Books Aren’t Broken: Reflections on e-books and interactivity

by On May 14, 2013 in Childrens Books, General, Reading

9yr old reading

Sometimes you hear a short turn-of-phrase that makes you nod and smile because it says so much in just a few words.

I had that response when I heard the phrase: “books aren’t broken.”

It turns out the phrase is “somewhat of a rallying cry” for Fang Chang, Michael Fitzpatrick and Nigel Pegg, co-founders of Bookboard, Inc., which as most of our readers know, provides a service offering a subscription-based children’s e-book app for the iPad.

“Books are already intrinsically good,” Nigel explained. “That aspect doesn’t need to be made better. We don’t think the existing art form needs to disappear. We want to make it easier to read more, with greater variety and more quality.”

“New technology doesn’t have to displace the old media,” Fang added, noting the example of iTunes approach in the music industry, “where the logic was to revise access to music, and not the music itself.”

Michael also emphasized Bookboard’s appreciation for the importance of great layouts in books. “With many traditional publishers, the sentiment is ‘don’t mess with the experience, the author’s and publisher’s vision.’ We’re very careful with that.”

Towards this end, the Bookboard team has thought long and hard about questions of interactivity in e-books: what types of interactivity to offer, how much, and when to offer it as well.

Nigel explained: “We make storytelling have some of the qualities kids expect with interactive media. For example, there is interactivity when exploring the content options, which is a good time to be more motivated.”

Bookboard consciously offers modest interactivity during the book itself, such as clickable passages to enlarge words, and swipe-motion page turns.  The team grappled with the idea of a “read-to-me” feature for a while, concerned it was “perhaps, more about babysitting.” However, in listening to parents and other experts over time, they became convinced that the read-to-me feature supports reading literacy. This option is now available on select books as part of a family’s subscription.

Rewards are offered to children after reading Bookboard books. The team conducted early testing on an “unlock a new book” feature (children earn keys for reading, unlocking new books). When they found that the feature motivated kids to read more, they spent additional time improving its design and effects.

As we spoke about various book formats, I thought about my recent first experience with interactive e-books. Based on an article reviewing five top e-book apps for iPad, I checked out two:

1) Alice for iPad, offered in abridged and unabridged formats, allows users to bring the classic Alice in Wonderland story to visual life with what one reviewer calls “eye popping” effects.

2) Disney’s Toy Story Read Along (free version) offers narrated text, integrated video and music from the original film, clickable coloring pages, an audio recording feature, and games.

Yes, my five-year old and I were entertained by both of these engaging apps (though I was a complete wreck watching her vigorously shaking the iPad to play with all the effects). Yet as a reading experience, I wasn’t so sure. Notably, my daughter refers to both apps as games. Thus, I had to agree with Fang when he said, “It kind of bothers me when I hear people refer to these as books. It’s not a book; it’s a multi-media experience.”

The question of what children experience reading books across these formats intrigued researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop (a nonprofit research and advocacy organization). In their “quick study” of 32 pairs of “co-viewing” parents and their 3-6 year old children, researchers found that:

  • Print books and e-books elicited similar levels of positive content-related actions (e.g., labeling, pointing, verbal comments) from children and parents.
  • “Enhanced” or interactive e-books were effective in engaging children, but less effective in supporting co-reading with parents because they prompted more non-content related interactions.
  • Children reading enhanced e-books recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.

These findings relate to Bookboard’s observations about how interactive e-books are consumed. “You can take a highly interactive book and these are great fun, but consumed passively,” said Nigel.  “Whereas you take media like radio or books or e-books, and these ask you to spend some time to reach in, quiet down. The idea is you need to give some part of yourself up to the experience,” he said, adding, “It’s a skill kids need to learn, especially in this day of distractions.”

Hearing this brought me back full circle to Bookboard’s “books aren’t broken” mantra. It’s clear this team wants to “give books the place of pride they deserve by offering the same mindset as actually reading a print book.”  They also have passionate beliefs about the role technology should play in motivating young readers. As Nigel put it,  “Technology can’t always be a replacement for imagination. Technology can still be the thing that entices you to imagine.”


Diana is a sociologist, freelance writer and mom, though rarely in that order. Her writing spans topics from parenting joys and challenges to prevention education. She writes a monthly parenting blog for Yahoo and has published feature articles on adoption, family rituals and the childcare industry for parenting publications. Diana earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. These days find her hanging with her husband and book-loving six year old in the San Francisco Bay Area, while happily blogging and serving as a reading advocate for Bookboard.


  1. Ken

    May 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    I love this way of thinking. There are some cool interactive books (or should I say games?) — my three year-old son loves the iPhone version of The Monster at the End of this Book. But nothing really compares to flipping pages in a printed book, or moving page by page through a static ebook, and letting my boy use his imagination to bring the characters to life. I think there’s a tendency to want to over-supply the content that imagination should be working on instead! (“When I was a kid, all I had was a wheel and a stick, and I imagined everything from there, and I LIKED it!”)

    • Diana Dull Akers

      May 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      A wheel and a stick, eh? I can tell you have a great imagination and will use it to inspire the same in your child as he learns to read!

  2. Jill

    May 31, 2013 at 10:13 am

    In the Cooney Center study: “children reading enhanced e-books recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.” Were regular (non-enhanced) e-books compared to print books? Or have you heard of any other studies where this was done?

  3. Diana Dull Akers

    May 31, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Hi Jill — good question. Yes, the Cooney Center Study compared print books, e-books (basic/non-enhanced) and enhanced or interactive e-books The highlighted link in the blog above will offer more details if you’re interested in reading more about the study, but here is an excerpt from their site re: their methodology. Hope this is helpful!

    [excerpt] “For this study we observed families reading both basic e-books, which are essentially print books put into a digital format with minimal features like highlighting text and audio narration, and enhanced e-books, which feature more interactive multimedia options like games, videos and interactive animations.

    We recruited 32 pairs of parents and their 3—6-year-old children at the New York Hall of Science’s Preschool Place. Each pair read a print book and either an enhanced or basic e-book while researchers videotaped their interactions and took observational notes. Following the co-reading task, researchers tested the children on their comprehension of the story and interviewed parents about their reading practices at home and elsewhere.”