Digital reading: Kindle kids

Digital reading: Kindle kids

"Miss Wood, Miss Wood, someone's spat on the Kobo" might not be the usual thing you would overhear during a market focus group, but then, this is not a usual market focus group. This is a group of around 20 Year Five and Year Six pupils, aged between nine and 11, from St Joseph's CE primary school in Camden, who kindly let The Bookseller know what they think about e-books, enhanced e-books, book apps, digital reading devices and how they would like to use them.

There is much theorising on what digital natives will want to read in the future and in what way they will want to read it. Not just print versus digital, but e-readers versus tablets and story generation versus straight book reading. So, with all this in mind, the pupils of St Joseph's were asked to read on two straight e-readers, Amazon's Kindle and W H Smith's Kobo; two tablet devices, the first generation iPad and the Samsung GT-P1000 Galaxy Tab; and one games console, the Nintendo DSi XL.

The two tablets, the Kindle and the Kobo, were loaded up with a combination of Horrid Henry's Nits by Francesca Simon (Orion Children's Books), David Walliams' Billionaire Boy (HarperCollins Children's Books) and Jacqueline Wilson's Double Decker: Double Act and Bad Girls (Random House Children's). The Nintendo DSi was presented with the cartridge for the 100 Classic Book Collection (HarperCollins/Genius Sonority), which comes with old-school favourites including Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty.

The pupils were incredibly intuitive with how to use all five devices, knowing much about them already, due to existing personal or familial access to some, if not all of them. From link ups with their friend's devices to connections with plasma televisions (so that the whole family could be involved) and a call for constant interaction, this group of digital natives were clear about what they wanted.

Tablet tales
The biggest "wow factor" for the pupils came, unsurprisingly, from the two tablet devices. Divided into five smaller groups, each one was keen to get their hands on the iPad and the . . . other iPad—it seems that other technology companies have some way to go when it comes to marketing their products successfully for the next generation against Apple's brand entrenchment. The iPad is synonymous with tablets in the mind of these pupils, with one asserting for the group that all tablet devices are: "iPads, but from a different company."

The pupils were, with a few exceptions, all able to navigate their way round the tablets easily, with about half knowing that on the Galaxy Tab they would find books in the  Kindle store. They seemed to like the instinctive technology of the two tablets, finding them easy to use: "this is better than a book, you don't actually have to turn the page, just brushing it is much easier" and "when you put it down, it doesn't close like a book, so you don't have to try and find your place."

Again, somewhat unsurprisingly, the biggest draw of the tablets was the interactivity they allowed, with the Alice Lite app (Atomic Antelope) producing excited cries of "Oh, my", but, when reading other e-books they wanted more: more games, more puzzles and more colour. As one pupil suggested: "It would be good if there were games in the book, like a game based on the book, so that you have to read the book, to get the answers, to play the game."

Mystery books with puzzles in them and opportunities to choose your own ending were also popular ideas suggested by the pupils, as was the ability to "customise" the app enhanced e-book, with many suggesting that being able to colour in the pictures would be "cool" and not "babyish".

Although instant access to books is of course also offered on the other devices, the subject of buying ease, and its impact, came up when reading Wilson's Bad Girls on the iPad, with one pupil explaining that, if "I wanted to get the next book, then I'd have to ask my mum, and she might say not till tomorrow when we go to the shop, but with the iPad I could just get it now, which would make you read more books."

The other surprising issue that concerned the pupils was e-ink technology. Although they didn't know the name of the technology "that made the Kindle look like paper", more than one did say they liked both tablets, "but if you spend to much time on them, then it's going to hurt your eyes."

Despite this rather sensible approach to reading digitally, Apple was the clear winner in the desirability stakes, with one pupil, browsing through the graphic novel app for Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (Little, Brown) announcing: "The iPad is the best one, the others (Kobo and Kindle) are really dull, it's like they are for old people."

Time to listen
"It looks like paper, but it's so light, it's like a toy" was the general reaction to both Amazon's Kindle and W H Smith's Kobo. Although not the devices the pupils were most excited about initially, when presented with both e-readers, the majority of them said they would prefer to read on either the Kindle or Kobo than in printed book form. The majority also admitted that, with the temptation of so many other entertainment mediums available on the tablets, e-readers would be the devices they were most likely to "actually read on."

Again, ease of use was a key factor in their approval: "I'd rather read on a device like this (the touch-screen Kobo), because usually you have to fiddle with pages, but with these ones you just have to tap it." But, compared to the intuitiveness of the tablets a couple found them "too slow". The lack of colour was clearly off-putting for the majority of the students, but some were happy that they "didn't do more, because then they're more like a book".

The issue of storage was another sensible response to the e-readers, with the fact that they "wouldn't take up any room" being a big draw for many of the pupils. "Think of all the books you could have on here, to the shelf that you would have to have at home" said one excitedly, before declaring that he was "kind of addicted to reading".

Alongside this, the potential of new "updates" for e-books was also seen as a positive, with one pupil explaining that: "When you're reading a book, once you've read it, you don't want to read it again because you've already seen it [the illustrations], but with something like this, I'd like it if you could do different things with it the next time you read it, get different pictures or something."

