Goodnight Ninja? Knuffle Blobfish? Children’s Books Get the Algorithm Treatment

A chaotic time-traveling owl named Hoot is at the center of the new children’s book “Time Buddies,” which is now breaking records on the online reading platform Epic.

The digital comic book passed one million reads in its first five days last week. Epic predicted as much. It engineered the book to become a hit with kids ages 6 to 10 by basing its new owl heroine partly on children’s preferences and reading habits on the site. When a kid’s sticky fingers search for something to read, Epic captures that activity and feeds the information into its book recommendation engine—a tool that also informs the creation of new titles in-house.

Epic’s team knows that children prefer owls to chickens and chickens to hedgehogs. Kids hunt for unicorns almost twice as often as they look for mermaids. Volcanoes are more popular than tsunamis, which are more popular than earthquakes. The Titanic is bigger than cowboys, pizza is bigger than cake, science is bigger than art and “poop” is bigger than all of them.

During the pandemic, Epic has more than doubled its reach to 50 million children globally, most of them in the U.S. The online subscription children’s book service, founded in 2013 and based in Redwood City, Calif., is free to schools and has become a fixture of remote classrooms across the country by offering an easily accessible library of books and educational videos.

Epic now possesses a trove of data on children, a group famously difficult to track. The company has access to real-time data on how many children read a book, how long they engage with it, how often they pick it up and put it down and when their interest starts to flag. Epic says its data is anonymous and aggregated, meaning it is studied in larger groupings without identifying information for individual children. But watchdog groups have raised concerns about privacy and the particularly thorny question of collecting data on children.

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