Most parents I know have rules about how much time their kids can use tablets or smartphones. And if not rules, they have guilt. How dare we let kids waste time on shitty mobile games when they could be playing outside or reading (never mind that games can improve hand-eye coordination, critical thinking, and teach kids about failure and success)? Amazon Rapids is a new(ish) (it launched in November, but is trying something new just now) mobile app that aims to work with kids’ fondness for tablet time to get them reading and reading things they really want.
I talked to the Amazon Rapids team at SDCC about their new “signature stories,” which offer kids new stories featuring characters they already know and love, from Amazon Original cartoons like Niko and the Sword of Light and Danger and Eggs. That sounds a bit like oh-too-convenient corporate synergy, but Amazon Rapids has a deep library of original fiction by children’s authors, educators, and illustrators and is working to bring new properties to its “signature” line. So expect to see more of your kid’s favourite cartoons be mined for Amazon Rapids’ short fiction.
When I say that Rapids is trying to work with kids’ familiarity with and affection for smartphones and tablets, I don’t mean that they dashed together an iBooks for kids. Rapids is a bit different; it’s deliberately designed for reading on mobile devices and mimics the kind of communication kids are already used to doing on those devices. The stories are all dialogue-based and take the form of text or chat conversations between two or more characters. Illustrations pepper the text and are meant to help younger readers better interpret the emotional content of the text. Kids can also get added context through an audio option; they can read along with voice actors, who in the case of the “signature series” are the same actors who voice those characters on the show. While reading (or listening) they can click on words they don’t know to get a definition and build a personalized glossary over time that they can reference. The whole interface is as easy to use as in-built smartphone like texting, talking, and listening to music. It’s very obviously designed with kids in mind; the interface is simple and clean and the icons are all big enough that less coordinated younger kids should be able to use them with ease.
It’s hard to measure engagement with books. We know when books are purchased or taken out from the library. Parents and educators can talk to kids about the books their reading, of course, which is a way to measure engagement, but it’s not one writers and publishers can use. The cool thing about the move to digital reading (and viewing) is that engagement is much easier to measure and understand. The only sticking point is that some platforms are reluctant to share that data. I asked the Amazon Rapids team what they’ve learned from the user data the app generates. They told me that engagement is high; kids are reading on the go and then coming back later to read more in depth, sometimes finishing complete series. That may be a balm for parents worried that the in-brief format that Rapids is going for won’t do much for their kids’ education or even to capture their attention. Because so much of the work on Amazon Rapids is being done in house, or contracted by Rapids itself, creators are more likely to be able to take advantage of that data. If the platform were to expand, though, I’m not sure if that courtesy would extend to teams associated with rival broadcasters.
But the Rapids team thinks of it more in terms of providing a platform for creators to tell stories in a new way. Writing a chat script with young readers is different from writing picture books or cartoons. Writers have to keep in mind that kids will be controlling the pace of the story even more than in other formats. They can take the stories bubble by bubble or scroll through them continuously. In some ways, what Amazon Rapids does is provide a platform for creators to develop reading games, though one with limited features. Rapids defines the limits of what is possible in these games, with an eye to creating a standard experience, one that’s easy for kids to understand and that can provide data to them and parents. That Rapids seems to be working to gamify reading may put some parents and educators off, but as far as they’re concerned, anything that gets kids reading, and especially enjoying reading, is worthwhile. And on that, I have to agree with them.