Still looking for that picture book you loved as a kid? Try asking Instagram
Monear Fatemi was on the hunt for a children's book she had loved as a kid in the 1980s. She remembered so many vivid details: the family in the book ate lima beans, the dad had a bushy mustache, the cat's name was "Dog." She could recall every detail, it seemed, except the title and author.
Fatemi, a former English teacher, says she was eager to find this particular title for her 2-year-old daughter because it had meant so much to her when she was growing up. Fatemi is half Persian, and says she rarely saw people of color represented in books or television at the time.
"The illustrator may or may not have tried to show diversity in the book, but the dad looks like my dad and the brother looks like my brother and the mom looks my mom," she says. "It's a black-and-white illustrated book, but I saw my Persian dad and brother in this book, and I never saw my family [in other books]."
Eager to see how the book had aged, noting many contemporary children's books tokenize rather than normalize diversity, Fatemi enlisted the help of her mom, who works as a research librarian. They typed search terms into Google and scoured the shelves of their local bookstore to no avail.
Then Fatemi's mom sent her the link to an Instagram page called My Old Books, which mostly shared whimsical illustrations from vintage children's books.
There were also notes from others trying to find beloved childhood books based on a smattering of hazy, fever dream-like details. Fellow book nerds were sounding off in the comments, tossing out authors' names, jumping in with details, tagging their friends – and celebrating when a match was made.
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Fatemi wrote with her request. Within 20 minutes of the post going live, she had her answer:Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen and Trina Schart Hyman. She says her whole family was moved to tears at the discovery.
"These books and these stories get inside of us and just mean so much," Fatemi says. "They're so significant and mean the world to us, and someone else is like 'Oh yeah, that one!" And so quickly we can help someone heal wounds, make connections – so many cool things go back to memories."
In hindsight, Fatemi realized just how much that one book changed how she felt about reading in general.
"It was like, maybe I don't see myself in my neighborhood or in my school or on cable TV or anywhere that's not just showing Middle Easterners as terrorists," she says. "It wasn't, 'Here's a book about a Middle Eastern family in America.' Here's just a book, and you can see yourself in it. And that meant a lot."
Fatemi calls this an important part of her teaching philosophy – she says she thought a lot about who was in her classroom and how they may or may not see their lived experiences reflected in the curriculum – and now her parenting philosophy. So finding the book that started it all was, at least to her, no small feat.
"Social media has its benefits and drawbacks, but I just thought, 'How cool is this person who is crowdsourcing to help nerds find their dreams?'" Fatemi says.
Some of the book seekers have fond, albeit hazy, memories of stories they'd love to read to their own young kids. Others are tracking down books that their friends or family members reminisce about, often to give as a gift. Many are motivated by sentimental value, like the person looking for a copy of a book that burned in a fire at their grandparents' house.
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The details provided in these requests range from the specific to the vague, and might include a particular quote, a set of peculiar plot details, or general recollections of the style of illustration, the cover art or the overall premise. Many people say they've been trying to track these books down for years or even decades.
The What'sThatBook series, part of My Old Books, has posted some 115 such requests since it launched in February, with a success rate of a little more than 50%.That's according to Marie-Pascale Traylor, the powerhouse behind the page.
She built a community around a shared, sentimental interest
Traylor traces her love of reading back to her own childhood. Traylor's family didn't have a television, so she and her siblings would check out stacks of library books and read all the time.
She grew up to be an artist and preschool teacher, with a particular fondness for vintage children's books – as anything pre-1990, though ideally much earlier.
During her more than two decades of teaching, Traylor amassed her own library of children's books from thrift shops, antique stores and yard sales. But she wasn't content to keep them to herself. She set up an Instagram account about five years ago to share images from her favorite vintage books, and opened up an Etsy shop around the time of her retirement several years later to sell off part of her collection.
"I felt like through sharing something that was just a strong interest I would find other people who have the same kind of interest," she explains.
Traylor's account took off – she names a few celebrities who have followed it or reposted photos, like Amy Sedaris and illustrator Mary Engelbreit – and so did her virtual community.
People would reach out to order books, send her gifts and, occasionally, ask her to track down specific titles. Traylor eventually realized others on Instagram might be able to help: She now has more than 24,000 followers.
She started sharing inquiries on her account last winter, using the hashtag "What'sThatBook." The requests – and responses – came flooding in.
Some of these interactions are particularly memorable for Traylor, especially the ones that end in success.
She points to two recent examples: Someone looking to surprise her grandfather for his 90th birthday with a book he loved as a kid (Andrew Lang's fairy series), and another poster finally finding the title of one of her favorite childhood Christmas books to read to her 5-year-old (Hilary Knight's The Twelve Days of Christmas).
Successful book-seekers want to pay their powerful experience forward
And Traylor's success stories are not hesitant to share what the site has meant to them.
Tanner Flippo, now 27, posted about a book he vaguely remembered from fourth grade – so vaguely, in fact, that he wasn't sure if he had made the story up or conjured it in a dream. But he knew it involved a girl with magic powers who learns how to fly, and he knew he had been enchanted by it at the time.
Commenters directed him to No Flying In The House by Betty Brock. Upon revisiting the book, Flippo says it helped explain his lifelong interests in fantasy worlds and personal development – and was "a small but key piece of the puzzle" in his personal journey of growth and trauma healing.
Jane Garabedian knew exactly why she was looking for her book, which featured charcoal illustrations of forest creatures making it through the cozy wintertime to emerge in the bright yellow spring. She says she read the book many times as a kid, and credits it with sparking her love of reading and wildlife.
She reached out to Traylor, who said she'd look around. "By any chance, is it the book The Happy Day"?, Traylor texted weeks later.
Garabedian says she immediately felt transported to her 4-year-old self, the age she was when she learned to sign her name in order to get her first library card.
"[Traylor] I think, changed my life in a day ... it was driving me nuts to not remember something that was important and she put her finger on it and she went out of her way to do it," Garabedian says.
Garabedian and Fatemi, among others, now hope to pay it forward by helping other people find their beloved childhood books.
Traylor reflects on the emotion and connection that accompany these discoveries.
"There's just a lot of sentimental nostalgia that goes along with this," she says. "I can really sense the emotion when they message me after they find their book... and they're so happy and so grateful and it's just really sweet."
Traylor didn't expect the crowdsourcing series to take off the way it has, but says she's grateful for it.
"I feel like so much of social media is negative these days, and people turn on each other so easily," she says. "I love how in general on my feed it seems really positive, and people are very supportive and encouraging, and they just love talking about these things with each other. So I think it's a little escape, maybe, from whatever else is going on in their lives."
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