• Briar Lawry

The Personalised Adventures of [YOUR NAME HERE]


Remember getting one of those books from a kindly relative that features you – your name and everything! – dropped into a story? Sapling editor Briar certainly does – and she takes a stroll down memory lane before exploring some of today's local offerings in personalised books.

When I turned six or seven, I received a gift of a book – not unusual, in itself. In a shocking revelation, I was a kid who loved books – something you could surely work out if you look at my life today as a nearly thirty-year-old wahine and work backwards.

What was unusual was the fact that my name was in the book. Not just A Briar – not that there are a great many Briars in children's literature – but Me, Briar. Courtesy of an aunty and uncle, I had a picture book of my own that had my name, my siblings' names, my cousins’ names. It was a story about us! About us, and Aladdin, of all people. Who knew that a motley crew of Auckland preschoolers and early readers with a Nana and Poppa in common played such critical roles in one of the great tales of the Arabian nights?

Who knew that a motley crew of Auckland preschoolers and early readers with a Nana and Poppa in common played such critical roles in one of the great tales of the Arabian nights?

It felt pretty magical. I was a child with strong likes and dislikes, and part of my budding book critic brain didn't fully buy into something about the storytelling and its illustrations. But there was no denying that it felt very important to have a book that had been woven of threads of my real life and fairy tales that I knew from page and screen.

I forgot all about the book in the years – decades, almost – since. But in the last couple of years the memory has nudged at the back of my brain, thanks to social media algorithms. I don't have kids yet, but I've worked in and around children's books on and off for years. And my search history reflects that, so the ads I get shown do too. I kept seeing one particular ad for a company selling Where's Wally?-esque search-and-find books, but promising the name and basic appearance indicators of your choice.

Reader, I'll admit that I rolled my eyes. There was something odd to me about individual/group dichotomy inherent in a book personalised for one kid... only for that kid to then be lost in crowds. But it had sparked a little bit of a wander down memory lane, doing a bit of a Google of the current state of personalised books: companies with names like Wonderbly and Dinkleboo and Prezzybox. Nothing jumped out to me as being particularly special – but then, my name's not Millie or Jack or Oscar or any of the other names used as examples. With time, the ads eventually disappeared into the internet ether. But the idea of personalised books was lodged in my head, in a distant sort of way.

Nothing jumped out to me as being particularly special – but then, my name's not Millie or Jack or Oscar or any of the other names used as examples.

So when a local company that was doing personalised books popped up on The Sapling radar, I was intrigued. They seemed from the outset to be doing things a little differently from what I'd seen before – for one, the name of the company was a little more explanatory than the international brands that seemed to have an approach of 'pick a whimsical two-syllable word and tack another syllable on the end'. My Big Moments produce books to deal with just that: big moments in a kid's life that they will encounter in one way or another, whether it's something that happens to them or an exercise in empathy to understand something happening to someone else.

The company offered to send me copies of the four books they have published thus far, and properly personalised ones at that. As I've already mentioned, I don't have kids myself at this stage in my life, so they were made with me in mind! My name, my red (at the time of arranging the delivery) hair.

Briar with her personalised books from My Big Moments.

And aside from the fact that the Briar of these books had a fictional best friend whose name happened to be the same as my ex's surname – a problem the intended audience of child readers aren't exactly going to come up against – I was charmed from the outset. The illustrations are fresh and bright, cartoon-y without falling into the trap that some illustrators have of creating book illustrations that look like stills or storyboard images from an animated film. All four titles are credited to Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams and Marco Palmieri – and the website 'About' page identifies their roles in as author, designer and illustrator respectively. Hannah and Flicka are also co-founders of the company.

Each book focuses on a particular 'issue'. 'Issue' books are more and more common, with more and more variety than ever before on all kinds of topics that might prove challenging to approach. In a busy field, it's easy for less than stellar offerings to hold up against the real heavy weights. There are other titles that deal with each issue that the My Big Moments series handle, and yes, some may be more beautifully written or more poignantly illustrated.

