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Bedtime stories are going digital

Cuddling up with a good MP3

Don Katz has a vision for the children of America: He wants to take the technology that brings the Jonas Brothers to their ears and use it to deliver the Brothers Grimm.

Nearly a third of children ages 6 to 10 are regular users of digital audio players, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. And thanks to entrepreneurs such as Katz, they can now use them to listen to bedtime stories.

In March, the founder launched, where children can download books directly onto their digital audio players.

"I hear lots of people talking, saying that when they put their kids to bed, they put them down with an audiobook," says Michele Cobb, Audio Publishers Association president.

Children's and teens' books accounted for 13 percent of all national audiobook sales in 2007, according to the Audio Publishers Association. That's a relatively small number, but it's nearly double the 7 percent that was estimated by the group in 2004.

AudibleKids, which offers books for preschoolers on up, aims to stoke their interest further by offering a social networking community where they can talk about books with one another and with parents, teachers, and even authors such as R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame.

Random House's Listening Library has been producing audiobooks for youths for more than 50 years. What's new is the digital technology - companies such as Fisher-Price and Disney now sell kid-friendly digital audio players for children as young as 2.

Katz believes reaching kids through digital media may inspire them to have a lifelong love of books - even the old-fashioned printed kind.

"The world of reluctant readers is huge," he says. For many children, Katz says, "reading outcomes tend to fall apart around third grade," which is often the same time that parents stop reading to them.

Digital audiobooks, especially those narrated by talented artists, can "extend the pleasure of being read to by your parents into fifth, sixth, seventh grades," he says. And talented artists are lining up to narrate; Macmillan Audio launched a children's list this spring with narrations by actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Tony Shalhoub.

For some mothers and fathers, the idea of children chatting online about Holden Caulfield instead of Hannah Montana is pretty compelling. But for those who spent their own childhood summers reveling in the crisp pages of paperbacks, there are real concerns about what may be lost if their offspring tackle a summer reading list via MP3.

The American Library Association recommends reading every day to children who are not yet in school. The group says it's not just hearing the story that's important - it's connecting the words to the letters on a page, and eventually learning to read them.

The association's president, University of Texas professor Loriene Roy, believes that audiobooks can play a valuable role in encouraging literacy, but they're not meant to be used exclusively.

"Audiobooks can help the good reader and the struggling reader," she says, because they help young readers to listen beyond their reading level.

But, she says, "Parents are the first teachers and the best role modelers. If you want the child to be an independent reader, someone who will pick up the text, they're going to watch what adults do."

The temptation to skip the nightly routine might be strong, even though nothing beats a live performance, says Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in Our Commercialized World.

"In a way," Linn says, "this is another gadget for outsourcing parenting."

Even among today's multitasking teens, listening instead of reading might cause them to lose focus as they half-listen while attempting to reach the next level of Halo 3 and text-messaging a friend.

Katz says he isn't aiming to discourage parents from reading to their children. But with youths so fully embracing the digital age, he believes it's the best way to reach them.

"It's not just that every kid has an MP3 in his or her pocket," he says. "It's that there's a cultural and almost educational change going on that has to do with kids being extremely adept at multimedia and multisensory intake."