How Do Books Affect Your Child's Brain? 8 Questions We Asked the CEO of Literati

BY SARA SARGENT, reprinted from Paper Lantern Publishing
Updated 9:14 am ET Tues Feb 11, 2020

Q: Every day we hear more about the topic of kids and books and screens and brains. Jess, your background is in neuroscience from Stanford University, and you founded Literati, the children’s book club everyone in the education community is talking about. What do we need to know? 

JE:  Absolutely. It’s a fascinating line of research. Most recently, we're learning from brain scans and fMRI that developing brains thrive on stimulation that puts brains in the “Goldilocks” zone. Let me explain what I mean by that. If you remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, she needed to find porridge that wasn’t “too hot” and wasn’t “too cold” but was “just right.” We’re seeing the same thing in the brain. Media—like television and animation and screens—are “too hot” in the sense that we don’t see connections fire in children’s brains. The consumption is too easy for the brain. On the other hand, pure audio content is “too cold” for most kids. It doesn’t provide enough stimulation to the visual cortex to force new neural connections to fire. It’s just too hard for the developing brain. 

Picture books are the "just right" porridge. The mixture of verbal and visual cues in an illustrated story results in the healthiest brain development, and the tactile experience of a physical book is also critical for the brain to store memories. 

We all know taking away screens and reading to our children during their formative years is the best thing for their brains. Now, there is new incredible science to back it up. We asked Jessica Ewing, CEO of subscription book club Literati and graduate of Stanford University in Cognitive Science, every question we could think of about kids, brains, and books.

EDUCATION

Q: Got it. So television is too easy, pure audio is too hard, and books are just right. But are all books made equal? You’ve built a thriving business out of curating selections that hit the sweet spot for kids in different age and developmental ranges. What makes a book "good" for the brain? 

JE:  Honestly, I believe any book a child loves to read is a good book. Being asked to read a book over and over again is a sign that you've found something the brain needs. And every child is different. But brains are also changing rapidly, and it’s a game you need to stay on top of for maximum benefit. What we do is simply curate a variety of high-quality selections and send them to kids each month. The child’s brain does the rest. We cannot predict what will land and what won’t on an individual basis, and neither can parents. That is the entire product design problem, and it's why Literati operates as a try-before-you-buy service instead of a standard subscription product. Having some choice is really good for kids. Too much choice, however, is overwhelming and can be a turn off for kids and parents. 

Q: Right, so every kid is different, and parents want to get it right, but they are inundated with choices, and you’re attempting to solve that? 

JE:  Yes. The paradox of choice is a real phenomenon. We know from research that too many choices makes people massively unhappy. Books are particularly overwhelming because millions are published every year, and there are millions in the backlog. If you’re a parent, where do you even start? Classics? Sure, but what about all the revolutionary new stuff that’s coming out? Bestsellers? Okay, but what if not all of them land, or your child is capable of more than the average kid? Award-winners? Those tend to be really hit or miss. It becomes a tough problem. More importantly, how do you create enough variety in the selections so that children are being introduced to a little of everything? 

Shopping for kids books is not like shopping for adult books. Your goal is not necessarily to appeal to existing interests, but to create new interests. Science, art, values, empathy, animals, beauty, music, sports, games, oceans, adventure, history, and love—there’s just so much beauty in the world of children’s literature. We want parents to feel inspired, not overwhelmed.


Q: Literati is a fairly new company. Have you seen any scientific or qualitative benefit yet amongst the children using the service? 

There's a four-year-old who has been a  member for three years. He has a vocabulary so astounding that his preschool teacher called his parents and asked what they're doing at home. He started in Club Neo, our club designed for babies and toddlers, and he "graduated" at age two to Club Sprout, which delivers books that are really matched for kids ages 3-5.  

In January, we got this crazy call from the mom of a six-year-old in Club Nova, which features more advanced picture books with more developed themes.  She told us her son was so inspired by a book we curated called Those Shoes that he petitioned the mayor of his town to create an Anti-Bullying Awareness Day. Here we all were, engineers, designers, and product marketers, sitting speechless around a computer watching a kid discover the motivation to address a dais of politicians—all because of something he read. 

Some of the most interesting examples, though, are with kids slightly older. We’ve seen children go from very average readers to the best readers in their classes. A lot of kids who join Club Sage, for ages 7-9, are just making the transition from picture books to early chapter books. Around age seven or eight, we've seen kids rapidly transform into advanced readers far ahead of their peers and dive into our most advanced club, Club Phoenix, for ages 9-12. 

Q: So, I have to ask. What is your favorite children's book? 

