Thursday, November 17, 2016

Amazon Rapids—dialogue-only stories for kids

On 11/2/16, Amazon announced an app called Rapids

It intends to deliver a steady stream of original, custom-illustrated short stories aimed at young readers, all told entirely via conversation between/among two to four characters (whether "live" or via text). The story pops up one line at a time, like text messages.

Props to whoever came up with that clever name. "Rapids" fits with the stories (they're fast reads), it fits with Amazon (you may remember that it was a river before a web site), and it fits in the limited space under an app icon (only six characters).

The app costs $2.99/month or $29.99/year; it's available on handheld devices (not desktop or laptop computers). Sure, it's a gimmick…but not exactly a sure-thing one. It's not like kids are clamoring for more dialogue-only stories. 

But yes, it does take advantage of the ubiquitous text message format to help lure young people, even though they typically do not consider their phones a storytelling device. Yet because of smartphones, tweens and teens are doing non-school reading on a more regular basis than previous generations. (I'm not citing statistics; I'm just looking around the restaurant, cinema, airport, park, and yes, library.)

Hand-in-hand with this, they are also writing more. Prior to 2007, many kids wrote nothing over the summer. Now some with smartphones write enough in record time to fill notebooks. They are perpetual autobiographers. We all are now.

However, that doesn't mean they're reading (or writing) more of substance. Text messaging is not thoughtfully constructed, longer-form narrative. It's fragments, often with little regard to grammar or style.

But still, it's literacy.

Kids who love downloading stories into their brains the traditional way—via printed books—will continue to do so, but apps such as Rapids may interest kids who are NOT active readers. Anything that engages reluctant readers (and does not deter existing readers) is a win.

Like many writers, I have been telling stories across multiple platforms (namely books, blogs, and talks) since before smartphones. I can now add apps to that list. Among the stories Rapids launched with are ten I wrote, beginning in May 2016.

We must accept that digital technology is not going away. That's scary for some, but fear is often the core of change. And fear—therefore change—can be a good thing. Look at puberty. Look at moving. Look at subscription models of streaming services. Look at life itself.

When answering machines came along, the populace did not complain that these new devices would ruin the simpler era of missing phone calls. Instead they got used to a new normal.

Though technology is distracting for some kids, it also both motivates and enables more kids to read. It's widely discussed that bookstores are disappearing from rural communities (not to mention more developed areas), and sometimes the nearest library is, well, far. But smartphones seem to be everywhere (I even saw them in slums in India).

And amidst all this, one thing hasn't changed—the role of parents and teachers in setting boundaries. Now when you're waiting in line with bored or grumpy kids, you have an option that is a compromise—kids can have screen time, but TO READ. If the app does its job, it will help some kids realize that's not a chore but a joy.

A story is a story is a story. The delivery method is largely incidental. Filter out the generational emotional attachment to physical books and the effect is the same: you are entertained/educated.

I realize my tone here may seem defensive. That's because I was conflicted at first about participating in this project. Some authors vehemently decry digital storytelling.

But ultimately, what attracted me to contributing to Rapids was that gimmick. I liked the challenge of telling a story completely via dialogue. (Even plays have stage directions.)

In other words, the app is giving writers an opportunity to tell stories in a format that no other outlet offers, at least none I know of.

And it certainly doesn't mean I will stop writing books.

Among the press:

If you tweet about the app, please use #RapidsReader.

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