Karen Springen, a journalist and mother of two, spoke with her younger, technology-enchanted daughter about the appeal of the printed word on a backlit screen.
Since she turned 12 at the end of June, my daughter Gigi has finished 22 books. Why? The iPad.
In the past, Gigi read –- but not voraciously. Sure, like any self-respecting tween, she sped through the Harry Potter, Lightning Thief, and Charlie Bone series. (She was so fond of Charlie Bone that she wrote to author Jenny Nimmo – and got a personal, hand-typed response from England. Yay!) But she was not a 10-books-a-month girl.
That changed when she received an iPad as a group birthday present from her family and grandmother. With the exception of the two weeks when she was at a no-electronics-allowed sleep-away camp, she has been a reading machine this past summer.
So what’s the big lure of the iPad? For starters, it is a modern take on the old flashlight-under-the-covers idea. Gigi likes using the back-lit device “when other people are asleep, and I want to keep reading,” she says. “I like it at night. My room can be dark, but I’m reading.”
Online e-bookstores (Apple’s iBooks, along with the apps for Barnes and Noble and Amazon) also let Gigi pick titles 24/7. She is no longer limited to the hours that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore or library is open. “I can download it at any hour,” she says. “It’s not like Amazon closes at 8.” So far, with reading promotion in mind, we have let her use our on-file credit card. “If I had to keep paying my own money, once in a while I would read on the iPad, but I would mainly read print books,” says Gigi. “Let’s say they average $4. Twenty-two times $4 is $88 on books in the past three months. For a kid, all I get is allowance. I don’t have that much money.”
With e-bookstores, Gigi doesn’t need to wait in a long line for popular titles. She gets frustrated with the limited choices and long lines for library e-books. “The wait lists are, like, four months long,” she says. “And they don’t have a ton.”
A self-sufficient sort, Gigi also likes going solo rather than relying on librarians’ advice. “I don’t really like to ask for their help,” she says. “They’ll give you something that’s for a lower level. [And] they’ll give you things that librarians like, not things kids like.” She doesn’t mean to offend them. “They’re not kids, so they don’t know what kids like,” she says. Though she knows I write about kids’ books, she often turns down my recommendations, too. Months after I tried to push them on her, she plucked Savvy and Shiver off our overflowing bookshelves. She liked them – especially Maggie Stiefvater’s tale of forest creatures who are human in warm seasons and wolves in cold ones. “It’s unique,” she says. “I’ve never heard of a book before with that idea.”
Now Gigi prefers to search e-bookstores on her own, by category – say, “horse books,” or “true stories.” Since getting her iPad, she has plowed through a slew of equine titles—both adult nonfiction and young adult fiction. “Kid nonfiction books don’t give as much information as adult books,” she says. (Her favorite true stuff: The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, Miskeen: The Dancing Horse, and Gunner: Hurricane Horse.) Recently she switched from ponies to people. “Right now I’m reading a true story about a lady’s murder!” she says. (She chose Because You Loved Me, about a mother whose daughter was involved in a bad romance. “The boyfriend did it!” she says.)
At first, Gigi used iBooks and looked at its generic top-sellers list. “But I would see all these books I wasn’t interested in,” she says. So she downloaded the Amazon app, which lets her target her detective work. “You can search ‘cat book,’ and it will come up with a ton of books,” she says. iBooks, by contrast, will only come up with a book if it’s actually called Cat Book.
Recently on Barnes and Noble, she looked for “teen mystery” and then, within that category, typed in “best selling.” Oops. No. 1: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body. “It doesn’t look like a mystery to me!” she says. Then she clicked on the Nook book The Angel of Death: A Forensic Mystery and made a beeline for the description and reviews. After she saw that some kids in the story found “a gruesome corpse of their English teacher,” she dismissed the title. “It sounds a little gory,” she says.
Gigi loves reviews. She doesn’t seem to care whether regular people or professionals write them. She also loves downloading sample chapters, available on Amazon and iBooks. (If they’re on Barnes and Noble, she hasn’t been able to find them.)
When she used a borrowed iPad back in April, she got hooked on Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy after spotting book one, Switched, available for just 99 cents on Amazon. Just a few days later, she spent $2.99 on book two, Torn.
So when she recently saw Hocking’s My Blood Approves, she clicked on it. But after reading the description (the story is about a girl who falls for two vampires), she lost interest. “That one sounds like it’s a total copy of Twilight,” she said.
Cover images matter a lot to Gigi. “The picture catches my eye first,” she says. “I look at the picture, and then I read the title.” With all the apps, she likes to look carefully at the category that tells her what buyers of a particular title also purchased. “A lot of times there’s something that looks more interesting than what you’re looking at,” she says.
Gigi still likes visiting old-fashioned bookstores and libraries. But there she can only judge a book by its cover since neither place offers searchable, right-by-the-shelf, online reviews yet. “When you’re online, it [the review] is right there. In the library, I’m not going to go home and check on the computer before I get the book.”) So at the library, Gigi can only read the limited description on the cover or the flap. But she likes knowing more – much more – before she commits to reading a book. She doesn’t place much stock in the blurbs on the back. “Those are just like ‘fascinatingly fast paced’ or something like that,’ ” she says. (She always finishes what she starts, so she chooses carefully.)
She selects books one by one, never picking up a new title until she has finished her last book. “I wouldn’t get to read it yet,” she says. “I’d get all excited about reading it but I couldn’t because I hadn’t finished the other one yet.” She does always keep a print book at school to read in her free time there, though teachers do let kids bring devices. “I could drop it or whatever,” she says. “I don’t want to lose it or break it.” (So far, at least, her print choices are more likely to be fiction from home or from the library, whereas her iPad purchases are more likely to be adult nonfiction.)
Gigi holds her iPad horizontally, like a book, so she gets two short pages instead of one long one. “You actually see more,” she says. With the long, vertical option, “you look up, and you get lost.”
iPad reading isn’t perfect, she points out. It’s not as easy or as safe to tote around as a cheap paperback. And of course, the books are rarely free. If they are, they aren’t always winners. Gigi downloaded the teen title “Arousing Love,” simply because the $0 price was right. “It was really good in the beginning, but then it started talking about all this Bible stuff,” she says.
Gigi still listens to friends’ recommendations. She cares about them much more than she cares about Newbery Award stickers. “Sure, they’re famous literature but they’re not necessarily something that interests kids,” she says. (Her huge exception: The Giver, which she adored.)
The iPad has cast a spell on Gigi. And so far, given her newfound love of reading a lot, it’s a good one. She hasn’t re-read any of her e-books, but then, she was never much of a repeater. She uses the bookshelf in her room for displaying pictures, not print books. “I’ve read so many. I couldn’t keep them in my room,” she says.
The iPad, Gigi says, is fun – and “overall convenient.” When she finishes a book, “I don’t have to wait until I can go to the library, or go to the bookstore, or order a book and wait until it ships.” She also loves the way it stores so many stories. “If I’m going on an airplane, I’m not going to bring a stack of 10 books, but I can bring my iPad and have 10 books loaded on it.”
Some day she does plan to read print picture books to her own children. She likes the idea of curling up with them – and then there are the practical issues, too. “Little, little kids, like one-year-olds, they chew on board books,” she says. “What if they chewed on your iPad?” Food for thought, indeed.