One thing I remember about childhood: never having enough time to read all the books I checked out of the library every week. Another thing I remember: one of my brothers being constantly hounded by my mom because he hated reading. Every kid is different, and not all of them think of reading as a fun activity.
But encouraging kids to read is important: In the U.S., about one in five makes it to high school without learning to read. This impacts their ability to hold jobs and to earn a living for the rest of their lives.
Reading has taken a big hit these days because we think of it largely as a format issue. Kids don’t read books or comics or magazines now; they read phones and tablets. What they’re reading is another question entirely. Today, Amazon, the largest retailer of books (in all formats) in the world, is trying to combat illiteracy with an app for kids that tells short stories. In text messages.
Called Rapids (as in fast and short), Amazon’s answer to “My kid won’t read!” is a subscription service that sends short stories each month to kids’ phones over a series of text-message-like exchanges. Think: “Hey, Romeo … hey, Romeo. What’s up? Where are you?”
I want to give Amazon credit for effort, but I’m not sure lowering expectations for what constitutes reading is the answer. Though this could encourage some kids to get onboard for a story or two, what it seems to do is let most kids off the hook.
Reading is supposed to be a commitment, and it’s a mostly solitary activity, even for very young children. It’s a time suck, and that is part of its appeal and its payoff. It’s an escape from the phone with its constant social anxiety and need for input. The format of books — whether on paper or a screen — doesn’t matter too much. But the basic activity, where one sits down and reads a story, actively, does.
Of course, the Rapids app is fine for “on the go” cases, and of course I’m all for anything that stokes a kid’s imagination. But in its role as bookseller, Amazon leaves me wanting more.