A few weeks ago I was returning from a trip to Nantucket and the evening ferry was nearly empty. An energetic three-year-old boy was rushing about uncontrollably. His anxious mother announced that she was downloading a book for him. A few minutes later I heard a cartoon voice narrating a pirate story. I looked over, and saw the mother holding her iPad with the screen facing forward, as the now-rapt, standing child watched the “book” on the iPad screen tell its story. I admit I was appalled to understand that the machine had replaced the mother’s voice. Indeed, she was blocking the child from her body with this wall of a machine. What should have been a sensual, intimate picture book was reduced to a cartoon on a screen.
Years ago, when I travelled with young children, I always packed Arnold Lobel’s ready-to-read books in the diaper bag: the Frog And Toad series, Small Pig, and my favorite, Grasshopper On The Road. Coming back on a crowded plane from Florida to Chicago in February 1991, my wife, three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter found ourselves circling O’Hare Airport at midnight in a snowstorm. During this flight I had allowed my restless son to tramp up and down the aisles while I tagged along, eliciting irritated glares from fellow passengers. No one is despised like a parent who fails to control his undisciplined child. As the plane circled endlessly, I now held Sam firmly on my lap and read Grasshopper On The Road aloud with passion and urgency.
Among the foolish characters Grasshopper meets on his travels are a parade of Beetles marching in support of morning. They welcome Grasshopper when he says he likes morning too, but are furious when he adds that afternoon and night are also nice. Reading Lobel’s book made me feel better about being disdained for my parenting style by the other passengers on the plane. There are many ways to be a good parent; being supportive and indulgent just happens to be mine.
I have been a children’s bookseller for more than twenty-five years now. A few months ago the brilliant inventor and futurologist Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. told the world that the physical book will be dead in five years. This doesn’t leave much room for me and my life’s work. It’s easy to insult others by criticizing their incorrect actions, as I did when I reflexively felt critical of that mother on the ferry who used a cold machine to read aloud to her three-year-old. But I don’t want to be one of those know-it-all Beetles who insist they have the only answer. Rather, I aspire to be like the hero of Grasshopper On The Road, who embraces many alternatives. It is true that I am biased against eBooks–and against Professor Negroponte’s perspective–because I love physical books. But I am sure that if I had young children today, just like that mother on the Nantucket ferryboat, my child-rearing practice would include eBooks. She was demonstrating skill-sets that I don’t possess (just as Professor Negroponte possesses no children’s bookselling skills), and I judged her negatively without considering what her demonstrated skills said about her.
For instance, the book she had downloaded was about pirates. For a wild child on a ferryboat, this was perfect. In addition, her choice to have her son watch an animated book demonstrated her skill at rapidly reining in the child’s running. Finally, merely because she sometimes uses her iPad to acquire children’s literature doesn’t mean her family doesn’t also use traditional children’s books. Probably they love printed picture books, and the iPad is a useful addition to their reading practice.
I hope that just as I am willing to accept eBooks as fine additions to the arsenal of good parenting resources, those who tout eBooks like Professor Negroponte will leave room in their futurology for my beloved real-world picture books.