JE: [Laughs] It's a fair question. My favorite choice is a little unusual. It's an Algonquin retelling of Cinderella called The Rough-Faced Girl, and it's just so brilliant because it turns the Cinderella story on its head. I don't don't mean that it mocks the love story—it just tells it in a different way. It's about a young Native American girl who tends to the fire, so her face and hands are scarred and "rough." She is, of course, mocked by her attractive but mean-spirited sisters, very similar to the classic Cinderella.  But when she inevitably goes to meet the warrior prince, she is asked a series of questions about his heart, about his soul. She passes, because she loves the land and the sky the way he does. She sees the world the way he does, and the love between them heals her scars. 

What I love about this story is that it presents love, not as something we "fall into," but as something we ascend into. Love isn't a matter of making ourselves more attractive objects, it's a matter of cultivating our characters. I think that's a really important message, and one I wish I had learned earlier in life.

JE:  I think there is always room for innovation. I worked for a big company [Google] before, so I know the struggle to do something thoughtful when you work for a large corporation. We've worked very hard and also had a lot of luck along the way. When we first started, we were looking at the children's book space and scratching our heads,  saying, "Why is there no dominant subscription service in this space?" There are subscription boxes for everything. Why is there no dominant brand we know of for kids books? And when we looked further, we realized that no one was solving the primary product problem—which is that parents cannot predict which books their kids will love. Sending two or three books every month doesn't work. It just accumulates stuff, and most parents have way too much stuff. 

So we decided to approach the problem differently. What if we created an experience?  An artful experience, a curated experience, but ultimately, an experience that puts kids and parents in control of what they decide to add to their homes? That idea really took off. People love the unboxing experience and exploring the books, and ultimately keeping just the ones that are working. People also love donating books through the service. We have become the minimalist solution, while still providing variety and art, and that really resonates.

Q: Jess, you've raised $15M in venture capital, and you run the fastest growing children's book club in the United States in an age dominated by Amazon.  What has been the secret to the traction Literati has gained? 

Q: One last question just to circle back to the original topic. You believe strongly in the power of print for kids, as opposed to tablet and e-readers. Why is that? 

JE:  It's a great question. I'll answer that from a scientific standpoint, and then a personal one. The science we are seeing with screens and kids brains is quite frightening. The exact same organized white matter we see in brains of kids who are read to frequently turns into chaos with screens and devices. It's almost like the exact opposite effect.  The language centers of the brain are needed to support success in school. Replacing books with screens may put your child at a massive educational disadvantage. At this point, screens are a huge risk we're taking with new generations.

Literati is a try-before-you-buy book club service for children that operates 5 subscription book clubs for kids ages 0-12.

Brain scan of preschooler read to regularly by a caregiver. Red shows increased, organized white matter in language centers, which is necessary to support development in school.

A Club Nova Literati box, featuring books and artwork for theme 'Stars, Infinity, and Beyond.' 

On a personal level, I feel we live in a world of increasing layers of abstraction. As adults, we can handle that, although we're not sure where exactly this is taking us. We'll see. But when you're a kid just trying to make sense of the world, it's important for things to be concrete. Holding a physical book gives the brain a way to store memory. It's a tangible, weighty representation of something the brain is trying to process. There's just a power and a magic to it. Remember the smell, the feel of walking into a bookstore and approaching all that vast knowledge? The promise, the aspiration, the excitement of it? I can't think of anything more magical. 

We're trying to create a very similar experience to that, translated to a child's level. There is a lot of technology in our business. We have a gigantic engineering team and a host of designers. Hundreds of thousands of lines of code power our platform. But we do all that to create a very analog experience—a magical experience—because we think that is important. I fundamentally believe we should be building technology that serves life, not the other way around. I want to spend the rest of my life building products that make life more meaningful, not merely more efficient. 

fMRI imaging of a preschooler using a screen.  Blue shows massive underdevelopment of white matter. 

JE: We’ve been operational for three years now, and we have a number of customers who have been with the service since we started. Honestly, the reports we’ve gotten have been so impressive that we're considering commissioning a scientific study on Literati kids.

Photo by Aleks Gajdeczka

Q: Explain what you mean by "donating books through the service." People can send in used books? What do you do with them? 

JE:  That's right. Because Literati is a try-before-you-buy service, we pay for return shipping on any books you want to send back. As an added benefit and sort of a  community feature, we also pay for you to reuse that box and send back any pre-loved  books that your kid has outgrown in your return shipment. We donate those books to schools, to libraries, to foster homes, to kids without books.  If you're a book lover, you know there's nothing more special than a book you can truly call your own. It's amazing how many kids don't yet know that experience. It's hugely meaningful for our community of book lovers to be able to provide that for other kids. 

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