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

Updated 8:14 am ET Tues Feb 4, 2020
5 min read

Q: Kids, books, screens and brains—where do we begin? Jess, your background is in neuroscience from Stanford University, and you founded Literati, the children’s book club that's the talk of the education community. What do we need to know? 

JE:  Absolutely. It’s a fascinating line of research. We're learning from brain scans and fMRI that developing minds thrive on "Goldilocks" stimulation. In 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 see the same thing in the brain. Media —like television and animation and screens—are “too hot.” We don’t see connections fire in children’s brains, because the consumption is too easy. But pure audio content is “too cold” for most kids. It doesn’t provide enough stimulation to the visual cortex.

Picture books are "just right." 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. 

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We know that avoiding screens and reading to our kids during their formative years is best. Now, there's new incredible science to support that. We asked Jessica Ewing, CEO of subscription book club Literati and graduate of Stanford University in Cognitive Science, to tell us everything about kids, brains, and books.



Q: But are all books made equal? You’ve built a thriving business out of curating stories that hit the sweet spot for kids in different age and developmental ranges. What makes a book "good" for the brain? 

JE:  I believe any book a child loves to read is a good book. Being asked to read a book over and over is a sign that you've found something the brain needs. But brains are also growing rapidly, and it’s a game you need to stay on top of for maximum benefit. What we do is 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 why Literati operates as a try-before-you-buy service, instead of a standard subscription product. 

Q: So, every kid is different. 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? 

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 benefits yet amongst the children using the service? 

He started in Club Neo, our club designed for babies and toddlers, and he "graduated" at age two to Club Sprout to start on picture books chosen 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. 

We’ve seen children go from very average readers to the best in their class. A lot of kids who join Club Sage, for ages 7-9, are just transitioning from picture books to early chapter books. With Literati, many of these same kids rapidly transform into advanced readers far ahead of their peers and jump to our most advanced club, Club Phoenix, for ages 9-12. 

Q: So, tell me. What's your favorite children's book? 

JE: [Laughs] My favorite choice is a little unusual. It's an Algonquin retelling of the Cinderella story called The Rough-Faced Girl, about a young Native American girl. She is mocked by her attractive but mean-spirited sisters, very similar to the classic Cinderella.  But when she 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:  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. There are subscription boxes for everything, so why not this space? 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 tried a different approach. 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. 

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, circling 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:  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 frequently read to turns into chaos with screens and devices. It's almost the exact opposite effect. These language centers are crucial to support success in school, and 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 offers 5 subscription book clubs for kids ages 0-12. To learn more about the service and become a member, visit

Brain scan of a 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 Literati Club Nova box themed 'Stars, Infinity, and Beyond.' 

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. There's such a power and a magic to it. Remember the smell, the feel of walking into a bookstore? The promise, the aspiration, the excitement of it? I can't think of anything more magical, and 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. But 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 of a preschooler using a screen.  Blue shows massive underdevelopment of white matter. 

JE: Honestly, the reports we’ve gotten have been so impressive that we're considering a scientific study. There's a four-year-old who has been a member for three years and now has a vocabulary so astounding, his preschool teacher called his parents and asked what they're doing at home. 

Photo by Aleks Gajdeczka

Q: Literati also has a donation program that allows people to 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, we also pay for you to reuse that box and send back any pre-loved  books that your kid has outgrown. 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, and it's hugely meaningful to be able to provide that.