Last weekend, at a gymnastics meet, I saw a baby playing with a Kindle, swiping, or trying to swipe, the pages of an e-book. She was sitting on her mother’s lap, dragging her chubby fingers across the screen, occasionally having some luck. It was the most adorable thing to watch, and I leaned over to tell her mother so. We exchanged a few sentences about children and how they take to electronic devices, and then the mother uttered words that took me by surprise:
“A lot of babies don’t even know what books are these days,” she said. “They don’t know how to turn the pages. They try to swipe and …” She shrugged.
“That’s really sad,” I replied.
Before you begin stoning me with comments along the lines of “Times change. Get with the program, lady,” you need to realize that if my children were still young, I’d let them play with whatever tablet or reader I happened to own. I’d download apps and e-books and be delighted when they took to the device quicker than I had. If I were spending hours at a gymnastics meet trapped on a hard bleacher holding my ten-month-old daughter, trying to keep her entertained, I’d whip out my iPad before the baby had a chance to squeal.
I get it.
When my children were young, and we were out and about, I carried a VERY large bag crammed with books, toys, stuffed animals, diapers, juice boxes, Cheerios, wipes, tissues, changes of clothing, and good Lord was it heavy. How much nicer just to throw an electronic device in a bag, leave the books and toys at home, and lighten the load.
The thing is, those books did more than entertain and enlighten. They also provided my children and me with special one-on-one time. When they read or played with books, Laura and Zach had a favorite place to do it: on my lap. They pointed to pictures and asked me questions. I read the text using multiple voices, because everyone knows a Tyrannosaurus has a deep scary roar, and an Apatosaurus growls in gentle tones, and “The Muffin Man” must be sung, not spoken.
My children commanded me to “Read it again, Mommy,” over and over. The most-loved books at times required emergency medical care (scotch tape for tears, packaging or duct tape for spines that had heaved apart), and even if they had lost their brand-new shiny beauty the books were still cherished.
One of the joys of children’s books is that the experience they deliver can be different every time. They’re not pre-programmed. “The Big Book of Dinosaurs” taught my children the names of those amazing creatures, but it also taught them colors — “Look this dinosaur is blue!” —and how to count — “How many spines does the Triceratops have?”
I’ve saved many of my children’s favorite books and, someday, if they have children of their own, those books will be ready to be shared. We’ll blow the dust off the top of the pages and open the covers, and all the old familiar characters will come to life again. I hope someone grabs a book and climbs right up on my lap.
E-books are here to stay, and they offer certain rewards, chief among them portability. So take them on the road, but keep some real, physical, books at home. Those have their own rewards, too.