- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007


wo leading children’s publishers, Scholastic Inc. and Disney, will soon discover whether the laptop compares to the lap in the hearts of young readers.

Scholastic is introducing BookFlix, an educational Web site that pairs short films based on popular picture books with nonfiction electronic books that let early readers follow the text online.

For example, click on the bar for People and Places, and you’ll find a pair of offerings on Abraham Lincoln: an animated film of Jean Fritz’s storybook “Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln” and the animated image of a nonfiction work, Will Mara’s “Abraham Lincoln.” Children can turn pages backward or forward by clicking on an arrow on the lower right- or left-hand side.

Other pairings include such favorites as Jules Feiffer’s “Bark, George” placed alongside Alyse Sweeney’s “Pets at the Vet,” and Syd Hoff’s “Danny and the Dinosaur” featured with Susan H. Gray’s “Dinosaur Tracks.”

“We’re so lucky to live in an era when kids can have books in multiple formats. Each format offers something that the other doesn’t,” says Francie Alexander, Scholastic’s chief academic officer. “The e-book offers a wonderful ability for helping children learn to read what academics call building ‘mental models.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Disney Publishing Group plans a similar project later this year, making favorites such as “The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” available online.

Scholastic is sticking to the school and library market for now, but Disney will offer books to general consumers, charging a still-to-be-determined fee for downloads.

“We saw a void in the marketplace and decided to act upon it,” says Jon Yaged, U.S. publisher of the Disney Book Group.

E-books for early readers come as electronic sales overall have been rising quickly, even if they remain a fraction of a $35 billion industry. The market for trade releases nearly doubled from 2005 to 2006, from $11 million to $20 million, and totaled $8 million in the first quarter of 2007, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), a trade and standards association.

IDPF Executive Director Nick Bogaty says he has no statistics for the educational and library market but that he believes the numbers were at least triple those for commercial releases.

“It’s starting to become real,” Mr. Bogaty says of growth in the digital market. “Publishers are starting to take this seriously.”

Unlike a few years ago, e-books have users in high places within the industry, including Penguin Group (USA) Chief Executive Officer David Shanks and Borders Group Inc. CEO George Jones. Mr. Yaged remains in transition.

“I still prefer to read traditional books … but if our program [were] available right now, I would be reading it to my child,” Mr. Yaged says. He adds that he prefers the term “digital books” to “e-books.”

“There hasn’t been enough success with the e-book. We believe it’s better to call it something different,” he says.

Children’s titles have been a weak part of the e-book market. Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins are among the publishers that say they have no plans for digital texts designed for young people. A Penguin spokeswoman said e-picture books are “part of the long-term plan” but not “the immediate future.” The problem always has been a proper reading device; a laptop screen, a familiar sight for more and more children, could be the solution.

“We kept it as simple as possible. We just wanted to make sure we provided what kids would need to understand the text,” says Scholastic’s Miss Alexander.

BookFlix begins with 80 pairings, 20 of them also available in Spanish, with categories ranging from Family and Community to Music and Rhyme. Among those already using it is the Edward Smith Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y.

“The teachers who have used it love it,” says Robin Young, the school’s library media specialist. “They have been working with the kids in small groups. They love the pairing of fiction and nonfiction, and they love the activities.”

“We will look very carefully to see how this rolls out,” says Suzanne Murphy, Scholastic’s vice president of marketing for trade books, when asked if the publisher would make e-picture books available for general release.

“We have to … look at parents today and what they’re most comfortable with — and they’re more and more comfortable with technology. I’d be hard pressed to say there won’t be a time when bedtime reading is with an electronic device.”

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