Lost My Name, a charming tale of a child on a quest to find their missing name, sold an astonishing 132,616 copies, knocking Julia Donaldson off the top spot for the first time in eight years.
Of all the things it’s possible to do with digital books, one of them is ‘Put Me In The Story’ functionality. Readers can:
- Take pictures of themselves, then superimpose their own faces on a character’s body
- Use their own names in place of a generic character name
- Include their own family members in the story
- Choose the make up of their family unit
- Photographs of local setting as background
- Personalised intratext, for example with the town’s name changed to that of the reader
The list goes on. Some of these personalisations are easier to implement than others, naturally.
Digital Book World asks whether the personalisation of digital stories is likely to become mainstream, or will it continue to be ‘niche’?
Also through my feed this morning is another article on dolls marketed at girls, a topic which has been interesting me ever since I gave birth to a daughter: Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought. I’m not American so I don’t have any sort of history with American Girl dolls, but the article tells me that whereas once these dolls were good role models, girls are now stuck with ‘the dolls they deserve’. Now you can buy a doll in your child’s own image:
Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection [since Mattel took over the brand] has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing. … Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past! … Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.
Less has been written about the personalisation of digital books, but I feel the same sarcastic tone could equally be applied. Throughout the entire history of human storytelling haven’t children been able to empathise with characters in a story without needing to literally see their own faces in it? Is this really such a struggle? Are we applauding narcissism?
Personally, I am struggling with some cognitive dissonance when it comes to the personalisation of digital books. Because my thoughts are unformed, here they are in bullet point format:
- Yes, children do need to ‘see themselves’ in picturebooks. This is exactly why I have a problem with the disproportionate number of white boys represented in literature.
- The personalisation trend may be one response to accusations of symbolic annihilation of PoC and female characters.
- Regarding picturebooks and illustrated texts, some kinds of art styles are already perfectly good at allowing readers to see themselves in the characters. I’m talking about the simplistic style of art in which faces, while very expressive, are reminiscent of a smiley emoticon, and can therefore represent almost any character. Other art styles (such as mine, in Midnight Feast) are more detailed, and the character looks like ‘a certain individual’ rather than the everygirl. It is harder for a reader to see themselves in such a character.
- But how similar must a character look to a reader in order for the reader to empathise?
- Might it not be a very good thing if white children were empathising with PoC characters, and boys were more frequently given the opportunity to put themselves in the place of girls, and not just ‘tomboy’ characters — I mean boys putting themselves in the minds of girls doing girl things?
- Is an interactive personalised story inherently metafictive, in that the reader is constantly reminded that they are not in fact living inside the pages of a story, but looking in at a rather gimmicky storytelling technique? Might this instead have the opposite effect to that intended ie. a vicarious, immersive, empathetic experience?
I have no answers, only suspicions:
- There’s a slight danger that the personalisation of stories might absolve publishers from offering genuine diversity in main characters.
- Some stories suit personalisation better than other types of stories.
- Personalisation may suit some ages better than others — culturally we have a lot more tolerance for egocentricity in preschoolers than in, say, teens.