Amazon’s Alexa is expanding the ways it can play with kids — and this year the smart assistant has a new story to tell with an interactive physical storybook, starring the same Owl and Dragon cartoon character mascots that decorate Amazon’s current Echo Dot Kids speakers.
The book “Owl & Dragon, A Magical Adventure” is a paperback picture book for young readers that is designed to be read while an Echo speaker plays an Alexa skill program called “Readyland.” There have been other Readyland books released since 2021, but Owl and Dragon is the first book that gives Amazon’s speaker characters their own story — and if successful, it opens up the potential for Amazon to expand these characters into more forms of media.
The characters Owl and Dragon are modeled after the purple dragon and teal owl designs printed on the 2022 release of the Echo Dot Kids speakers. The book from Readyland costs $15 and is available for pre-order today, releasing Sept. 30. The book’s printed story can stand alone on its own if you read each page, but you won’t get the full story experience without downloading the Readyland skill and listening to the audio adventure.
The idea is that a young kid could independently start it by asking any Alexa-enabled device in the home to “Play Readyland,” but a parent could also play the audio side from their smartphone with the free Alexa app.
I tested the book with my own kids: my 7-year-old daughter, who already is an independent reader of chapter books, and my 4-year-old son, who is just starting to learn how to read. Using the Readyland book became an activity they enjoyed sharing together. Even though I never had them play with an Alexa device before, they both picked up on how to interact with it immediately using the Echo Dot Kids speaker — and they both were hooked on seeing what happened on every page, shouting out answers to the voice question prompts.
You can think of Readyland as an audio entertainment program, where kids will hear a story with different voices, music and games woven throughout. Kids help the characters make decisions by answering specific prompts during their adventure. Kids can read along the one or two sentences printed on a page, but most of the experience is listening. The program tells kids when to turn to the next page, and kids have to say “Ready!” when they have turned the page and are ready to keep going with the story.
I liked how when you needed to pause the story, you could tell Readyland to stop anytime. The next time the child asks Alexa to open the Readyland program, it asks them if they want to pick up where the story left off.
I was also impressed at how the programming is savvy enough to understand the nuances of how little kids talk, and it has patience for little ones that may take awhile to answer or may not use a word that the program is expecting. It will never say a kid is wrong — if the word isn’t recognized by the program, a character acknowledges something was said and pivots to the next point in the story. The Readyland program will give different nuggets of details about the story or characters depending on what a kid says (many times the story is asking them to call out an image they see on the page, and kids have several choices on what to say).
Alexa has found its way into the playroom before, such as through board games and pretend kitchens, targeting parents that may already use an Echo speaker in the home. But this time, the play points to specific speakers. The book references the round Owl and Dragon speakers on the first and last page — which each cost $60 and come with parental controls and a year’s subscription to Amazon’s Kids+ service. (You don’t need those special speakers to read the books, but they look more fun.)
Seeing my kids use the Owl & Dragon book brought back my childhood memories of reading with Teddy Ruxpin, an animated toy bear from 1985 that told audio stories with music and sound effects of his adventures. Back then, kids like me would follow along with Teddy’s story with matching storybooks that had only a few sentences. The audio wasn’t streamed over a Wi-Fi speaker, it was played from a cassette tape in his belly. And the books back then made barely much sense without the Teddy Ruxpin audio to fill the gaps between pages.
Teddy got points for being a cool fuzzy bear that moved its mouth to talk. But kids today can actually talk back to these books using Alexa’s voice recognition smarts, and the Readyland skill gives you something different in the story depending how you interact.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say mom and dad don’t need to read bedtime stories anymore — but Readyland just feels like a nicer way to give digital entertainment to a kid without handing them an iPad screen.