Personalised Books: Exciting But Also Risky Times for Children's Stories

22/09/2015 10:48 | Updated 21 September 2016

Since the advent of children's books, the purpose has been to challenge children's thinking with ideas they may have not come across or engaged with before and transport them in the secondary world of imagination. Personalised books turn this model on its head: Julie gets a book made for Julie, Jack a book for Jack.

Children will be naturally more drawn to books written about them or those that they can personalise with their own pictures and text. But if we rewrite all classical stories as adventures of Jack and Julie, are we not going to lose the very essence of fiction - of motives, characters, different behaviours, events and outcomes?

In 2014, Jack Jensen, president of The McEvoy Group said that personalisation is a 'rapidly growing publishing category' and he wasn't wrong. A children's publisher of personalised books, Lost My Name, reported in 2014 sales of more than 132k copies of their personalised books in the UK. This year in December, Lost My Name launches a new title which will be the first personalised book ever read from space.

Arguably, personalisation offers a great business model: publishers can have a prototype and customise it according to each individual customer. There is a limit here, however, as to scale up, publishers need more than one title to offer to their readers- which is expensive and often leaves small publishers in a deadlock.

That is where digital personalised books come in: with story apps and interactive e-books, readers can vary the content or the sequence of a story, and can add their own photographs, sounds and texts at their will. In Mr Glue stories, for example, children can add speech or music, share the finished customised story online and even print it out as a finished book. In the Cinderella app developed by Nosy Crow, child's selfie can be added to one of the magic mirrors in Cinderella's room. With the Our Story app developed at The Open University, children can personalise any story with any multimedia (pictures, sounds or texts).

Personalisation thus adds a layer of playfulness, authenticity, immediacy to the story and can be a great way to engage the children and caregivers in the process of shared book reading. Parents and teachers can harness the motivational power of personalised books to engage reluctant readers or challenge bookworms. They can co-create digital personalised books for, or with the children, and enjoy the easy, seamless and multimedia way of engaging with stories. However, there are some challenges and complexities here.

First, personalised books are based on the like/like model which is followed by some recommendation systems (e.g. Amazon). These align new content with users' past history and preferences but rarely with content which would widen users' perspectives and challenge them with alternative points of view. Personalised books serve as a starting point for children to get hooked on story creation with themselves as heroes; but they need to learn to understand and feel empathy for others' viewpoints and behaviours. Parents and teachers therefore need to optimise children's exposure to personalised with non-personalised books.

Second, it is often not clear who owns the data a child uploads into his/her book, where they are stored and who controls them. Children's pictures and other personal data can be misappropriated. Photos taken with GPS-enabled smartphone or tablet have tags that can give away a child's precise location. It is essential that publishers of personalised books and digital producers are clear and transparent about the entire cycle of user data.

Lastly, this generation of children describe personalised books as a magical moment. For the next generation, however, personalisation options may become an expectation for each book. It is likely that we will soon see personalised augmented reality children's books, where by holding a phone or tablet over the book, a child would get customised content with loaded images or links to other reading resources. The ceiling is getting very high very rapidly, making it difficult for parents, teachers and grandparents to participate in children's story experiences.
The history of personalised books, especially digital personalised books, is too short to know their benefits and limitations. Adults' role is essential in guiding children to understand that stories should show diversity, invite co-reading and the exchange of ideas. In other words, we can place the child in the driving seat but we should not let them drive alone to a new territory.

I wrote before that children can fluidly negotiate digital and non-digital media, carrying their favourite story characters from one to another format. Although the debates about the future of children's books tend to be dominated by a narrow focus on digital versus print format, what makes a difference to children's learning are new features brought to the fore by touch-screen devices such as interactivity and personalisation. These features influence parent-child engagement in the shared reading activity, children's learning of language and vocabulary, and story comprehension. That is why personalisation has a huge potential, but also why it requires new theories of reading, frequent dialogue and co-production partnerships between academics and children's publishers, and a degree of open mindedness from all of us.