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Personalized children's books have long been popular gifts for holidays and birthdays. Adults get to feel they're giving something unique and kids love anything that's, well, all about them.
Now, new graphic design and printing technologies have made it easier and less costly to do more sophisticated personalization than was possible even five years ago.
We went online to check out five of the latest crop of offerings by ordering books for our 2-year-old, Eva. Each of the sites offers a limited number of original books that can include information, and sometimes photos, of your child based on details you provide when placing the order. The books also allow you to add an inscription and date.
These are still not inexpensive presents. Prices ranged from $30 to $46, plus as much as $14 for standard shipping. It's important to read the fine print, or at least the FAQs page, before you buy. It can take as long as 10 to 14 days to produce the books and up to two weeks more for standard shipping. These details managed to elude us on almost every site until after we'd completed our orders. Two of the Web sites took credit cards only, and one gave you the option of PayPal or a credit card, while two accepted PayPal only.
It was hard to pin down the right age for some of these books. The more readily children can recognize their name—first and last—the more they'll appreciate the text and illustrations that incorporate it. But the stories themselves were sometimes either too sophisticated, or too simplistic, for the age the book seemed right for. Most of the sites let you read through the book online before ordering, a feature we suggest you take advantage of to make sure it's a good fit for the child you have in mind.
Three of the companies were single-product ventures, run by the authors or illustrators. These produce colorful, high-quality hardcover books. But their customer service can be quirky.
When several days went by without any order confirmation from Kidsworth Press, we emailed customer service and got an answer from the book's author. She checked with the printer herself and emailed us back to explain that the printing had been delayed, and later to let us know when our purchase finally shipped. She upgraded our shipping to priority mail at no extra charge.
"The Octopus Book" from Minime Books, another one-book shop, was the only one we could personalize with photos—you can choose to add a photo of just the child or pictures of Mom and Dad, too. We chose the latter, even though it made this book the priciest of the bunch.
We had to be comfortable cropping individual faces from the photos we wanted to use and uploading them to the Minime Web site. We were worried that the varied backgrounds from the vacation photos we chose would look bad, but the photos are so closely cropped by the company that background matters less than having clear photos with the person looking straight at the camera.
We thought our grown-up faces imposed on octopus bodies looked goofy, but our toddler responded immediately to seeing herself and her parents in this new context. And she liked the rich, cartoon-like illustrations. The text—two to four lines a page over 20 pages—didn't hold her interest and we wound up improvising the story, which we were fine with.
The "It's Great To Be..." book from Kidsworth Press seemed excessively earnest. It features the child's name on every second to fourth page of text and plugs a generic version of your child (a blond Caucasian girl, a brown-haired Asian boy, and so on) into the action. Kidsworth claims its book will "inspire, affirm, encourage, instill, motivate, uplift and empower children." Noble intentions, but we think it's overdone.
The first page shows the featured child delivering crates of food and aid supplies by helicopter to a cheerful family in a developing country. The following pages portray the child as an Olympic gold-medal winner, a Supreme Court justice, a climber of Mount Everest, a developing-world doctor, a fireman who rescues dogs, and the president of the United States. The 30-page book has just two lines of text on each page, but the child receiving it has to be old enough to grasp the context of the scenes and to begin having fanciful ideas about what he or she wants to do after growing up.
We had a hard time pinning down the right age for the book from Frecklebox, which had the biggest selection of books to choose from. We went with "When I Grow Up." The 16-page book plugs the child's name into the text and writes it on the back of a fireman's uniform, a police car, a sign in a doctor's office, and even the gate of a zoo. The prose is stilted and abrupt, and we're not sure it would engage a child old enough to be drawn into the "when I grow up" dialogue.
The "First Adventures of Incredible You" from Custom Made For Kids was hands-down the most parent-pleasing. The illustrations were fanciful, elaborate and artful, and the rhyming text was fun. The personalization was also the most extensive. The story was peppered with details about our child's life, such as the names of our local park and zoo, her friends and favorite bath toy and grown-ups with whom she is likely to bake, play music and go to a ballgame.
The text is a little long in this 30-page book, with eight to 12 lines on a page, and it's written in the future tense, which we found odd. Our toddler was oblivious to the text but loved the pictures of parachuting frogs and mice riding bicycles. We can see her growing into this book instead of out of it.
The I See Me Web site has a handful of books to choose from, but not all them seemed to make good use of the personalization you're paying for. We chose "My Very Own Name," which was the least expensive of the books we tried. It tells the story of a group of animals and insects gathering to name a new baby, with all of the appropriate animals bringing their corresponding letter along. For example, in our Eva book, an elephant, vole and ant brought the E, V and A to the gathering.
It sounds contrived, but it worked better than we expected. The simple text seemed about right for toddlers who are just beginning to learn their letters.