But in my mind, if you're going to pick any subsection of kids books to tackle in the personalised format, these 'issue' books are the best option. These are topics that develop empathy and understanding, and literally bringing a kid into a story like that is a valuable learning tool.

But in my mind, if you're going to pick any subsection of kids books to tackle in the personalised format, these 'issue' books are the best option.

What's more, these books do it in a way that doesn't assume that these difficult things are going to befall the kid in question – in this instance, me! Three of the four books involve the new challenge happening to Book Briar's best friend Perry – and Book Briar learns what's going on alongside Perry. There's bereavement (Perry's beloved pet cockatoo passes away in Goodbye Comet), illness (Perry has an unknown affliction in The Hospital Trip) and growing families (Baby on the Way features Perry becoming a big brother for the first time).

But Briar's definitely the hero of the stories, even if they mostly focus on events in Perry's life. She gives Perry a special soft toy to take to the hospital when he's ill, helps him make a fort out of messed up laundry (the victim of a new-baby-jealousy induced tantrum) and draws pictures of his dearly departed Comet. It's great to see the reader-insert character given plenty of agency and initiative within the realm of what's realistic for a four-or-five-year-old kid.

Briar and Perry looking for Comet.

The stories teach kindness, in a time when people of all ages are being reminded to be kind and considerate of others. Briar does her best to care about her friend through the challenges he's facing, even if they're new to her too. I'm pretty stoked for her to be my namesake, if only for my specific versions of the books!

One of the four stood out to me in particular, however, and that's one I haven't touched on yet – Ready For School. It's the only book of the set where both Briar and Perry are facing the same obstacle together. Briar's the braver of the two, reassuring Perry before they go into it – again, encouraging kids to support friends who might be a bit scared about something, even if they themselves are just feeling excited.

[It encourages] kids to support friends who might be a bit scared about something, even if they themselves are just feeling excited.

More than that inter-kid relationship, though, I thought that this was one of the better picture books I've seen in recent times that deals with starting school. It deals with the stresses of it – through Perry's worries – but it also captures all sorts of firsts that come with those early days of being five: getting a school bag and uniforms, learning where toilets are, meeting a new grown-up who's going to look out for you...

It's also nice to see the understated New Zealand touches – the teacher's koru necklace, a cheeky copy of a Peter Gossage pūrākau on the classroom's bookshelf. These are little touches that manage to better conjure the idea of an Aotearoa new entrants classroom while still remaining accessible should the books end up in the hands of kids from other countries. I've no doubt that Briar and Perry riding their scooters home is definitely going to be something that vast numbers of today's kids will connect with.

Briar and Perry in their new classroom for the first time – can you spot the Peter Gossage book?

A bit of consultation with Google suggests that the first mainstream and large scale personalised books were produced by a company called Create a book in the USA – back in the early 80s. Nearly forty years later, My Big Moments have led the concept to an ideal follow-up – where the inclusion of a personalised character isn't just a gift-giving gimmick, it's a genuine learning tool. It's not just about having fun with Aladdin, or Peppa Pig, or the cast of Cars – it's showing a version of yourself being a good friend, willing to discover and learn and support others.

baby on the way

By Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams and Marco Palmieri My Big Moments $19.95 to $46.95

Buy now

Goodbye Comet

By Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams and Marco Palmieri My Big Moments $19.95 to $46.95

Buy now

The Hospital Visit

By Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams and Marco Palmieri My Big Moments $19.95 to $46.95

Buy now

Ready for School

By Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams and Marco Palmieri My Big Moments $19.95 to $46.95

Buy now

briar Lawry

Briar Lawry is a writer, editor and bookseller based in Tāmaki Makaurau. By day, she works at Little Unity, the specialist children's annex of Unity Books Auckland. By night, she reads, reviews and occasionally has time for her own writing projects too. She studies te reo me te ao Māori at Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makaurau, and she's also part of the team of editors of The Sapling.

#BriarLawry #MyBigMoments #PersonalisedBooks #HannahDavison #FlickaWilliams #MarcoPalmieri