The Future of ebooks… and the Middle-Grade Reader

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With Apple’s new iPad sales already exceeding two million and the launch of iBooks, the blogosphere and publishing world is abuzz. What does this portend for the future of books? Is this the end of the publishing world as we know it? What is this so-called agency model? And where did I put my keys, anyway?

The answer to these burning questions (besides the obvious, in your pocket, stupid!), run the gamut from… Cool! Ebooks! So shiny! Paper books are going the way of the Dodo bird and the eight-track! Bwahahahahaha!!!

All the way to … Help, no! Say it isn’t so! Lock the doors and hide the kids – the ebooks are coming!

While I do find this debate endlessly fascinating (and think the truth hopefully lies somewhere in the middle), I have been most intrigued to learn what the evolution of ebooks means to readers – particularly of the middle-grade variety. And what I’ve discovered is that ebooks provide some really exciting opportunities for kids – especially those who may not have the access or inclination to read in the first place.

Reaching The Reluctant Reader
Plenty of hand-wringing goes on about this hard-to-please subspecies of reader. Pegged (rightly or wrongly) as primarily boys, the conventional wisdom says the reluctant reader rapidly loses interest in books as more “exciting” pursuits compete for his time. Want to get a ten-year-old boy to read? Well, you may just have to pry the baseball bat or the Nintendo DS from his hands first.

Or, maybe not.

The popular handheld gaming system is now available in a larger dual-screen format that is also being touted as an ereader. Limited content is available in game cartridge form and consists mainly of classics and fairy tales – probably not the biggest draw for the reluctant reader.

But a new line called FLIPS – which is available via download on DSiWare – most likely will. For example, take the More Bloody Horowitz titles by bestselling author Anthony Horowitz (the man behind the popular Alex Rider series). This ebook’s format could be best described as an interactive graphic novel – featuring text, graphics and the opportunity to make decisions for the main character.

And also in development for the FLIPS line-up – Percy Jackson.

I would think these would be a huge hit among reluctant readers. And, sure – they aren’t “traditional” books. But if they engage kids in the written word, does it really matter?

You also don’t have to look far to find a number of ereader applications and interactive ebooks available for the iPod Touch. And one of the iPhone’s most popular applications is Cathy’s Story, an interactive ebook geared at kids aged 12-14.

And even without all the bells and whistles, there’s this fascinating Kansas State University study that shows reluctant middle-grade readers may became more motivated to read when given a Kindle.

Reaching The Remote Reader
Certainly, not everyone can afford an iPhone, an iPad or a Kindle. And heck, not everyone wants to entrust their expensive electronics to a sticky-fingered kid who might leave it sitting on a playground bench. But what if there was a low-cost, difficult to break tablet computer that was designed with kids in mind?

It may sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but that’s just what the folks at One Laptop Per Child aim to do. Already successful distributing their XO laptops around the world, the non-profit organization has now teamed up with Marvell Technologies to create an inexpensive, kid-friendly tablet computer.

The projected price point: $75.

The objective is to get computers into the hands of as many kids worldwide as possible. While the organization has been criticized and questioned at times about their lofty goals, I think what they hope to achieve is quite admirable. After all, information is power – and access to information is a great equalizer.

Not to mention, for kids without easy access to a bookstore or library, an ereader opens a whole new world of possibilities. Just ask agent Nathan Bransford (and the dirt clods that fell victim to his childhood boredom).

As for the rest of us…
The truth is, I don’t see the appeal of ebooks limited just to the readers listed above. While at a Little League game last month, I watched two kindergarten-aged girls happily reading a Dr. Seuss book on an iPad. They were totally engaged – laughing and pointing out their favorite parts – just like they would with a “traditional” book.

Because when it all comes down to it, it’s all about the story, right? I know when I was a kid, I read just about anything I could get my hands on – even cereal boxes and shampoo bottles (hmmm, maybe that’s why my characters always want lustrous locks and a breakfast fortified with 14 vitamins and minerals…).

But all kidding aside, it was always about the words – the way they worked together like pieces of a puzzle, the way I found a kindred spirit in Margaret or went on an adventure with Nancy Drew. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if those words were printed on paper, a box of tissues, post-it notes – or an ereader. And face it, today’s kids are used to technology. Those girls reading Dr. Seuss on an iPad won’t suddenly dislike ereaders when they are eight… or nine… or ten. In fact, they’ll probably seek them out.

Because once again: it’s all about the story.

And hopefully, it always will be.

So what do you think? What does the future hold for ebooks and the middle-grade reader? Have any creative ideas of your own?

