It Shouldn’t Work, But It Does: The 21st Century Personalized Book
Let’s set the scene for a moment. It’s the early 1980s. 3-2-1 Contact is giving young children an unceasing stream of Bloodhound Gang episodes. Men have not yet shaved the mustaches they acquired in the 1970s. Bicycles remain almost universally helmet-free. And in Kalamazoo, Michigan a little girl is given a very special present.
Okay. That’s a lie. Not the mustaches or Bloodhound Gang parts, but the “special present” idea. It wasn’t special. Not by half. What it was was the world’s cheapest gift/method of product placement. Recall if you will the days when Sesame Street was a fantastic television program but a simply terrible publisher of books. With the admittedly notable exception of The Monster At the End of This Book, if a book was published by Sesame Street it was met with near universal hisses and boos. They were cheap. They were pandering. They were, to put it plain, gawdawful. And the lowest of the low was their personalized books.
They looked like this:
Imagine if you will a book with pages as thin as cheap toilet paper that are glued together. Into these pages a typewritten sheet was slotted. That sheet fit in between the pages so that the name on it, a single name, would appear on the die-cut pages inside. Then you would read the story and discover that the child who received this gift was the star of the book. The plot of my book, if I can remember it, had something to do with a race. All the Sesame Street characters were there and the winner at the end of the day was . . . me! Yes, the book said it, so it had to be true. Never mind that I was not drawn into the story at all, making my presence implied rather than overt. The name “Betsy” was printed on the page, clear as crystal. It was a cheap and tawdry affair.
Naturally I adored it.
Fast-forward to the 21st Century. Sesame Street continues to make gawdawful personalized books (Google it if you don’t believe me) and though I loved my crusty little SS title as a kid, as a well-trained children’s librarian working in New York City I was clearly above such trappings. Let the dirty masses have their personalized books, quoth I. My child will live in a spotless universe where nary a stray Pinkalicious or Barbie tome will mar her precious mind (check back in with me in four years to see how THAT little plan goes).
Not long after the birth of the aforementioned kiddo I received an offer. A publisher called MarbleSpark wanted to send my kid a personalized book. Oog. I knew where that was going. Images of typewritten pages and gaudy art came to mind. But I think I was in a post-childbirth haze of happy mellow feelings towards my fellow man so I agreed and told the name of the child to the company. Only later did I question the wisdom of this act. Still, it was too late. The die was cast. The book was in the mail.
I got it not long thereafter and the first thing I noticed was the illustrator. It was Brad Sneed. Sneed! I knew that guy. Not personally, admittedly, but this was the fellow behind books like that Dial Books version of Thumbelina or the Simon & Schuster Big Bad Wolves at School. In other words, a real artist! What the heck was he doing making personalized books? So I picked the puppy up and flipped through it. Oh man.
See, my in-box is just a continual torrent of folks asking me to talk up their products on this site. And I’m pretty darn good at saying no to each and every one of them. But there’s always that rare exception that gives them hope. Meet today’s rare exception because you see, Following Featherbottom (the name of the personalized book my daughter received) isn’t just tolerable. It’s actually pretty dang great.
The basic plot premise is that a stork goes around the globe finding the letters in your kid’s name. First and last. My kid has a lot of repeated letters so I just assumed that they’d use the same art for the repeats (one letter appears three times). But the crazy thing is that they’re prepared for that eventuality. So when Featherbottom goes to look for the “L” he goes to three different L-related locations. The book rhymes well, the art is really good, and there’s an odd thrill in seeing the name slowly appear at the bottom of each page. Oh, and it isn’t racist. You laugh but it’s amazing how often cannibals make their way into children’s books even today. Seriously.
We figured out we liked the book when we didn’t give it to the child. She’s tiny, for crying out loud! She wouldn’t appreciate it yet. Appreciate a personalized book! Even saying it sounds silly to me, but there you are. MarbleSpark is smart with how they display their buzz, and honestly the stuff doesn’t look cheap. I mean, they don’t have colored endpapers or anything cool like that, but otherwise the quality is above average.
So there you have it. I like it. And that’s the long and short of that.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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