I don’t know if you caught it, but the lead article in today’s Publishing Perspectives is titled: Vitamins 2.0: How Children’s Books Can Change the World in a Digital Age.

The gist: give children beautiful books full of beautiful imagery–rather than digital bells and whistles– and they’ll be better prepared for managing the “high-stimulus” digital future. And start early. The earlier the better.

My reaction: Of course. What took you so long ?

The idea of exposing children to great books isn’t new. In fact, the idea that “great books build great minds” is at the foundation of most progressive literacy initiatives of the last 50 years. I appreciate the new emphasis on the “visual” aspect, but I think it’s just that the mainstream may be waking up to what librarians, teachers, authors, and children’s book publishers have known all along.

There are a wealth of great picture books which have been building imagination and visual perception since the golden age of the mid-twentieth century: Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon to name just a few. No one who has fallen in love with those books thinks the words are doing the heavy lifting.

And I also believe we’ve got a bumper crop of amazing artists right now who are pushing the boundaries of the children’s book artform. Mo Willems, Emily Gravett, Lane Smith, Brian Selznick, Adam Rex, Kevin Henkes, Melissa Sweet, Peter Brown, Antoinette Portis, Loren Long, Shaun Tan, Matthew Reinhart, Peter Reynolds, Bob Shea… I could go on and on.

I don’t think it’s that books need to get flashier or more artistic, and in fact, adding too many bells and whistles can actually get in the way of developing great habits of mind through reading. Just adding more pictures doesn’t add more meaning. It’s hard to imagine how to improve on the bedtime experience of Goodnight Moon, for instance.

Here’s what we need to change: adults need to get better at understanding and encouraging active engagement with media. In general we tend to lack understanding of exactly how sophisticated a learning tool a great children’s book can be. Asking questions about the story, looking for details in the illustrations, anticipating what might happen next–-these kinds of activities create great analytical skills and an empowered reader.

This kind of reader will hopefully go on to ask better questions of all media, evaluate the quality of information, and make thoughtful decisions about what is worthy of their attention. THAT’S a 21st Literacy Skill, not multi-tasking per se.

In fact, I would argue that ATTENTION–-the ability to decide what needs one’s attention at any given time–-a single source, or multiple sources and how to switch back and forth mindfully–-is a much more critical skill.

How many adults do you see wrestling with that one when they are juggling a cell and driving? I’d say they haven’t mastered the literacy of Attention themselves, so how will they teach it to their children? Multi-tasking without the ability to also mindfully focus is just culturally-generated ADD. The successful thinker of the future needs to be able to do both.

What we want from a new crop of children’s books are great stories, and nuanced artwork that engages the imagination. Sometimes this means restraint as opposed to more visuals, so the message is clearer.

If you want to see a BRILLIANT example of this, check out Polly Dunbar’s recent series of Tilly and Friends Books for Candlewick Press. They are so visually rich, and so elegantly spare, they are masterful examples of powerful storytelling for young readers. They are pitch perfect at capturing the zeitgeist of a toddler, and they have some great ideas to teach.

As for older readers, I think there are great opportunities to enhance books with multimedia features like online content, games, and related video, but here’s the catch: these elements should be about inspiring the reader to immerse themselves further, to follow their curiosity, to expand their knowledge, or to participate with others in a community around a book.

They shouldn’t just be there because publishers and developers think kids need the “cool-factor.”  Kids are amazingly sophisticated these days, and they don’t swallow every hook, line, and sinker–especially if it doesn’t have deeper meaning.

Although I’m very happy to see kids books getting this kind of coverage, I think this article misses the point. It’s not enough to say “books prepare kids for a digital future.”

I’d argue that great children’s books and a rich experience of visual storytelling prepare kids for every future, digital and otherwise. They help kids build all the skills they will need for every eventuality: Attention, Empathy, Creativity, Imagination, Writing, Storytelling, Self-Awareness, Logic, Collaboration, Community, and Critical Thinking. It’s hard to beat that, and I think it’s amazing that the larger publishing community is just getting around to discussing it.