Cuddle up with your iPad?

E-readers are wonderful inventions, but they’ll never substitute for the experience of a physical book

April 23, 2010|By Dana Payes and Paula M. Krebs

"Discover the joy of reading, all over again," urges the voiceover on the Apple website advertisement for the new iPad's iBook reading application. The ad features a picture showing the legs of a child and a parent side by side — the parent holds the iPad, and the child "turns" the page of an electronic version of " Winnie the Pooh," pre-loaded for free on every iPad.

The iPad is a multifunction device, not a dedicated e-reader. Apple is telling its consumers that the iPad is an interactive new media experience in more ways than one: Consumers interact with the interface and parents interact with their children. This is, we are told, reading and technology made collaborative.

That's great. We can share technology with our kids. But let's not mistake reading a book on an iPad for reading a book. Reading an electronic version of "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People" on a train is not the same thing as reading an iPad bedtime story with your kids.

When you open your electronic "Pooh" to read with Junior, remember that it was no accident that it was the first book installed in the iPad. The copyright for "Pooh" and all "Pooh"-related merchandise is held not by the family of A.A. Milne but by a company on which Apple's Steve Jobs has served on the board since its 2006 takeover of Pixar Animation, of which he had been chief executive: Disney.

In its new marketing, Apple is presenting consumers with a potential future in which many children's books will be translated onto iPad. Associating the device with Disney, even obliquely, was a wise decision on Apple's part — it will ensure the approval of many parents, for whom Disney exemplifies and idealizes childhood. But Apple's relationship with Disney leads us to wonder: Will Disney, via Apple, come to control the e-book market for children in the way it now controls so much of the rest of children's culture? Apple is promising parents that technology, like Disney, is safe.

But is the "Pooh" giveaway really about marketing to children? If Apple wants to push electronic book reading beyond Kindle (or Nook or Sony) owners, what better metaphor than its focus on parent-child reading? Parents and children can learn this new media technology together, navigating through the pages of a classic text by pushing on the corner of a touch screen, not turning over paper. And there's no guilt — after all, we're not introducing our children to video games or the dangers of surfing the potentially shark-infested waters of the Internet. No; we're teaching them to read.

We can guide our children through this new technology without fearing that they will become more technologically literate than we are (at least not yet); we can teach our children new media while sharing a story that is the ultimate in old media. Cutting edge and new, yet comforting and old. The story about the golden bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood may never change, but the medium from which it is read has the ability to evolve, allowing kids to feel media literate as well as conventionally literate.

E-book marketers must have thought they'd never be able to crack the bedtime story market. Reading to your kids is about passing on the experiences of your own childhood —t he stories, the cuddles, but perhaps especially the books themselves. The physical objects, with pictures and dog-eared, milk-stained pages. How could you cuddle up with a Kindle? How can you pass down to your children your electronic copy of The Velveteen Rabbit? The gray vertical screen with "e-ink" that's so easy on the eyes is the very reason we can't imagine children's books on it. How can you read Goodnight Moon one page at a time? In grayscale?

But iPad specializes in vibrant colors, and turning the device on its side allows you to see a two-page spread of "Pooh," complete with illustrations. Not only are parents able to wax nostalgic by sharing a story from their childhood with their kids, but they can participate in the evolution of the physical text, from paper to cool aluminum with touchscreen. We can enjoy iPad here and now, and be skeptical, still, of its longevity.

Unlike a storybook, iPad does not allow users to pass on the experience and the text. IPad is an exciting new gadget, now, but how well will it withstand the test of time? As well as "Pooh?"

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