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Remember personalized children’s books? New studies show they might have scientific benefits.

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September 22, 2021, 2:14pm

Perhaps you’re familiar with personalized children’s books: children’s books made-to-order by small presses, where parents can customize the protagonist of each book to have their child’s name, gender, age and skin tone. (As a child a distant relative gifted me one about a “me” character deciding what Purim costume to wear. Unclear whether this made a difference to my early brain development or ability to choose a good Purim costume.) The common-sense ideas behind personalized children’s books—and those being pushed by personalized children’s book publishers—are that personalization will make children enjoy books more; boost their self-esteem; help them grapple with real-world issues the books discuss; and teach them empathy for others. Now, Natalia Kucirkova has unpacked ten years of research in Scientific American, and the upshot is personalized books can indeed benefit children—but only if used thoughtfully.

Apparently, publishers’ claims that children are especially engaged with personalized books are true. In an observational study helmed by Kucirkova and two collaborators, researchers found that when reading personalized books with their parents, children (as well as their parents) showed significantly higher frequencies of smiles and laughs than when reading non-personalized books—and even higher frequency of vocal activity when reading the personalized book than when reading the child’s favorite book.

And the higher levels of engagement seem to translate to higher levels of learning: Kucirkova and her colleagues found that reading personalized books with preschoolers was related to higher learning rates of new words. (This was for print; for digital books, the children learned the same amount of words from the non-personalized books as from the personalized books.)

But interestingly, the claim that children can learn moral lessons better from personalized books is likely untrue. A study conducted by Ellen Kruse and her colleagues compared children’s understanding of the moral of a story and its application after they read a personalized or non-personalized story about sharing (as well as a control story)—and there was no difference. The lesson, perhaps: present children with personalized stories for their enjoyment, but consider expanding the discussion to the concerns of other characters. (Another lesson I’m considering: make these for adults! Would I have enjoyed my reading experience more if he were named Walker J. Reilly?)

[h/t Scientific American]

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