Bedtime stories available on iPods

Nearly a third of children ages 6 to 10 are regular users of digital audio players, according to market research firm the NPD Group. And thanks to entrepreneurs like 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 Audio Publishers Association president Michele Cobb.

Kids' and teens' books accounted for 13 percent of 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 each other 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 kids 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 that 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 3rd grade," which is often the same time that parents stop reading to their kids.

Digital audiobooks, especially those narrated by talented artists, can "extend the pleasure of being read to by your parents into 5th, 6th, 7th grades," he says. And talented artists are lining up to narrate — Macmillan Audio launched a children's list this spring with narrations by Gwyneth Paltrow and Tony Shaloub.

"Listening is a powerful method to retain the meaning of the story and to turn people on to the concept of well-chosen words," Katz says. "The interpretation of the reader, that adds layers to it. If you ever enjoyed 'Charlotte's Web,' to hear Edmund Wilson read it is a transcendent experience."

For some moms and dads, the idea of kids 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.

"Audio books 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'll 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 kids 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."

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