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.
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.)
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.
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.)