Tech & Media

In Praise of Paper Books: Why Reading with Kids is Still Better Off-Screen

Apr 5, 2013

Despite predictions that our paper-based novels, newspapers and magazines will soon be rendered obsolete by tablets and e-readers, a touch screen just doesn't cut it for my three-year-old daughter's storytime. L wants "real" books, and I'm more than happy to oblige.This isn't because I'm a future-fearing traditionalist. L loves the tablet for watching parentally curated cartoons or baby gorillas on YouTube. Me, I went digital with much of my non-comic-reading a little while back, mostly as a matter of convenience - it's pretty great carrying your entire library in your jacket, instead of taking up a wall of shelves and a closet. Plus, I no longer worry about losing bookmarks.

But while e-readers and apps can be ideal for solo reading, I've found them cumbersome when it's time to share a book with my daughter.

Like a lot of families, reading books together is almost a ceremonial ritual in our house. L goes off to find her books - the basket in the living room or the pockets hanging on her bedroom wall - and carefully makes her selections. She flips through board books, paperbacks and hardcovers of all sizes, and she pulls out the possibilities, weighing their merits before returning them from where they came or adding them to the pile. It's a physical search not comparable to scrolling through titles on a small menu screen with your finger.

I usually hold the book when we read, but L is increasingly the one turning the pages or violently pulling the tabs on a delicate pop-up. Some of our books are new (I wince when they inevitably tear), but others date back to my childhood. Scribbled-in nursery rhyme collections and well-worn P. D. Eastman classics have been passed down to my daughter, still bearing my name on the inside cover, ripped pages repaired with my parents' now-yellowed Scotch tape.

I love that these imperfect books have a legacy, and that L and I can share them. And I don't see sentimentality in knowing one day L can give her children the password to a cloud-based storage drive to retrieve her DRM-free EPUB files.

My tablet came with a free picture book, and we tried reading it together, but it wasn't the same. The page-turns and zoom-ins to see the pictures were relatively intuitive, and the colours were crisp, but the whole thing felt too coldly efficient. L became bored a few screen-touches in. It wasn't the content so much as how she was consuming it - the medium became the message she didn't like as much.

I thought a digital comic might work better. I occasionally use the Comixology app, which allows you to read one panel at a time. I figured the experience would be like the two of us watching a really slow stop-motion film.

I downloaded the first volume of Andy Runton's Owly, a wonderful, wordless series about an empathetic owl and his best friend, Wormy. L was more patient this time. We discussed the story, and she seemed very interested in whether the little earthworm would recover from being out in the rain. Maybe this is the future, I thought. I asked her if she liked it.

Her reply?
"Yes, but do they also make it as a book? Because we should get the book," she said emphatically. "It would be better."

What books do you share with your children - paper, digital or both? What has been your experience? We'd love to hear about it! 


Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock 'n' roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are collaborating on a three-year-old girl who may already be smarter than both of them. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario. 

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