Sourcebooks creates personalized children's books
Approaching Daniel Handler with a proposal to personalize his intensely ironic Lemony Snicket books might sound a little like sticking your head into the mouth of his Incredibly Deadly Viper. But — fortunately for all involved — Handler was intrigued by the idea adding children's names and photos to his "All the Wrong Questions" books.
"To me, it spoke to the personalized experience of reading," he says.
"The majority of letters that I get from my readers are in some way trying to play along or inhabit the world of the books. They don't ask me what kind of car do I drive, or where do I get my ideas. They're more likely to say 'I saw Count Olaf hiding behind this bush,' or I'm very worried about Ellington Feint.'"
Handler is the latest addition to an impressive list of creative heavy-hitters who have signed on to produce personalized books with Sourcebooks, a publisher in Naperville that launched its personalized Put Me In the Story division in 2013. Sesame Street and Disney — both the princess powerhouse and the "Star Wars" subsidiary — have partnered with Sourcebooks to produce personalized books, as has Nancy Tillman, author of the best-seller "On the Night You Were Born."
For writers and publishers eager to connect with kids, the potential rewards are tremendous, but so too are the challenges. How do you personalize a book in a way that's fully satisfying to both children and parents — and at the same time fully respectful of original text or character? How do you give parents and grandparents room to be creative without giving authors high blood pressure?
How do you satisfy the tween Lemony Snicket reader's need for connection without introducing even a whiff of (eyeroll-inducing) condescension?
Sourcebooks' Karen Shapiro, leader of a creative team that works closely with editors and designers, says the process begins with a "deep dive" into the book.
"You have to understand what the author's intent was, what the audience was expecting from the author. You don't invade that story or disrupt it in any way; you want to enhance the experience," says Shapiro, publishing manager of the Sourcebooks entertainment and gift group.
That might mean never touching the actual text or illustrations; in "On the Night You Were Born," the child's name is softly threaded through blank spaces on the pages of text. Or it could mean repeatedly adding a name and photo to both text and illustrations, as in the case of Sandra Magsamen's "You!" Even the same author can get very different treatment from book to book; the personalization is minimal in Magsamen's "Welcome Little One," which celebrates the arrival of a new baby.
"It was such a beginning of life — a new baby being born. I felt that was the right touch, to gently have the child be part of the book, but also be a part of what the mom or the dad or the grandparent wants to share with the child," Magsamen says.
The book includes space to write in your own information about the newborn, including time of birth, weight and length. There's also a dedication page with a personal message printed by Sourcebooks and a picture of the baby.
Sourcebooks' personalized books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, according to publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah.
Handler, whose four-book "All the Wrong Questions" series was published last month in personalizable form, says the Lemony Snicket books are particularly well-suited to this kind of customization.
Lemony Snicket already addressed the reader in frequent asides, defining tricky words and phrases, lamenting the loss of his beloved Beatrice and advising readers who enjoy happy endings that they might want to look elsewhere.
"Certainly the notion of publishing the books under the name of the narrator, rather than the name of the author, was in order to inhabit that murky space you inhabit in childhood when you're reading a favorite book and you're kind of a part of it, and you think of what's going on in the book that's on your bedstand or in your backpack — you think of that interspliced with your life," Handler says.
Some kids are actually disappointed, he says, when they come to see him speak, and find that they're not the only ones: "They thought I was just going to meet them."
He played on that experience with his personalization. Instead of changing the text in any way, he added to it. In the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" prequel," "All the Wrong Questions" Lemony Snicket is 12-year-old apprentice sleuth in a mysterious organization that's tracking a dastardly villain.
"I thought it would be interesting to keep the original text intact but have it serve as a textbook or guide for people who are interested in becoming members of Snicket's organization," he says.
He added 13 letters to would-be members of the daring V.F.D., interspersing them throughout the four books. The letters are addressed to the child, and some make reference to the book-giver or the child's friend. The letters include quizzes, instructions and delectable dry asides.
Writing was difficult at times, but fun, Handler says: "It felt a little like a parlor game, because there were things I wanted to do and then there was space for information that they were asking for from a recipient of a book."
In one very Lemony twist, the gift-giver is presented as an object of suspicion: "For years, Grandma has tried to keep this information away from you, but our organization has managed to cleverly disguise this file as a generous gift. … I strongly suggest that you write Grandma a thank-you note immediately so that you won't arouse suspicion."
In another, Lemony closes with the memorable line, "Allow me to wish you all the luck in the world, except for the luck I need myself."
The child's name appears (more than once — look carefully) on the cover of the book. The child's photo is inserted in a gallery of character images drawn by the series' illustrator, Seth.
In an office studded with toys, books and Star Wars figures, Shapiro displayed "Marvel's The Avengers: Black Ops Field Guide," a personalized book that takes fans on a top-secret mission alongside Iron Man and Captain America and includes a personalized S.H.I.E.L.D. identification card that unlocks secret messages. Her team created the book for Marvel, and since big-name brand licensing is a small world, she says, it's not entirely surprising that it found its way to the Lucasfilm team, which handles "Star Wars" products.
"We were about to produce 'Star Wars' books from previously published material, and we got a call from the Lucas team: 'Do what you did for Marvel,'" Shapiro says.
"We were like 10-year-olds! You mean to tell me we get to sit here and come up with 8-10 'Star Wars' book ideas? They ended with, 'Would you like to do that?' I could put it in caps and bold and that's still not going to scream 'Yes!' loud enough."
Sourcebooks came up with eight ideas, and the Lucas team chose two, both of which were released this fall: "Star Wars Rebels: Battle Plans from Darth Vader," in which Darth Vader wants you to defeat a band of rebels that threatens the Empire, and "Star Wars: The Force Inside," which allows you to choose your own path — Jedi or Sith? Children (and some adults) get personalized features including a custom dedication and a photo.
It's easy to imagine ways customization could go wrong: sticking a kid's name into a middle-grade novel could interrupt flow, alienate sophisticated young readers and make authors run for the hills. Sourcebooks vice president and editorial director Todd Stocke says that, as the publisher, you have to tread lightly, preserving the integrity of the original work.
Handler, who is famous for imagining terrible worst-case scenarios in the case of his unlucky Baudelaire orphans, graciously deflected questions about what could have gone wrong. Finally asked directly if there was a danger that touchy tweens could have found the wrong personalization condescending, he offered a Snicket-worthy response.
"I've been alienating readers one way or another my entire life," he declared. "As someone who feels alienated all the time I have nothing but sympathy for people who are feeling alienated, but I can't worry about it. I'm worried about my own alienation. That's how I spend my day."
For a full lineup of Put Me In the Story titles, visit www.putmeinthestory.com.
Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune lifestyles reporter. Follow her @nschoenberg.
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