If you haven’t noticed, computers are transforming books and publishing. For example, e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad—along with the e-books that such e-readers allow people to read—are all the rage.
Another development in the digital publishing revolution is the growing availability of digital children’s books for reading online. One website at the forefront of this movement is Big Universe, which allows kids to read children’s books online. Today I offer a review of Big Universe. To conduct this review I made use of a rigorously selected focus group. Well, okay, my 9-year-old daughter fiddled around on the site for a while, but she was very helpful!
Read Children’s Books Online: Big Universe
Big Universe is a website that offers three main features. First, the site makes available a digital library—including fiction and non-fiction offerings—that allows kids to read children’s books online. The library has digital books for children of kindergarten age through eighth grade, in a wide range of categories and themes, such as action & adventure, animals, birds & insects, chapter books, classics, friendship, graphic novels, humor, religious, and transportation.
Big Universe’s reader interface is very slick: when you read a book, you can turn pages either by clicking on the arrows below the book, or by grabbing the edge of the page with the cursor and peeling it back as if you were reading a real book. Pretty cool. My focus group also liked the little flying saucer and space alien that flies along while the book you have selected is loading 🙂
Second, kids can save favorite books to their own digital library (their “bookshelf”), making them easier to access in the future. Moreover, kids can safely share their bookshelves with their online friends, so they can read children’s books online together.
Third, part of the Big Universe site provides tools for children to create their own digital books. In this part of the site, kids can write the text of their book, choose or create graphics for the illustrations in their book—cover art and all—and design the book’s layout. Their book can then be published to the Big Universe site for others to read! This area of the site also provides tutorials and demos so that kids can learn how to use Big Universe’s vast array of digital book-making tools.
Big Universe operates on a subscription basis, offering monthly, annual, and 2-year subscription plans for home, classroom, and school use.
Big Universe: Some Great Things
There is much that I like about Big Universe. First, the site has an impressive collection of online children’s books. It has a particularly good selection of non-fiction books; this is where my focus group spent most of her time on the site :).
Second, the site is fun for kids. Most kids enjoy reading good age-appropriate books, and most also enjoy playing on the computer (my daughter certainly does…). Thus, Big Universe manages to combine two enjoyable activities, which makes it doubly attractive for kids. Perhaps most importantly, the site is a great way to help computer-loving kids develop a love for reading, if they don’t already have one.
The site’s tools for creating digital books are also excellent; kids with a creative streak can go wild creating their own literature (though some younger kids may not have the patience required to navigate the fairly involved process of creating a book). Also, the site interface is intuitive and attractive, which makes accessing the online materials easy and fun.
Finally, while the site can certainly serve individual kids or families reading at a personal computer, the site would be especially helpful for teachers in the classroom. If the site could be accessed from a computer plugged into a projector, Big Universe would provide a way of reading a picture book to an entire classroom without sacrificing the ability to see the illustrations. In my view, this potential classroom use is the real genius of the site.
Big Universe: One Hesitation
My one hesitation about the site is that the selection of books in the digital library is still quite limited. Although there are roughly 2800 books from some 24 publishers, many well-established mainstream children’s book publishers seem not to be represented on the site. The result is that many of the best and best loved children’s books—both new and old—cannot be read at the site.
This shortcoming seems particularly acute with respect to fictional books. For example, my daughter was disappointed that she couldn’t find some of her favorite fiction picture books. Of course, this need not be a permanent defect of the site; Big Universe is adding new publishers and books all the time, and my guess is that there will be expanded fiction offerings in the future. However, for now, the offerings felt a bit thin.
Finally, while I think Big Universe provides a potentially enjoyable and helpful service—particularly for kids that don’t normally like to read, and for teachers reading aloud in the classroom—I feel compelled to caution parents not to allow reading children’s books online (whether at Big Universe or elsewhere) to replace reading while snuggling on the couch, or while tucking in before bed. That kind of reading with children provides crucial relational and cognitive benefits, which will be lost if a child simply reads alone online. Of course, with an e-reader families may well be able to curl up on the couch or in bed with Big Universe too!
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