In the pre-COVID-19 era, children’s personalised books used to be a niche market. Far from their early prototypes that merely had the child’s name stuck on the book cover, today’s personalised books feature entire families – including pets – and claim to boost children’s self-esteem and transform the publishing industry. With a personalised version of Where's Wally, children search for their own faces. Instead of Cinderella’s castle, it is the child’s own castle. The global pandemic has seen the mushrooming of personalised books that help children cope with school closures or processing grief. Children love stories about them, so parents buy the books and publishers produce deeper personalised versions of classical stories. We need children to read more, and we need to innovate the book market. So what is there not to like?
Personalised books turn the traditional model of books on its head: instead of meeting unknown characters and new story-worlds, the readers meet themselves. With the persuasive power of personalisation, publishers find their way into children’s inner worlds quicker than with standard books. Personalised baptism books with “God Loves [Child’s Name]” are one example of how family choices and ideologies become directly imposed on the child. While some adjustments are becoming standard (such as changing the story character’s name or gender), other customisations (such as changing the character’s skin, hair and eye colour) are in the pricier range.
In a recent study, personalised books, as opposed to their non-personalised equivalents, did not help children understand the moral of a story or apply it to their own lives. Personalised books could serve therapeutic purposes, but studies are missing and claims about their healing properties are based on authors’ own evaluations.As a new literacy genre, personalised books leave many open questions. My initial research was about the nitty-gritty of the books’ design: is there a difference between personalised books that use a child’s name versus those that use their photo? Does it matter whether the child makes their own book or if it is produced by their parent or by an unknown publisher? We know that the reading medium influences learning, so is there a difference between digital and print personalised books? These seemingly small cosmetic changes influence how children respond to the books. Studies that compared children’s reading of personalised versus non-personalised books showed that personalisation affects how much attention children pay during the reading, how engaged they are and how much they learn.
We found that well-designed personalised books can enhance children’s vocabulary learning. However, we also found that in their talk about the book, children referred just to themselves. The story was about the children, so they talked about ‘me, me, me’, during the whole reading session. Part of this self-centredness is natural at a young age but part of it is induced by the personalised character of the book. In a recent study, personalised books, as opposed to their non-personalised equivalents, did not help children understand the moral of a story or apply it to their own lives. Personalised books could serve therapeutic purposes, but studies are missing and claims about their healing properties are based on authors’ own evaluations.
Adults differ in their opinions on personalised books and that difference is attributable to their broader views on childhood and their professional background. Designers and publishers of children’s personalised books believe that they create ‘magical experiences’ for children. Teachers, in contrast, told us that they find such products ‘scary’. Then there are differences between countries, which could be explained in terms of the national orientation towards individualistic or collectivist values. Teachers in Japan asked us if they could create a personalised book for the entire class rather than for individual children. After all, isn’t the purpose of literature to make children aware of others’ realities?
Some publishers believe that personalised books are more inclusive than traditional books and could thus solve the problem of White-dominated books portraying privileged lives. Personalised books feature all children including those with disability, coming from ethnic minorities or living in urban and ugly places. Such personalised books fill an important vacuum but the systemic racism in the publishing industry requires systemic changes. Swapping a White child with a Black child does not change the rules of the publishing game.
Most popular personalised books portray children as the heroes and stars of their own stories. This might be empowering to some, and insulting to other, children.Most popular personalised books portray children as the heroes and stars of their own stories. This might be empowering to some, and insulting to other, children. What is certain is that in addition to personalised hero books we need personalised books where the child is a minor character or a villain or a character who experiences distress and no happy ending. The problem is that such books are unlikely to be popular and are therefore unlikely to happen. We are thus heading towards a situation where children see themselves in positive light in their own personalised books and where they see others as failing in non-personalised books. That is a pressure cooker situation for clan mentality. It introduces children to a culture of ‘me versus you’ where shared humanity is replaced by a false narrative of ‘I am the best!’.
The most powerful children’s books are those that hit the sweet spot of personalisation and pluralisation. Such books teach children out-group empathy that occurs with story characters whose experiences are radically different from their own. Children build resilience and capacity for collaboration with characters who are not comfortable or convenient to like. Authors can convey such out-group empathy by crafting strong plots that immerse children in the story, but also challenge them to think beyond their comfort zone. The current personalised books take us from this ideal. They represent an economic interest in individualisation, and might ill prepare young minds for an uncertain future.