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For many parents, books that can be held are still the first choice

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Jo Keller relies on her Kindle when she travels so she can forgo lugging hardback books, but when it comes to her children's reading habits, she feels differently.

She has squirreled away many of the books she read as a child growing up in England and is introducing them to her young children, who are savoring the volumes with their mother's childhood scribblings inside. "Why would you give your kids a fake experience when you can give them the real experience?" said the Baltimore mother of two.

Keller is on one side of the new reading war: e-book or traditional hardback. It is a debate more relevant than ever as e-readers saturate the marketplace. Amazon, for example, reported that it sold 4 million Kindles in December alone. Sales of print books declined by about 9 percent last year, although juvenile fiction didn't slip as much as adult fiction, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Even as children have more exposure at home to e-readers, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children younger than 2. The academy says that unstructured play time is better for brain development and that young children who use electronic media extensively are at risk for delays in language development once they start school.

Many tech-savvy families and teachers remain wedded to the old-fashioned book for the youngest children. They believe it offers children a link to the past, an object that can be touched, smelled, even chewed on and taken into the bathtub.

But others say that the e-readers may eventually prove to be an inexpensive tool to open up the world of books to young children who might live in an area far from a library or not have a house full of books.

"I don't see any drawbacks to it," said Anthony Japzon, principal of Medfield Heights Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. "The little kids are getting exposed" to technology earlier and earlier, he said.

Rodgers Forge Elementary School kindergarten teacher Deborah Hughey compares reading an e-book to seeing a picture of Vincent van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers rather than the real painting with its three-dimensional feel.

"For the young reader, you can't beat the book with the big pages and the beautiful illustrations and the snuggling up with Mom to read a story. I don't know if you get the same visceral pleasure you would get from the book," she said.

Even though her kindergartners could be considered digital natives, Hughey still finds that students can be impulsive and don't always have the ability to flip from one digital or computer page to another without help. She prefers to keep guiding them with her oversize books.

But Hughey said she is ready to accept the new technology that is invading homes and schools. She encourages her students to read the language all around them in the world. "If it is an iPad or a Kindle, or a sign in the grocery store, it is all reading. It is all good practice. … I would say it doesn't matter what you read, just practice," Hughey said.

The way a child learns to read can be an important element in building relationships in families, according to Holly Kreider, director of programs at Raising A Reader, a nonprofit in Mountain View, Calif.

Kreider said digital and physical books can coexist on a child's bookshelf, but physical books promote more family engagement and shared reading between a parent and a child. Talking about the book with an adult will begin to lead the discussion to what children see and hear. "I don't want to throw that out and replace it with an e-reader," she said.

In addition, she points out that some research indicates that exposure to light from a screen within a half-hour before bedtime can interrupt a sleep cycle.

Japzon sees nothing wrong with reading to young children on an e-reader and believes they could be a great advantage for some of his students who do not come from middle- or upper-middle-class families.

When he walks into a home where there are only two plastic chairs in the living room and mattresses on the floor in the bedrooms, he said, he knows the family probably cannot afford a lot of books. He wonders if getting an e-reader into the hands of those children might expose them to more literature than sending home a few books.

"If you are trying to get a kid to read, get a child excited about reading, then it doesn't matter whether it is an e-reader or a book," Japzon said. If children aren't exposed to a lot of books, then it is harder for them to learn to read, he said.

Carl D. Howe, research director at Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston, envisions a kind of reverse digital divide in the years ahead. Children of more affluent families will have lots of picture books and hardback books with illustrations, while children from lower-income families will read mostly from e-readers.

Once the cost of an e-reader comes down to the price of buying a couple of hardback books, he said, more low-income families will be able to afford an e-reader.

Howe believes both forms of reading are useful for small children.

"The way you should expose children to reading is through real books," he said. But he added, "There is an immediacy that a tablet brings to a child that is very engaging and may create more interest in books."

Even Wendy Bronfin, senior director of children's digital projects at Barnes & Noble, doesn't believe parents should give up on physical books for their children. "When we are talking about kids between zero and 5," she said, they should be able to pick up the physical book and learn what it is like. "They need to know ... book literacy."

"Most parents are using digital picture books as a supplement to an actual library," she said. Her company is trying to make digital picture books authentic, she said, by putting the images next to the words, as they would appear in the printed version. "We aren't here to change the nature of books."

However, Barnes & Noble is making some books interactive so that children can touch an image on the e-reader and it will move. The company's e-reader, called Nook, also has narration, which Bronfin said is handy for parents who have read "Fancy Nancy" over and over, and want to take a break. And parents and grandparents can now pre-record themselves reading a book to a child, which the child can play back as narration.

"I think there is a big romance in reading digital books to children," Bronfin said.

JoAnn Fruchtman, the owner of the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, couldn't disagree more. "I strongly believe that children should have real books," she said, adding that children need the sensory experience that a book provides.

"You can feel a book, you can smell a book. You can even chew a book," she said, adding that she doesn't see a lot of use of digital books among her clients.

As the owner of an iPad and a Kindle, Kelly Emerson is fully engaged in new technology, but the mother of three is very much a traditionalist when it comes to reading to her young boys.

She wants her children to know the pleasure of picking out a book from the shelf, turning it over in their hands and snuggling with an adult as they read, turn the pages and discuss it. She wants them to know the concrete meaning of a beginning, a middle and an end to a book. She doesn't like the idea that the cadence and rhythm of language would be interrupted by a child pointing to animate a character on an iPad.

"I want their [first] experience of books to be books," said Emerson, whose children go to the Waldorf School, which tries to minimizes the use of technology in the early years.

Recently, she delighted in finding a book with a sticky note attached on which her child had written: "read again."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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