Family Matters

Why Parents Still Want to Read Real Books, Not E-Books, to their Kids

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In my house, bedtime stories are sacred. Rarely does something derail the nightly routine, although feverish kids have been known to be tucked in, sans story. But last week, my strep-throated 4-year-old awoke at 1 a.m. with this complaint: “You forgot to read me my bedtime story.”

She was right. So I groggily pulled a book from her shelf and cuddled her close as she turned the pages. Reading forges connections between parents and children (even in the middle of the night). It’s also good for little brains.

But does the form in which the words appear matter? The New York Times reports that parents — even those who are avid digital downloaders — are shunning kids’ e-books for the real thing. It seems that the feel and texture of paper pages dappled with colorful illustrations trumps the static dimensions of a screen.

The article ran in the paper’s Monday business section, but it may be more of a cultural tale. More than 25% of some adult literature is sold digitally, but e-books targeted at kids under 8 account for less than 5% of total children’s book sales.“Reading a childhood classic on an e-reader is such a cold thing to do,” says Carol Moyer, head of the children’s department at Quail Ridge Books, a locally owned bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., where my kids grew up going to book readings by visiting children’s authors. (As far as I know, you can’t get the e-edition of the latest Magic Tree House installment signed by the author.)

The bookstore’s weekly storytimes — where real books are paged through — are more popular than ever. “E-books don’t have the warmth and intimacy of the illustration on the page,” says Moyer.

MORE: Should Your 2-Year-Old Be Using an iPad?

It is, in fact, kind of hard to conjure up with an e-book the same sort of Norman Rockwellian coziness that comes with flipping pages with your child. It’s even harder to imagine touch-and-feel board books for toddlers translated successfully to digital media. How can you pet the boar’s fluffy tuft in Matthew Van Fleet’s Tails or feel the porcupine’s spines? And what about pull-tab books or intricate pop-ups?

Technophiles believe e-books can compete. On CNET, Rick Broida sings the praises of the iPad, which “can do a lot more than just display static pages. It can read stories aloud; it can enrich a classic tale with touch-powered extras; and it can even render pages in 3D.” He desribes Alice in Wonderland — “Alice for the iPad” — as a “lavishly illustrated 52-page abridgment of the classic tale [that] incorporates animation like no other e-book to date. Readers can tilt the iPad to make Alice grow and shrink; shake it to watch the Mad Hatter’s bobblehead bobble; and so on.”

Sounds cool, but it seems more like a movie than a book. Just as ketchup isn’t a vegetable, watching extravagant digital dramatizations of stories isn’t reading. When my kindergartener spent tech-lab time following instructions to navigate to an e-books site, her teacher recognized that she wasn’t reading; she was learning to use a computer. As is, our kids spend more than enough time in front of a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wants parents to ban television and computers for kids under 2 because they just can’t comprehend what’s going on yet. After age 2, two hours of screen time should be the max. Should e-books count in this calculation?

MORE: ‘Educational TV’ for Babies? It Doesn’t Exist

There’s also the nagging concern that the technology could prove more compelling than the storyline. “The bells and whistles of an iPad become a distraction,” Matthew Thomson, a dad of a 5-year-old and an executive at social-media site Klout, told the Times.

“When we go to bed and he knows it’s reading time, he says, ‘Let’s play Angry Birds a little bit,’” Mr. Thomson said. “If he’s going to pick up the iPad, he’s not going to read, he’s going to want to play a game. So reading concentration goes out the window.”

Moreover, if the iPad can read Alice in Wonderland aloud, Mom and Dad start to seem a tad superfluous. Parents are discouraged from propping a bottle so that a baby can drink on her own because feeding time should be bonding time; isn’t that what reading stories is all about too?

“If you’re farming out the reading part to a virtual reader, it becomes a different experience,” notes Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, who authored the AAP’s recently updated policy on media use for kids under 2.

Still, points out Brown, what really matters is spending time with your child, telling stories. “When you have a parent and child reading together, whether it’s an electronic book or a paper book,” she says, “the experience they’re sharing is what’s important.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.