Things to Avoid: Personalized Kids’ Books

by Tom B.

On some level, I get the appeal of personalized children’s books. The idea is that your child sees his or her name in print, they get excited, they get engaged… I get that concept. I’ll even admit that I’ve seen the concept work before – my wife once read through an entire Roald Dahl novel, switching out the name of the lead character for my daughter’s name (they’re similar names), and my daughter loved it. So I understand why there’s a whole cottage industry of companies that specialize in personalizing children’s books. The concept is appealing – I can definitely see why it’s such a popular baby shower gift item. The concept seems sound. I just, personally, haven’t seen it done well yet.

Winnie the Pooh Personalized Book

Your child was never meant to go to Hundred Acre Woods. At least, not like this...

Maybe I’m just being cynical. Or I haven’t seen the good ones yet. (If you know of a really great one, tell me and I will gladly eat a heaping plate of crow.) But, on a whole, personalized kids’ books just seem pretty damn awkward. They normally come in two varieties – books where they break down the spelling of your child’s name (“C is for clever, H is for helpful…”) or books where they actually try to shoehorn your child into the story. For me, the name books are the far less offensive of the two options. Those seem to the purest in terms of selling the concept of “your kid wants to see their name in print.” You can see an example of one of those books here – from ISeeMe.com in a personalized book called My Very Own Pirate Tale. (The website proudly crows that “Brooke Shields, Courteney Cox-Arquette and Jessica Alba purchase our books as children’s gifts!” See? US Weekly is right. They ARE just like us.)

The “story” and art for My Very Own Pirate Tale is mediocre at best – why not just buy your kid a copy of How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and David Shannon? It has plot! And characters! And it’s funny! – but, sure, I can see how some kids might actually benefit from seeing their names broken down letter by letter like that. It wouldn’t be my favorite vehicle for teaching kids about the letters in their own names, but, fine, if it works for your child, so be it. I can accept those titles as a very specialized and expensive form of alphabet books, although, c’mon, be honest, your kid is going to be MUCH more interested in the elements of their own name rather than the skeleton of a half-hearted pirate story.

However, the “working your kid into the plot” personalized books are twenty times worse than the “breaking down your name” books. In these titles, the plot is actually a selling point – YOUR child will go on an adventure with the Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus, etc. – so they can’t just hide behind the fact that they remembered all of the letters in your child’s name. The problem is these “stories” pretty much embrace the lowest common denominator in terms of storytelling. Maybe it’s because no author worth their salt would actually want to put their heart and soul into crafting a story where the lead character is called “INSERT_YOUR_NAME_HERE”. But the stories in these things… dear lord, in the ones I’ve seen, the level of storytelling reminds me of those Hostess ads from the 1970s where Captain America stops an alien invasion by giving them a heaping pile of Hostess Fruit Pies. (That ad actually exists. Click here for a great archive of those old ads with some hilarious commentary included.)

Captain America vs. Hostess Fruit Pies

Ever wonder what happened to the people who wrote these? I bet they write personalized kids' books now.

And the worst is seeing how awkwardly the companies jam your child’s personal information into their filler text masquerading as a story. My mother ordered my daughter a personalized My Adventures with Winnie the Pooh book a few years back – you can order one yourself through Walmart here (insert your own commentary about that) – and the company asks for several standard pieces of personal information. They want the child’s name, gender, birthday, home address, and the names of three friends. Those details are then “worked” into the story as awkwardly as possible. It generally goes like this: Winnie the Pooh acts out a bare-bones version of one of his well-known stories (let’s say, getting stuck in Rabbit’s house), but this time, he’s accompanied by Piglet and your child. During the story, Pooh and your child’s “character” take several inexplicable breathers where they discuss their upcoming birthdays or how Rabbit’s house reminds them of “INSERT YOUR ADDRESS HERE.”

