So, How Do You Wrap an E-Book

Truly wonderful thoughts from Bruce Feiler as written for the New York Times

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Like everything else in contemporary families, holiday gift buying for children divides people into camps. The first camp can be categorized as “give them what they want” — the video game, the skateboard, the umpteenth Harry Potter or Elsa product extension. The second camp can be categorized as “give them what they need” or, alternately, “give them what you want them to like” — the mittens, the new sleeping bag, the penny collecting kit like the one your grandfather gave you that you just know they’re going to love someday.

One gift seems to straddle both camps, depending on the child, and taps into a nagging anxiety of many parents I know: the gift of reading.

I recently had lunch with the father of two boys, one of whom was a reader; the other was not. My friend was struggling with how to encourage his screen-obsessed son to spend more time with the page. Should he offer incentives, force him, tuck comic books and joke collections under the tree?

My daughters, meanwhile, enjoy reading, but even our situation comes with questions. Should we get them e-readers or are they just a gateway drug to screen addiction? Should we let them read drivel — all those world record books and soapy dramas with mean girls and bullying — or nudge them into books that we think would be more ennobling?

As I said, get them what they want or get them what we want them to want?

I reached out to some of the most popular children’s and young adult authors working today to get their opinions about the best way to give the gift of reading this holiday season.

Lois Lowry is the author of more than 45 books, including “Number the Stars” and “The Giver,” both of which won the Newbery Medal. She told me she’s seen a gradual decline in attention span among young readers. “Forty years ago there was not this speeded-up entertainment culture that kids have fallen victim to now,” she said. “It was easier to get kids reading because there weren’t so many diverting factors.”

Children today are also more literal minded, she said. Her most popular book, “The Giver,” which this year became a movie starring Meryl Streep, is often assigned in schools, and Ms. Lowry receives 50 to 60 letters a day from students. “Kids today don’t like the ambiguity of the ending,” she said. “They would like things clearly spelled out. That saddens me because I think it implies a failure of the imagination.”

Given these headwinds, Ms. Lowry said, she believes in meeting children where they are. As a reader of paper books at home and e-books on the road, Ms. Lowry said she doesn’t particularly enjoy electronic books. “If an e-book doesn’t grab my attention, I dump it too quickly,” she said. “Also, I dislike the difficulty of going back and finding a passage I really love.”
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But she still embraces the idea of giving such devices to children. “We need to learn to live with them,” she said. “You just want to be careful there are no games or other distractions on the device.”

Jacqueline Woodson, the author of more than 30 books, including “Brown Girl Dreaming,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last month, is more reluctant. Ms. Woodson, the parent of a 12-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, said she’s balked at giving them e-readers. “John Gardner talks about the dream of fiction, how in reading we get caught up in that moment,” she said. “There’s some part of me that thinks, with my daughter not sitting with a book and smelling the pages and having that tactile experience is going to more easily break the dream.”

Ms. Woodson also said that parents bear some responsibility for squelching the love of reading. “If you have a family where everyone is sitting and reading and unplugged, then the kids are reading. If you have a family where everyone is staring at their cellphones, then the kids are going to stare at their devices, too.”

One way to promote reading among children, Ms. Woodson said, is to make sure young readers are exposed to characters who look and feel like them. “For young readers especially, books are either mirrors or windows,” she said. “They’re reflections of who you are or windows into other worlds. Children need both, and historically in the African-American community we’ve had too many windows and not enough mirrors.”

The problem of finding the right book for children is especially true for boys, whom studies have shown read less frequently and find less enjoyment from books than girls do. Jon Scieszka, the author of several dozen books, including “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” founded a group called Guys Read to address this issue.

One thing he recommends: Don’t succumb to the rush toward digital whiz-bangs and rat-a-tats.

“I go to a lot of schools, and I always feel I have to make my stories a little bit shorter and a little bit punchier,” he said. But that doesn’t mean abandoning books altogether. “I feel there’s been a return to valuing books more as objects. Everyone chased apps for a while, and then realized, nah, all those features where you tap things are distracting. You don’t need the whole iPad version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where stuff flips around and flies. What you’re trying to do is let kids realize that stories told in text are entertainment in a whole different way. The interaction is what you conjure in your brain.”
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Mr. Scieszka also said that pushing classics or literary novels on reluctant readers is counterproductive. “The first thing to do is expand our definition of reading, because a lot of boys I meet love nonfiction and graphic novels and science fiction and technical manuals. It’s all reading, but in school it’s frowned upon,” he said, adding: “I would tell parents: ‘Don’t worry if your kid is reading “Captain Underpants” for months and months. They have to grow out of it in their own time. If your kid is crazy about sharks, just let them gorge on every shark book there ever was.’ “

Gayle Forman, the author of numerous books, including “If I Stay,” which was also turned into a film this year, agrees that pressuring kids to read “better books” won’t work. “I’m definitely in the ‘reading is reading is reading’ school,” she said. “I read a lot of terrible stuff when I was young. My dad would take me every week to buy the latest ‘Sweet Dreams’ romance book. Then I read Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon. Boy, did I learn a lot! But by the time I was in 11th grade I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen and ‘Jane Eyre.’ “

Her tips for encouraging reading include giving your child a library card (wrapped nicely, with a bow), experimenting with audiobooks or starting a book club. Ms. Forman and some friends started a Newbery club at their children’s school, where they identified a list of possible nominees and held weekly discussions.

Ms. Woodson went one step further: She started a parent/child reading group in her home. Every Friday night, she and her partner read one chapter of a middle-grade book to their children. “Then everyone talks about why it was funny or why it made us cry,” she said. “We call it the ‘Family Read.’ “

This may be the most surprising lesson of all. What’s the best way to encourage children to read this holiday season? Sit down and read alongside them. It just may be one of those gifts you end up enjoying more yourself.

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