Tell me in the comments below. And don’t forget to check out our nine-book giveaway here. Today’s the last day to enter, since tomorrow we’ll be picking a winner.

Jan Gangsei writes this post while surrounded by stacks of boxes in preparation for a rather daunting overseas move. Sadly, most of her cherished book collection has to go into storage. But she’s happy to report her extensive ebook library will be coming with her. You can follow Jan’s tweets at twitter.com/JanGangsei.

Jan Gangsei
25 Comments
  1. I think every child a laptop is a great idea especially for underserved populations with limited books in the home. It provides opportunities to access information for homework as well as the potential for e-books that can be downloaded from many libraries for kids who may not have transportation or whose inner city library branch has closed. Also for other countries where books are scarce or dated. I love the idea of reading a book and instead scanning to a footnote, clicking on a link to access more information of about topics of interest–a great way to link fiction and non-fiction for those boys and reluctant readers we hear about.

  2. Just popping in from the Great Move of 2010 to say thanks for all the insightful comments and links! I will try to pop back in later to comment when I’ve finished disconnecting utilities… if I ever get off of “hold” with the cable company, that is ;-).

    Happy Summer Solstice, everyone!

  3. My 14-year-old daughter is saving her babysitting money for an e-reader, and I’m sure once she get it, her younger sister–a MG reader–will want one too. I think that e-books and physical books will coexist. Maybe we’ll see more illustrated MG novels!

  4. Boys love story the way we all love story. I think this is the point we should all keep close to our hearts, our minds, our fingers as we write….

  5. Loved your comments. As a writer of “boy books” that I’m told are hard to sell, this gives me hope..

  6. I’m not sure how I feel about trying to give every child a laptop. I mean more screen time is not what they need. And every “educational” electronic gizmo I’ve seen from the Leap Pad to computer games – I only see kids using them for entertainment value – not to learn. A very small percentage of education might happen…but I wonder how much reading would actually done? I don’t know.

  7. I have some reluctant middle-grade readers in my own home, and I can see the appeal ebooks may have. Especially graphic novels, which are a big hit around here. Thanks for sharing some of the different technology available, too.

    Although, I already feel like I’m combating over-stimulation at my house. Sometimes picking up a real book is the only way to turn off the technology. So I can also see how a traditional book could still be the better choice in some cases.

  8. This is a fantastic post! I blogged about e-books for kids just recently as well, with the release of Magic Tree House on e-book! I think it is coming faster than anyone thinks!

    p.s. I love the idea about enticing reluctant readers – I’ll link to this post, if you don’t mind!

  9. Very Informative. Jan summed it all up in her bio when she said, “But she’s happy to report her extensive ebook library will be coming with her.”

  10. While I still love the smell of my local bookstore and the feel of a book in my hands, the crisp sound of the pages as I turn them, I believe you’ve addressed an excellent reason for e-readers. Reading starts early and is a life-long love. If e-readers is a way to get reluctant readers to enjoy the art of reading, then I say press on! Thanks for an informative post, Jan!

  11. I’m one of those who thinks it will be a little sad when physical book aren’t as prevalent. I love the smell of books, the feel of books…but I think that the upcoming generation of kids will embrace ereaders and I agree–it may help the reluctant reader to read. Though I do see what Karen B. Schwartz is saying, too. Will the games still distract them from the books? Maybe. But they will have both games and books right at their fingertips. It’s possible that they will be more inclined to do both.
    Thanks for this post! I hadn’t quite thought about it from this angle before & I think I’m warming up to the ereader idea a little more. 🙂

  12. Interesting topic. For my own 8 y.o. son, if I handed him a Nintendo DS XL and said there were books on there, he would still use it for games. It would have to be a dedicated e-reader to hold his attention. However, he’ll happily curl up with a stack of books. Sigh. I still love the paper books.

  13. I have had a Kindle for two years. But, when Amazon developed an app for the Iphone and PC, I haven’t used my Kindle. I love being able to read on my Iphone. I always have it with me. A Kindle or an Ipad is just something else to keep up with – like a book. However, I am an adult and avid reader.
    I think MG kids will want, but the newness may wear off quickly. But, as the prices come down, I can see textbooks being the first to make the transfer. MG texts are so heavy that it is ridiculous for them to carry. After transition of textbooks will come other books.

  14. I agree. Boys in my classroom do enjoy reading – and they love gadgets. They love graphic novels, nonfiction and fiction. Putting the books on personal game systems is a great idea 🙂

  15. This is the most informative post I have read on the topic of new technology as it pertains to children’s books. Thank you so much! My kids (3 and 5) will be all over the tablet reader someday soon, I’m sure.