Beware AI-produced Children’s Books!

For a year now, I’ve had my dream job – selecting children’s and young adult books for a large public library system with 22 branches.

I think I do a good job balancing critical reviews with popularity and patron requests and the need for a broad collection.

One day, someone requested that we get more books for kids about pets that weren’t only about dogs and cats. That’s something we can always use, but there’s not a lot published. So I looked in our vendor database.

Some titles we already had. Some were quite a few years old. Many were not in stock with our vendor. But I found some books that looked promising.

One book I ordered was called Rabbits: Children’s Animal Fact Book, by publisher Bold Kids. It didn’t have any reviews, and it was only available in paperback. But paperback meant it wasn’t too expensive, and a fact book about rabbits was what I needed, after all. How bad could it be? I put it on my order.

I completely forgot about it. Sometimes when I order short nonfiction books, I’m not sure if it belongs with the children’s nonfiction or with the picture books, and then I put a note on the book – Show to Sondy – to figure out where it belongs when I have the book in front of me. But this book was clearly nonfiction, so it could make it to the library shelves with no more input from me.

A few weeks later, I got a somewhat incoherent note from a cataloger about this book. While I was looking over the record and trying to form an answer, she came to my cubicle almost speechless and showed me this book, along with another: Northern Lights: A Book Filled with Facts for Children, also by Bold Kids.

Reader, when I looked at those books, I was filled with deep shame for having selected them. But wait! I discovered that one of our other selectors had ordered the Northern Lights book, so I felt a lot better that I wasn’t the only one who fell for them.

Let me explain.

The book starts out extremely repetitive and very poorly worded. There’s no logical progression between sentences, and some sentences repeat on later pages, except often with contradictory information or in a slightly different form. It’s got stock photo images and clip art text pages.

Here’s the page that first convinced me we couldn’t put these books on library shelves:

A rabbit has a male and female counterpart. A male rabbit is called a buck. The two types of rabbits have different characteristics. A doe is a baby rabbit, while a buck is a mother. All types of rabbits live underground, except for the cottontail, and their habitats are often called warrens.

Later, I read on. One spread has the same exact text on two facing pages. But the place where it got so bad it’s hilarious was the final spread:

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of feeding a rabbit, you’ve probably wondered how they reproduce. The answer is simple: they live in the wild! Despite being cute and cutesy, rabbits are also very smart.

They can even make their own clothes, and they can even walk around. And they’re not only adorable, but they’re also very useful to us as pets and can help you out with gardening.

[Don’t you wonder how animals reproduce when you feed them? And now you know how to improve your garden – just get a rabbit to help you! I’m thinking they put public domain Beatrix Potter books into the A.I.?]

Northern Lights was equally bad, though not quite as laugh-out-loud funny. Except maybe the spread that says twice that Northern Lights can be seen in Florida. Or the part that says you can hear the sounds they make. “The sound of the lights is like a rainbow.”

I wasn’t completely convinced that Artificial Intelligence would do such a bad job of “writing” a children’s book. But I tweeted about this book. The outstanding author of math books for children, Christopher Danielson, responded. We had a very amusing conversation about it, and he asked Chat GPT to write a couple of children’s books. The quality was very similar to these, so now I’m convinced.

But when I looked at our vendor’s website, Bold Kids has more than 500 children’s nonfiction titles. With one notable title being Sheeps: Children’s Book Filled With Facts (full credit to Christopher Danielson for spotting that one). What should have been a giveaway is that they are non-returnable, which is code for Print-on-Demand. So this “publisher” isn’t really investing money into making the books, just had AI produce the texts and didn’t check. They get printed when someone purchases one.

Let me note that while our vendor Ingram carries more than 500 of the Bold Kids titles, as does our ebook platform Overdrive, another vendor Baker & Taylor doesn’t carry any of them. (Good for them!) But Amazon carries them, as do many other websites selling books to the general public. So this is a general warning to beware.

Of course, this means that in the future I won’t purchase any more books from Bold Kids. But I also am going to be more wary than ever of books that don’t have professional reviews. I was already leery of self-published books, and this example has not helped at all. A friend who’s a writer told me that many publishers and agents are closing submissions because of a flood of AI-generated manuscripts.

And another problem is that partly these are bad because they were trained on what’s out there on the internet. (I assume.) Published authors are wise to be wary of publishers wanting to train AI on their writing.

In the meantime, I offer my experience as a cautionary tale for your amusement. Artificial Intelligence is not yet capable of writing good children’s books, anyway.

Oh, and one final note. I was trying to decide what category to file this post under, and I decided it’s time for a new one, which I’ll call Selection Adventures. I thought it could cover things from my Selector job — but also my experiences on various award selection committees. When I was on the Newbery Selection Committee, I posted about the experience. But I’m currently on the Morris Award Committee to find the best Young Adult Debut book of 2023, and the Mathical Book Prize selection committee, and a CYBILS Award category chair, and a member of Capitol Choices — and I should write up some posts about them. (Award selection is so much fun!) So that’s the new category, and I’m hoping to add to it in the future.

