CMF Research Blog Research Forum

Kids in the driving seat: personalised digital & printed books

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Natalia Kucirkova is senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research concerns innovative ways of supporting shared book reading and the role of personalisation in early years. She is particularly interested in fostering children’s trans-media experiences and identity growth. Natalia’s research inspired the development of the Our Story tablet/smartphone app and has been published in a variety of outlets . She has been commended for her engagement with teachers and parents at a national and international level.

On Friday, 25th of September 2015, academics and three key UK publishers of children’s personalised books met at The Open University, London Camden, to discuss the current status quo and future of children’s personalised books.

Personalised books are books which use key information of the reader (in this case of the child), such as their name, likes and dislikes, to engage them in the story. Personalised books can be print-based or digital, with the latter offering a variety of multimedia personalising options.

The group on Friday discussed the various kinds of personalisation available for young children today, ranging from simple customised books for boys or girls to books with digital books where users can add their own selfies or voice recordings and sound effects (eg music or noises).

In my presentation, I summarised extant research on personalised books, including ways in which they can support children’s word learning and highlighted that there is an important difference between deeply personalised and superficially customised learning experiences. I also discussed how the history of personalised books has evolved, from simple print books where a child’s was face superimposed on basic illustration, to today’s sophisticated digital books with exciting augmented reality personalisation features.

Tom Bonnick, Business Development Manager at Nosy Crow outlined various examples of how Nosy Crow leveraged children’s innate interest in faces, especially children’s own faces. In Nosy Crow fairytale apps, children can see their own reflection (enabled by the direct recording of the inbuilt ipad camera) in several titles. For example, in the Jack and the Beanstalk app, children can reassemble a broken mirror that shows their own face. In the Cinderella app, a child’s face can appear in one of the magical mirrors when Cinderella’s mean sisters are getting ready for the ball. However, to Tom, Nosy Crow titles embody the idea of personalisation on a more fundamental level: their storybook apps give children the agency in that children can customise the story as it progresses. For example, with the Little Red Riding Hood, children can choose eight different paths and based on the choices they make, they can read a different story. This reinforces the reader as participant, not passive consumer of the story.

The idea of active participation in digital book reading is a key driver for Mr Glue Stories where children co-create stories digitally and publish them as glossy paperbacks. Carrie Gregory-Hood, Co-founder of Mr Glue Stories, outlined how children are literally in the driving seat with their Mr Glue Stories app: for each story, the child adds their name to become the main character and co-creates the story by choosing as the story progresses which characters and elements they want to include in their own story. Children further customise their story by adding in their own drawings and colouring in the black and white illustrations, as well as recording themselves reading and adding fun sound effects.

screen480x480Mr Glue Stories are original stories, not based on traditional folktales and the stories’ illustrations and sound effects have a home-made feel making it accessible to all. This encourages active participation and engagement with the children, turning the app into an immersive reading experience – made even more fun when their customised stories can be shared digitally with friends or published as printed paperbacks.  In fact, children are taken through the entire publishing book cycle, as they self-create a personalised and customised story in the app and select the print option to generate a print-on-demand glossy paperback copy to be sent to their home. This paperback book features the child as the author/main character, all their customisations for the story, as well as publishing their drawings – creating a truly personalised printed book and giving the child a real sense of achievement.

The last speaker Jobina Hardy from Lost My Name, is the most well-known publisher of personalised books, with more than 750k copies sold of their title “The Little Girl/Boy who lost his/her name”. The title is typically bought by parents, grandparents or friends for a specific child as a gift. The child is thus not an active creator here but his or her name features as the main driver for the storyplot. The book follows the story of a boy or girl (depending on who buys the book) who lost his/her name. The book has a nice feel, produced with “quiet technology”, personalisation features do not over-feature in the book. There are various characters who appear throughout the storyplot, enriching the story with other characters and their storyworlds. Lost My Name’s next book will feature the child’s home and include images of places that will be familiar to the child.

Each publisher has brought to the market a different kind of innovation of personalised books and it is important to keep the dialogue open and move forward with strengthening the collaboration between research and publishers in this exciting, rapidly developing field.

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