February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ebooks Enhance Development of the Whole Child | Up for Debate


Marianne Martens

Pete is sitting at his desk
when his teacher says,
‘Come on, Pete
down that hall
to a room with books
on every wall.’
Where is Pete going?
The library!

Does it matter whether Pete the Cat will select a book from a physical wall or virtual wall at the library?  Goodness no! The ideas, art, messages and meaning in a book are what matter more than the format.  Thinking beyond what is on the page can strengthen a young child’s—indeed anyone’s—imagination. We want to give the creative genius of author Eric Litwin and artist James Dean credit for the invention of the character and book series “Pete the Cat” (HarperCollins).


Dorothy Stoltz Credit: Adreon Hubbard

When the best new media tools are expertly selected and appropriately used with children, such tools can support and enhance adults’ role in supporting development of the whole child, especially three-to-eight year-olds, the focus of this article.

Used to complement rather than replace print, the finest ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps (collectively referred to here as “ebooks”) on the market put traditional picture book content in new containers that—like traditional print books—educate and entertain.

The best ebooks:

  • have interactive elements that support and enhance, rather than distract from the text and art of the book;
  • have good navigation that allows the user to be in charge (including the option to turn off interactive elements); and
  • provide an integrated experience, which can add a third dimension to the text and art of a traditional picture book.

In an era when access to technology will help to determine the future success of our children, libraries have the opportunity and responsibility to provide access to such technology. Even more important, however, is the potential for librarians to serve as  media mentors—helping children and grownups select what Anne Carroll Moore, the first children’s librarian at New York Public Library from 1906 to 1941 (and also writer, critic, and advocate for children’s libraries), would call the right book for the right child at the right time. We like to help people find the right ebook or other new media tool for the right child at the right time, and instruct children and adults in the proper use of such tools.

“The librarian’s role is to provide the best developmentally appropriate tools in print or other formats to support healthy child development, early learning and literacy, and to promote parent and child relationships,” says Cen Campbell, founder of LittleeLit.com, a think tank that supports training of library staff and advocates for the mindful use of new media with young children. “Librarians can encourage children and their parents and caregivers to use books and ebooks wisely.”  (We sit on the LittleeLit.com advisory board.) 

Storytimes that include the use of new digital reading formats can offer tips for parents and caregivers to do just that, in ways that enhance but don’t replace face-to-face interactions. Librarians can show children how to increase their level of learning by using new media just as they can use print books to learn and develop new skills.  In this way, librarians can help families and children use these materials sensibly, and empower parents and caregivers to select, access, and handle ebooks in accordance with their own values about media.  By engaging caregivers in conversations, librarians can help them develop what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls a Family Media Use Plan.

What does it mean to read in digital formats compared to in print? Print titles are not all equal. Well written, high quality paper-based books with beautiful illustrations exist in the market place alongside low quality print books with poor writing and mediocre illustrations that often function as promotional material for other branded merchandise.

The same diversity is true for ebooks. Ones that focus on clever tech tricks at the expense of high quality text and art are not the ones we, as media mentors, would recommend. In-app purchases that require readers to pay to access additional content are also problematic. To help families avoid these poor quality and highly commercialized ebooks, librarians should offer guidance and reader’s advisory, or rather “appvisory,” to their patrons.

As for the users, important questions to ask—based on our literature review—include: Is media time a relatively small part of a young child’s daily experience?  How is the media being used? Are families focused on joint-media engagement, or co-viewing? Are families considering the advice of health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics?

Do children primarily spend time playing and interacting with parents and other children?  Does the app or media experience reduce a child to a mere spectator? Many apps are designed for a certain level of interaction.  Does an app or computer program become an avenue for play that uses the imagination? Is it appropriate for the child’s age, and is it used intentionally?

As media mentors, it is up to us to learn about new formats and resources for young people, but also to stay on top of the latest research on the impact of their use on the children we support. Chip Donohue, Ph.D., director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute, an independent institution of higher education focused on early childhood, looks for media research that supports author Lisa Guernsey’s “3 Cs”: context, content, and the individual child. Guernsey, who wrote Screen Time: How Electronic Media— From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child (originally published as Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five by Basic Books, 2007), is director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

”Relationships between context, culture and creation (constructivism) are at the center of the Early Childhood approach,” says Donohue, describing how early childhood educators are “wired” to focus on the importance of children learning through relationships with grownups.   It turns out that media can support and enhance a teacher’s role in developing the whole child as one more tool in an educator’s toolkit.

Every Child Ready to Read @ your library®, the American Library Association’s initiative to engage and educate parents, promotes the use of five early literacy practices with children: talk, sing, read, write, and play. These can all be supported using librarian recommended print books and ebooks.

Moore’s famous guiding principle for librarians to provide “The right book for the right child at the right time” has not diminished in relevance, even if the term “book” might now also include ebooks, enhanced books, and book apps. As Pete the Cat might sing,

So, I got my book!
And, I’m walking along reading.
What’s right?  What’s wrong?
Print book or ebook?
Either way, my book is easy to carry
…and I got it at the library!

Dorothy Stoltz coordinates programming and outreach services at Carroll County (MD) Public Library. She is chair of the ALSC/PLA Every Child Ready to Read Oversight Committee.  Her latest ALA Editions book, The Power of Play: Designing Early Learning Spaces, is due out at the end of 2014. She can be reached at dstoltz@carr.org.

Marianne Martens is assistant professor at Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science and a member of ALSC’s Children and Technology Committee. You can read more about her work at mariannemartens.org, and she can be reached at mmarten3@kent.edu.

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  1. Karen Nemeth says:

    So many great points in this article – but there’s one more to be included: Ebooks and storybook apps can provide quicker, broader, more responsive access to the same material in different languages. With increasing diversity, we know that about 1 out of every 4 young children (and potential library users) speaks a language other than English…. and you never know what language will pop up! Librarians and families can benefit from this added potential of digital media without giving up on our beloved print books.

  2. Marianne Martens says:

    Great point, Karen! Also, ebooks and book apps can support different learning styles (visual, audio, and kinesthetic), and differently-abled readers, with options like audio and large-print. Thanks for your comment!