Personalized Books for Children: What You Need to Know
Books made for individual children deserve your attention and involvement.
Posted September 25, 2018
The word “personalized” suggests something that is tailored to individuals. "Personalized news" is a curated stream of information for adults; "personalized books" are more often fictional stories for children. Unlike personalized news, this fictional personalization is achieved by adding children’s names, characteristics and avatars to children’s stories. They are not streamed on an individual’s device but are bespoke products created for specific children.
The wide proliferation of print-on-demand services and the personal data economy have turned personalization into a lucrative publishing market. Some personalization options were available in children’s literature prior to the digital revolution. For instance, children could choose their own endings with the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. However, a digital format offers seamless use of personal data, potentially limitless choices of story-line options, and a higher-definition appearance of images and photographs.
There are many kinds of personalized books. Some are classic fairytales that replace the main protagonist’s name with the child’s. More sophisticated versions include the child’s name as part of the overall plot, for example the Lost My Name title, while others still allow for personalization of various story characters, for example pets or fictional animals. Digital books can expand the personalization options to children’s own voice-overs, digital drawings (for example, Mr Glue Personalised Stories) or by allowing a flexible choice of endings (see the Little Red Riding Hood by Nosy Crow).
The different ways of adding personal details to children’s books influence how young readers consider their relationship with them. Personalization can both enhance and diminish a child’s reading experience. Some emerging findings on personalized books highlight this duality.
Several charity-led initiatives use personalized books in a celebratory way. Children’s attention to self can be harnessed for boosting confidence, self-esteem, and sense of belonging to the world of books. When children see their name or photo in a book, they are more likely to pick it up. Minority groups are largely underrepresented in children’s literature and personalized books can play a part in addressing this lack of diversity. There are some cognitive benefits too: In our study, we found that personalization can be used to help children learn new words, perhaps through greater attention paid to the personalized pages.
However, the limitations cannot be ignored. Children’s attention to self, for example, encourages self-focus, evidenced in children’s increased self-referential speech when they read personalized books. Traditional, non-personalized books expand children’s horizons to unknown story characters and their worlds, but such an expansion cannot happen if the main character is the child. Given their individualized character, personalized books do not fare well in shared reading settings, such as group reading in schools or group discussion at book clubs.
Furthermore, a significant limitation that is often overlooked with personalized books, and personalization more broadly, is a lack of agency. The lack of children’s active involvement, volition, and choice in making personalized literature for children is striking in the current commercial models. With a few clicks, a bespoke gift in the form of a personalized book is created for the child rather than with the child. Publishers rely on children’s surprise to find themselves inside a book and capitalize on this novelty. Publishers call this surprise a “magical experience,” whereas some teachers find it “scary.” The difference in adults’ perspectives on personalization is perhaps not surprising considering the lack of involvement of teachers in the business.
Personalization affects all modern consumer practices, but when it comes to children’s experiences we need to be particularly careful. The “echo chamber” effect of personalized news serves as a powerful warning against self-centered modes of personalization. Personalized books are not about cosmetic changes, but a significant breakaway from a traditional model of reading and publishing. To ensure the change is a long-lasting, positive innovation, we need more collaborative and participatory models of personalization.
These models should involve children’s parents, teachers and significant others with the creation process. In our project, where children co-produced their books with their family and community members, the final product was not “my” but “our story,” which could be shared with others; archived and celebrated with wider communities. When children are authors of others’ stories, they learn to collaborate, combine reading and writing, and listen to each other. These more enriched ways of using personalization ought not to be replaced by commercial models.
If you are a teacher/educator, parent/caregiver or a publisher/designer interested in personalized books, three key questions to ask are:
1. Is personalization used to draw the child’s attention to high-quality content (in terms of the book’s language, illustrations and story line)?
2. Is children’s data (their names, dates of birth, addresses etc.) collected and kept safe by a company that can be trusted?
3. To what extent were children and their loved ones involved in the production of books about them?
These questions address the need for negotiating the difficult balance between innovation and traditional values. As AI technology and the personal data economy progress, we need to be formulating answerable questions for now, and visionary questions for the future of personalization.
Kucirkova, N., & Flewitt, R. (2018). The future-gazing potential of digital personalization in young children’s reading: views from education professionals and app designers. Early Child Development and Care, 1-15.
Kucirkova, N. (2016). Personalisation: A theoretical possibility to reinvigorate children’s interest in storybook reading and facilitate greater book diversity. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17(3), 304-316.