The BEST part is when they try to work your child’s friends into the story. My mom (bless her) ordered her book over the phone and made sure to carefully spell out the names of three of my daughter’s good pals – Tallulah, Finnegan, and Diesel. (OK, I realize those names aren’t Jack, John, and Jane, but she SPELLED them out.) When our personalized Pooh book finally arrived, my daughter was confused to find herself walking through the Hundred Acre Woods in the company of Tallulia, Fennigan, and Denzel (?). And, hilariously, when my beleaguered mom tried this again a year later with a personalized Disney Princess book, the EXACT same thing happened.

The plot-driven “add your child to the story” books just don’t bring a lot to the table. If your kid is too young to read for themselves, just add their name into a real story written by a real author, and they won’t be able to tell the difference. Your Child and the Chocolate Factory, Your Child and the Magic Pebble, Your Child and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – trust me, reading aloud, you’ll be able to work in details of your child’s life WAY more seamlessly than those companies can. And, if your child is old enough to read for themselves, will they really care about those personalized books anymore? Will they really care if Buzz Lightyear mentions their home address during a break in the Toy Story 3 personalized storybook? If they really want to see their names in print, there are better options. There are lots of self-publishing sites right now, where it’s fairly easy to create a your own book, or you could create a custom Shutterfly picture book where you can create your own story text to accompany actual photographs of your kid. (That would probably be the most cost-effective way to handle it.) Yes, you won’t have access to an illustrator, but the art in these personalized books isn’t exactly David Wieser-level stuff to begin with, so it’s not a huge loss.

To Kill a Mockingbird

"Does it have to be a mockingbird? I have a parakeet. How about 'To Kill a Parakeet'?"

Plus – and get ready to see my crazy side – there’s this whole other, vaguely sinister aspect of book personalization that has always made me uncomfortable, particularly now that, thanks to digital readers, we’re getting further and further away from owning hard copies of our favorite books. Because, at some point, we’re going to be able to access those Kindle files or Nook files that we’ve purchased and, through Adobe or some other suite of tools, make changes to them. It’ll start off cute and innocuous – “I made it ‘Dave and the Giant Peach’. I just did a search-and-replace and swapped out Dave for James… he LOVES it.” And then people will go further. Changing Scout’s name in To Kill a Mockingbird (“Her name is Jenny now! And I gave Atticus a cell phone!”), changing the ethnicity of the characters in The Invisible Man (“Now it speaks to me even more that the oppressed characters are half-French and half-Maltese!”), editing out bits they don’t particularly care for (“I just think Anne Frank could’ve benefitted from a better editorial team, that’s all.”). It’s a slippery slope.

(OK, I’ve taken my pill and my crazy side is receding now.)

That’s a very long-winded way of saying that I just don’t understand the upside of the personalization argument. Yes, you see your name on a printed page, but give me five seconds with a laptop and a printer, and I can manufacture the same experience. My issue is that the personalization seems to come at a cost. At the moment, you can only personalize REALLY bad or (at the best) mediocre books. And, for the really great books out there, would you really want to mess with their DNA just to insert some familiar names and addresses? I don’t see the benefit.

It sounds like a cute baby shower gift, but, folks, you can do better. Let’s leave the personalization for the “This Book Belongs To” page and stop exposing kids to sub-par reading material just because a publisher promises to spell their name right. (They lie.)

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalia Kucirkova February 6, 2017 at 8:48 am

I’m researching the educational value of personalised books, in print and digital formats. The project is funded through ESRC in the UK and aims to provide a balanced perspective on personalised books, taking into account their motivational value to encourage children to read as well as their learning benefits or limitations. You can see some of my previous empirical articles on this theme in ResearchGate or http://www.natalia-kucirkova.com/early-personalisation
Please contact me if you would like to be part of the study, we are keen to speak to designers, publishers, teachers and parents and other researchers in this area. Thank you, Natalia

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Sharon McBride November 12, 2015 at 10:12 am

You could have saved yourself a lot of typing. These books are novelty items that young children (and a lot of teenagers) love. For all the people creating these little books keep up the good work! I have bought them for my own children, grandchildren and now great-grand children as well as children of friends and family and I have the recipients have always been so excited, never once have I had a child disappointed, they really don’t care about the quality they care about seeing themselves in a story.

