E-books inspiring more kids to read? I wish...

For once, I'm not going to advocate a tech solution to getting kids reading. It's the content, folks.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Out of my 5 kids, two enjoy reading. One is only 11 months old, so she gets a pass, but even my two "readers" only consume a fraction of the books I did as a kid. All of them read plenty of content online, but actually reading for pleasure takes a distant second place to several other types of media. For someone who was a voracious reader and still spends any spare moments reading, this is a tough pill to swallow, especially since my kids are pretty typical digital natives.

So I should have been thrilled to see Scholastic's 2010 Kids and Family Reading Report released Wednesday that painted e-books as a real solution to the utter decline of pleasure reading among young people. All we need to do is give kids e-readers! Then they'll read! Right? Here's how the report puts it:

Technology can be a positive motivator to get kids reading – over half of kids (age 9-17) say they are interested in reading an eBook, and a third of children age 9-17 say they would read more books for fun if they had access to eBooks on an electronic device.

Of course, if you give a kid an iPad and an iTunes account to be used for books only, they just might read more. To a point. And then the novelty will wear off and the call of the Internet will be strong. How about Kindles or Nooks? How many kids do you see reading them? Very few - those are adult toys. For me, a Kindle (actually the Kindle app on my phone) enables my reading habit and keeps my wife from cursing the several in-progress books I tend to leave strewn about the house. It holds no interest for my kids since it lacks any of the convergence features they expect in any reasonable device made in this century.

Those statistical kids above are, by and large, speaking hypothetically, since they don't generally have access to e-books. It's simply not something that has penetrated this market.

PC Magazine quotes Scholastic chief academic officer, Francie Alexander, regarding the report:

"If we can meet kids where they are and get a third of all kids, many of them struggling readers, to spend more time reading for fun on e-books, that additional time spent building fluency and vocabulary will not only help them become more proficient at reading, but will help prepare them to tackle more complex texts that they will encounter in high school and college.

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Unfortunately, all this report will do is prompt a lot of administrators to go buy a lot of Kindles.

The report does nail one particularly important message, though:

Parents don’t try to overly influence their children toward choosing award winning books or classic literature. Nine out of 10 parents say “As long as my child is reading, I just want my child to read books he/she likes."

Bingo. There's the key to getting kids to read. The Harry Potter and Twilight series made it abundantly clear that kids will flock to bookstores and read lengthy books if the content resonates with them. This isn't 1993, when I sat in dingy Seattle coffeeshops (Starbucks? Corporate sellouts...), stunting my last potential inches of growth with espresso and cigarettes, debating the relative merits of the existentialists with my equally angst-ridden girlfriend (she never appreciated Damien or Steppenwolf - I should have known that relationship was doomed to failure). This is 2010 and books, whether electronic or otherwise, not only need grab them by their teenage hearts, but also need to tie into shared, social experiences.

In fact, Amazon's web-based Kindle application may be the only bright spot in e-books for pleasure among kids if they can ultimately make the right hooks into social media and rich content.

I just don't buy that e-books will cut it for kids. The content remains more important than the delivery, as does the modern cultural relevance and context. Why won't my kids pick up Siddhartha? Probably because there isn't a Facebook fan page for it. My oldest will happily read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though, then hop online and find reviews of the original Swedish movie, stream it through Netflix, find trailers for the new American version, and then order the next in the series off of Amazon. He didn't even ask to borrow my Kindle, even though he charged the book to my Amazon account. Times may have changed, but content is still king when it comes to reading.

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