Although few of the pupils said they regularly listened to audiobooks, while reading on the Kindle and the Kobo the pupils also started to talk about the benefits of "read aloud" options, with many suggesting it would be good if all downloaded books had that functionality: "It would be good if when you're lying in bed it would read to you because it would be nice to go to sleep listening to nice things."

The Kindle 2 does have read aloud functionality, but Amazon has announced that publishers and authors can disable it in their books if they want to, similarly, Kobo has confirmed that its new tablet device (Kobo Vox) will support Read-Aloud ePUB files—a timely choice, as it is certainly an option that these younger readers seem to want.

Playing versus reading
Although a large majority of the pupils spoken too either owned a Nintendo DS, or had one in the family, none of them knew that the games console could also be used as an e-reader. In 2008, Nintendo launched the 100 Classic Book Collection. With the player holding the DS like a book, the game offers a range of classic texts as well as background music, introductions for the books and author information. There is also a Junior Classic Books cartridge available, which includes more than 100 children's titles.

At first the pupils were excited to read on a console that was so familiar to them ("Cool, Alice in Wonderland is on here"), and instantly worked out how to navigate the "bookshelf" and browse the titles on offer. The majority of them seemed unperturbed by the double-screen device; in response to being asked if the Nintendo DS was too small to really read from, one simply explained: "No. It's just the size of a DS screen."

Despite their initial pleasure however, the low word number per page and unhelpful hyphenations soon started to grate: "It is good, but some of the words, because it goes over the two pages, are split which makes it harder to read because you can't see the full word. I would try reading on it but it would just be a little bit different."

As to whether the pupils would be tempted to stop reading and simply load up other games onto the console, the majority offered up sheepish nods. Asked what developers and publishers could then do to increase the amount of time they would spend reading on their DS, interaction, was once again the key answer.

The reading soundtrack option offered by the device was popular, but pupils also wanted to be able to share books with their friends, and be able to "make your own story too, making your own ending would be cool". Of course, this is easier said than done, but games publisher EA games has developed its Flips range of book games for the DS, working with publishers to produce the Artemis Fowl collection, the Cathy Cassidy collection and Enid Blyton's classic Faraway Tree Stories collection among others.
Within the Flips range young readers can collect items to unlock bonus content as they read, read character profiles; and use the DS' wireless to share sample chapters with their friends—functionality that was all deemed "really cool" by the pupils of St Joseph's and more likely to keep them entertained: "If you could get rewards on the DS for finishing a book, that would be really nice."

With those possibilities in mind, the pupils went on to talk excitedly about the potentials of reading on the DS and DSi. Read aloud technology came up again as a key element the pupils would enjoy and one also suggested that "if you could connect it to your plasma screen TV, so that you could project it much bigger that would be good, so then when you turned pages on the DS, they could turn on the screen, so your family could read with you too."

Reading the future
So, what does all this tell publishers, device manufactures and game developers? First, marketing is key, and more needs to be done. That none of the pupils knew their Nintendo DS could be used as an e-reading device despite the large number that owned one, is interesting. Several of the pupils had parents who owned iPads, but the majority of those associated the device only with games, suggesting parents still need to be reached and persuaded of the tablet's digital reading potential.

With all the devices, the biggest aspect for the pupils was interaction, both within the devices (and the books) themselves, and with other devices. For the students of St Joseph's it seems nothing is as "cool" as something that your friend has, so the ability to link and share devices and their content is an absolute necessity—be it sharing chapters of books over Wi-Fi, or further links with social networking sites from within the books themselves.

Interaction through activities, puzzles and games is important, but not just for the sake of interaction, as the pupils seemed to want be rewarded for their dedication to the book. The idea of chapters successfully unlocking new aspects, like games or customisable pages, was something the pupils became very enthusiastic about.

For this group, author videos alone were not enough, while playing with the enhanced e-book version of Billionaire Boy, the two videos from Walliams were "cool", but they still wanted more of the above, although the exclusive audio content and character voices went down well.

The most important message that came out of the session was that there are many reasons for publishers to be positive; amidst all the fear of children abandoning books in favour of video games, a large majority of the pupils said they "loved reading" in all forms and all were excited and intrigued by the devices and the potential "fun" they offered.

In The Bookseller's FutureBook Conference Preview Jess M Brallier, publisher at Poptropica (a virtual world for children developed by the Family Education Network, a division of Pearson) contends that "until we get over "book" and back to "story" we risk failing our profession and far worse, our children . . . what folks like us do has always been about the story . . . kids now arrive knowing how to advance a story via digital game play. They have digital gaming literacy."

It seems for the students of St Joseph's at least, that Brallier might be right. The pupils saw the devices as extensions of their collection of home computers, laptops, tablets and games consoles, and therefore wanted to be involved with them and the books as much as they could, in the ways they are used too.

Used to being a part of the narrative of video games and often immersed in online social worlds, they wanted to be part of the story generation of the books too. Suggesting that for this age range at the least, those that have been calling for the death of the book app, in favour of vanilla e-books, have been premature in their declarations.

At the heart of all of their thoughts came a love for reading itself, as one pupil enthusiastically said, upon hearing that Nintendo offered a Junior Classic Books cartridge as well, "Oh wow, I'll ask for both, that way I get to have 200 books."