Is technology changing how kids read?

A number of authors are embracing the way that technology has changed the course of children's literature – but traditionalists are still maintaining that a book can't be beaten

It’s become one of the strangest phenomena of our times. Leave a tablet or a smartphone lying around a toddler and not only will they be intrigued by its bright colours, they’ll start intuitively swiping through its screens and pages. This, to the horror of some traditionalists, is taking place years before children learn to read. “We can’t hide from this truth,” agrees Lebanese children’s author Sahar Naja Mahfouz. “But we can’t stand opposite to this development either. We can use the technology to change our way of presenting a story - combining visuals with audio, for example. Actually, the habit of reading will still reach children, just in a different form.”

Mahfouz is one of a number of children’s authors appearing at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, most of whom have embraced the possibilities technology offers storytelling. For Mahfouz, a children’s story never remains static on the page anyway - one of her sessions at the festival encourages children to bring a character to life, using a variety of materials, after she has read from her latest book.

For children, a paper book still has that joy of colour and touch which can’t be felt on a tablet

Sahar Naja Mahfouz, Children’s author

Other authors at the festival, such as David Walliams, often offer additional material to the main story - it’s possible to download activity sheets for some of his books. Although there are still some authors coming to Dubai next month yet to be convinced of technology’s benefits. Famously, Julia Donaldson vetoed an interactive e-book of her bestselling Gruffalo series. 

“Technology is sometimes a curse and other times a grace,” admits Mahfouz. “It can be a distraction, pushing young people away from books and reading. But knowing how to use it in a book or educational application, presentation and storytelling, is now key. I have changed the way I present my books in schools - children nowadays insist on enhancing the visual part of any reading or workshop, - but we can still show them, using technology, that a book can be fun to hear and later on to read.”

All of which ties nicely in with the festival’s Educational Outreach Program, which aims to encourage a love of books, reading and writing. It’s just a question of whether, in ten years’ time, such enjoyment will take place via the glow of a tablet rather than on paper. Mahfouz is not so sure. 

“The traditional book will never die, not for adults or children,” she says. “For adults, a paper book has special characteristics: the happiness of flipping the page without worrying about battery power... even the smell of the paper. And for children, a paper book still has that joy of colour and touch which can’t be felt on a tablet.

“A parent reading for their child when he’s just a few months old encourages, in the end, a love of books. And they’ll see the benefits of paper books soon enough.” 

Sahar Naja Mahfouz takes part in three sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature