife, with its trailer-making and book-making features. Let’s wait and see!)

But Maxie is not the demo. Maxie loves the annoying Mr Men/Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves, and I buy them (on paper) for travel because they’re teeny and they make her happy — sue me. Sure, they’re $1.99 on iTunes and $3.99 in a bookstore, but buying the paper version means she’ll look at the friggin’ thing herself and I get to keep my phone or iPad. A tiny Mr Men book takes up almost no room in my bag and it encourages her to read on her own. Tell me again why I’d want it on my phone? Maybe if the digital publisher packaged three books together at a discount, but even then, probably not. Josie, on the other hand, reads chapter books, and I do see the appeal of having a bunch of books at the ready while waiting for the subway, which she may be doing in 6th grade. I can certainly envision the iPad supplanting crossword and word-find books, Mad Libs books, Sudoku books. Anything you’d want to WRITE in, basically. And of course I can see schools using the iPad as an educational tool – kids could get their assignments on it, read books on it, do worksheets on it, take notes on it, mail their homework in from it and stop getting repetitive stress injuries from giant honking textbook-and-binder-filled backpacks.

And iPads (and to a degree existing eReaders) are a real boon to kids with special needs. They’re light, they’re portable, they help with speech and motor issues. My friend Ellen Seidman has blogged amusingly about her son Max’s iPad adventures. I applaud any device that can work for kids with learning differences; if you’re a visual or tactile or auditory learner, the iPad can help.

“The iPhone is a ‘handover-device’ but the iPad is a shoulder-to-shoulder device,” says my pal Nancy Robinson, a VP at the research firm iconoculture and a specialist in Millennial generational behavior. “You give the kid an iPhone to keep her busy, but the iPad is great for cuddle time.” True. And a book is too.

But back to the fakakta paper clip. (Which I hasten to add my husband didn’t come up with; his research was just used to help develop it.) The reason everyone hates and mocks “Clippy” is because it is intrusive and annoying. It is a cutesy misuse of technology. Clippy is exactly what we don’t want e-books to be.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carole November 9, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Ooh, I love this: ‘“You give the kid an iPhone to keep her busy, but the iPad is great for cuddle time.” True. And a book is too.’ J just bought an iPad last week, and wouldn’t you know it that first night the kids were sitting on either arm of his chair, snuggled in and learning all it could do. I haven’t done a one-to-one comparison of a particular eBook with its analog counterpart, but R definitely has a different demeanor after looking at one vs the other. Traditional books are his cue to take it down a notch, to relax and enjoy the story. Whereas he still associates The Screen with play and being active and the opposite of chilling out and getting ready for bed.

Putto November 9, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Ugh, I must get over my aversion to paying for stuff online, because some of these sites sound great.

Next I want to read your “Books and Games That Are Better on the iPhone than the iPad” review! (And if you write it I promise not to leave a pile of flaming paperclips on your doorstep.)

Sumac November 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

You are brave — foolhardy? — to tell of your connection to Clippy. It could be worse. A friend contributed to the development of PowerPoint. And he didn’t make a dime.

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