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martha September 23, 2015 at 11:56 am

A child’s library needs variety. It would be horrible for this to be the only kind of book. But together with Dahl, Lewis and Seuss, a full range of books can be a joy.
In time a well read child will notice poor diction and spelling and you know you did well. They will note the trendy selections of Scholastic have sentences that are not well written. But, just make the playing field large and open, and a novel book with their name in it will be a sweet memory of someone who cared about them and reading when they were young.

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Sara May 15, 2015 at 1:29 pm

And I’m now reading that almost every single comment on here is from authors trying to prove that they are the exception. Lol

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Sara May 15, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Perhaps something like this is a little better?
https://www.etsy.com/shop/SaVieShoppe?ref=ss_profile

It is my book, so of course I’m biased.

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Yin K January 9, 2015 at 8:24 pm

Perhaps this argument applies to older children reading classics but I would add my voice to those who replied to disagree.
We order from http://www.kidherostories.com where our children’s names AND faces (photos) appear in the story. The pictures are beautiful realistic photo quality- not cartoon sketches. best of all we get a new story book every week.

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Carrie Viilhelmsen March 30, 2014 at 4:14 pm

I have produced this type of book for over 11 years, and I must say that this article does not represent the many small companies that incorporate the child’s name into the many educational, adventure, or other story lines. I have 1500+ customers and have never had a customer provide poor feedback on my gifts.
You can see the collection we have at http://www.thatsmystorybook.com and you can decide for yourself.

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Lorraine Glanz December 17, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I came across this piece which I know is a couple of years old now. I invite you to look at our personalized books and hopefully change your mind, or at least make some exceptions. Our stories are written and illustrated by a local South African artist, and our books are made up on order using the child’s name and photo.

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Derrek B October 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I too am going to have to disagree especially for younger kids. One of the things a parent tries to do with young kids is get them engaged in reading. Nothing pulls a kid (or adult) into a book or conversation more than hearing their own name. I see it constantly in my adult life. When you’re talking to someone and use their name, they pay more attention. The same is true with kids. When they see their name “in lights” it draws them in more to the story.

I’m not saying that should be everything they read. But, it adds a little something extra to the story.

I will have to agree about the classics though. They shouldn’t be touched.

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Jennifer April 18, 2012 at 9:28 am

You wrote: “Because, at some point, we’re going to be able to access those Kindle files or Nook files that we’ve purchased and, through Adobe or some other suite of tools, make changes to them.”

It’s already happened for paperback books – there is a site out there offering “personalised classic novels”. http://www.ustarnovels.com/personalised-classic-novels/

Yes, you can now be Emma Woodhouse in “Emma”, except I guess it would then be called “Tomasina” or whatever your name is. They replace the main characters’ names with whatever details you provide. The concept is horrifying to me.

They also do personalised romance and vampire novels but I care a whole lot less about those genres, so those ones doesn’t bother me. But messing with classics (purely because they are out of copyright and the company CAN), is just appalling.

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Tom B. April 18, 2012 at 9:31 am

The idea of personalized classics chills me to my very core. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I will now spend the rest of the year trying to forget that they exist. :)

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Kelly Mistry October 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm

This is simply not true we have over 50 personalized books and we have great feedback from over 500+ customers. You can see the collection we have at http://www.myfairytalebooks.com and see for yourself.

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Tom B. October 17, 2011 at 10:55 am

I can totally see how some people might love personalized kids books.

My piece is just expressing my opinion and, in my experience, I have yet to find examples of personalized kids books that my kid would enjoy.

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