15 comments

  1. I can’t believe how bad that is! Even if it’s AI produced, I’m still surprised they don’t get a proper editing.

    1. I don’t think the people who “wrote” the book ever even looked at it. Made a request of AI, and sent the resulting file to vendors to print on demand. That’s the only way I can explain them putting together more than 500 books in about 6 months. I think they’re simply scammers. Were not at all concerned about editing. Another tip off is that no author is listed, only the “publisher,” Bold Kids.

  2. Good grief, what a nightmare. I had to rewrite that paragraph about the rabbits helping in the garden:

    “Rabbits don’t help in gardens. But they do help themselves to gardens. Especially new gardens. With tender, young shoots for which you paid $8.95 a planting. There is a fictional man named Mr. McGregor who does not like rabbits for this very reason.”

    1. I know, right? There were tip-offs: No reviews. No author name. Non-returnable. (Oops!) But the self-publishing tip-off of only a few titles from that publisher didn’t apply at all. Sigh.

  3. I started an Indie Publishing company earlier this year, for my own children’s books and for the many authors and artists I’m now working with. I had a growing concern about the rise of AI, seeing many authors happy to use it.
    For this reason, I’m happily adding a tagline to all my publications: ‘ThinkingBigger – made with love – not AI’.
    Thank you for this article, exposing what many of us feared. It damages the whole industry. Good books create a connection between an audience and an author – not an algorithm!

    1. Yes! I like your tagline. It’s a real shame that people are trying to make money with this when it’s really not ready. (I don’t want them to use it later, either, and I’m skeptical a machine could ever match the creativity of children’s book authors.)

  4. Follow up: At the end of August, I checked our vendor website. The Rabbits and Northern Lights books are gone! Hooray! They took them down!

    But then I checked “Bold Kids” — and there are still 571 titles offered by them. Now that I know what to expect, with any given entry, I can tell it’s just as bad. It’s like trying to plug a waterfall with a finger.

  5. Hi, I enjoyed your article. While I agree that there is a lot of junk produced by ‘authors’ like this one who use AI in a way that it was never intended for, ChatGPT can, when used correctly, produce some amazing results. But clearly a human set of eyes needs to actually read, edit, sometimes laugh hysterically, say WTF a lot and then disagree with the results and tell the AI to rewrite it. I know because I use AI the right way and I have created some amazing books with it so not all books created with the HELP of AI are junk, at least I don’t think they’re junk. Here is a link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/Youve-Got-Questions-Weve-Answers/dp/B0BZFPDHJM/ref=sr_1_9?crid=2J9VKW6RCNHXK&keywords=Books+by+Loud+Mouth+Books&qid=1694233339&s=books&sprefix=books+by+loud+mouth+books%2Cstripbooks%2C202&sr=1-9

  6. That was a very interesting article, thanks for sharing it 🙂
    It sounds like just the most expected consequence to the actual trends in the books industry; from self publishing without restraint to publishers without shame: AI was the logical next step to it.
    In my humble vision of this matter the whole point is about the outcome.
    If quality, coherence and consistency are the standards to abide by I would be the first one to cheer for the opportunities that AI will grants us.
    Without control over it the AI itsels is not any more an issue than a greedy illiterate person wishing to share his/her poetic visionary strokes of genius on paper for us to enjoy.
    Editing should be mandatory, even if it will become harder and harder to dictate any standard in an industry scoring over 7 figures new publishing ”titles” a year.
    I think the market and ultimately the final buyers will be the only ones with a real says on the matter. It will not prevent bad actors nor such lousy contents to be published and spread around but it will be the last possible dam for screening them: reports and reviews are in the end the only weapon against such nonsense.
    Eventually in due time, I may dare say that AI itself may arrive to be the next filter and editor, since it would be the only one capable of screening the encyclopedic amount of new informations submitted and published, screening and reveleing which title may offer any real literary value (at least on a very basic basis) to the world. For the time being I guess we will be in a transitional phase and it should be most expected to meet a continuous increasing in such kind of ludicrous attempt of making quick bucks.
    Once again, thanks for this story, it has been interesting and useful to read about it 🙂 all the best

  7. The emphasis on the importance of human connection in crafting children’s stories is a sentiment that resonates deeply. It’s clear that you prioritize the rich, nuanced experiences that human authors bring to children’s literature, experiences that may be challenging for AI to replicate.

    1. JoAnn, that honestly sounds like something AI generated! I’m going to approve it because of your website talkplayread.com shows that you care about kids. The issue with these books isn’t even lack of human connection so much as complete inaccuracy and terrible craftsmanship.

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