Remember me? Back in 2008
Helium.com promised $3 for every article their members wrote over the next 100 days — so I'd rushed out 300 quickies, and they paid me
$900. "I feel like I committed the perfect crime," boasted
But there's actually a secret second chapter to this story...
And it ends with me reviewing 500 children's picture books.
So envisioning perfect crime, part 2, I'd submitted my first review idea for approval — "The
True Story of the Three Little Pigs" — and then pecked out some
appropriate text. ("Smith's imaginative drawings are the perfect
complement to Scieszka's stories, which include parodies and twists on
familiar fairy tales...") Within weeks, Helium's first payment had
appeared in my PayPal account. That's how it all started, and eventually I'd rack up over $1700.
$3.50 at a time...
A Pussycat's Christmas
Unfortunately, it was just minimum wage — $7.00 an hour — unless I could
finish each review within 20 minutes. So to fuel this frenzy there had to be a stack of children's picture books on the
table by my computer. I'd immediately rush from writing one review to the next.
Grab, read, write, and publish — and then do it all over again.
Go to Sleep, Groundhog
Peppe the Lamplighter
Pig Pig Gets a Job
"Rather than an eco-tourist, the Man in the Yellow Hat is a gun-toting poacher," wrote the Wall Street Journal. Maybe we should be glad that in 2005 — the monkey was simply helping out at an elementary school...
I earned $900 — by reviewing 250 different storybooks.
Every day the public library would see me skulking into their children's
book section, picking out a new selection, and then hauling them away in my
backpack. Sometimes I was even writing the reviews in the
library. There were terminals available for up to two hours each day, so I'd settle in, try to focus, and then dive into a fresh stack of children's picture
Once Upon MacDonald's Farm
Don't Wake Up The Bear
Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies
It was like a slot machine that always paid out. I earned $3.50 by panning Curious George Goes to the Beach, and then another $3.50 for praising a story
where the beach-going animals are
bats. Decades after my own childhood, I shared my deep
disillusionment with Katy the Snow Plow. ("This book didn't seem to tell a
story. It just offered random facts about the city's highway municipal
But it was getting harder to find something fresh to say
after hundreds of children's picture books. There's a whole paragraph arguing
Katy and the Big Snow was deeply influenced by World War II. And somehow I managed to write 500
words about a rhyming picture book called Cowboy Bunnies. "If you look
closely, the enormous bunnies are actually riding hobby horses up the
hill. Wait a minute — are they real cowboys? Or are these bunnies just
At one point, I just typed in "Go, bunnies, go!"
And what about Helium? Over the years, I could see they were
losing money on every single review. They were also splitting
their "ad revenue" with me, so there was a web page showing exactly how
much each article had earned. It was nice receiving those extra few
pennies, but the amount was so small that it wasn't even worth
calculating. They paid me $3.50 to review Three Little Ghosties,
and then earned themselves 75 cents in ad revenue — after four years...
Although what's even stranger is a handful of my original articles were
earning a lot more. (There were five that actually earned more than $200
apiece.) Once I spoke to the company's founder — a kindly man who
sounded like my grandfather — and he assured me that it'd all even out
in the end. So what else could I do — but
keep on churning out more children's picture book
Bigfoot Cinderella flees into
the woods — and who can blame her? There's a tribe of Bigfoots
chanting "Brrrrride! Brrrrride! Brrrrride!" — and it sounds pretty
And then it started getting weird. Maybe I'd just read one too many books. I cried when the
little girl's cat didn't come home. I'd crammed hundreds of happy
stories into my head, filled with colorful pictures and cheerful
narrators, rushing from one to the next - so it was suddenly a big jolt when a
children's book surprised me with something much more serious.
I read a monkey story by Jane Goodall. I should've known that the
monkey's mother would be slaughtered by hunters on page 2.
After that, I
started worrying about how every story was going to
In the town's hospital "someone very old shuts their eyes and dies /
breathes their very last breath on their very last night..."
A British radio host wrote a picture book about the death of his son.
And there's one story where a court jester pays a visit to a cancer ward.
But the authors of these children's
picture books weren't just trying to describe death.
In All Those Secrets of the World, 52-year-old author Jane Yolen shared her childhood memories of World War II, enjoying
one last chance to connect
with generations yet to come. Maybe every children's picture book is a letter to the next generation, I decided.
I began to look at
children's picture books as a kind of legacy.
One book introduced me to
Dahlov Ipcar, a 92-year-old "subsistence farmer" in Maine who, when she was 60, captured her experiences in Hardscrabble Harvest.
And once I even received an e-mail from an author's grandchild. Sara Ruffin
was re-publishing children's books that had been illustrated and written by
her grandfather, Robert S. Bright, and she was delighted to discover that
I'd started reviewing them.
Every day I was in a public library, feeling sentimental and being
reminded of a vanishing world. Once upon a time people lived without
e-mail — without cellphones or cable TV or talk radio.
But...books. Lots of books.
Once for variety, I'd reviewed Light in August by William Faulkner — and then Harold and the Purple Crayon.
But then I discovered that some novelists had actually written children's picture books.
Toni Morrison contributed a
startling story about three children "who couldn't handle their freedom" — according to the adults, who locked them in a great big
box where the doors only opened one way.
And eight years after winning a Nobel Prize, 83-year-old Octavio Paz watched
as one of his own stories was converted into a
children's picture book.
But there were other children's stories that felt like novels.
Angela Johnson imagined Casey Jones' train whistle inspiring sharecroppers to flee oppression in the South.
Wind Fliers tells the story of the Tuskagee Airmen.
Willie and the All-Stars remembered when baseball was still segregrated.
"Ol' Ezra tells me I ain't never gonna play in the Majors," Willie says.
"You don't know that for sure," his friend replies....
and Glow told the true story of refugees fleeing a war-torn village
in Bosnia-Herzegovina. ("When Papa left to join the underground, Marina cried...")
There was another children's picture book called Smoky Nights about the Los Angeles riots.
One book even described a family's visit to the
Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. It seemed like every book had a story
that was strong but honest —
and an author's best message about learning how to have hope.
Did this project have a larger significance?
I never got to find out — because
the web site where I was writing
these reviews eventually did go out of business.
But their $3.50-per-review scheme really had made somebody rich. In 2011 R. R. Donnelly
became convinced that Helium had built up a community of very cheap writers, and
acquired the entire site for
over $57 million.
That was really stupid, which they realized just three years later, announcing last week that they're closing the site for
good. After eight years and well over one million articles — Helium is
And when the site closes, 1 million articles will instantly
disappear — including all 500 of my children's picture book reviews.
But ironically, my public library will still be there — with all of its wonderful books.
here for a list of all the reviews
Now I'm trying to move all 500 of the reviews to my own new children's picture book site -- called Review-Land !
Read Part I: the perfect crime
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