It's..... The happiest blog on earth

Remember me? Back in 2008 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 my blog, and Gawker called me "The Magisterial King of All Online Reviewers". But there's actually a secret second chapter to this story...

And it ends with me reviewing 500 children's picture books.

See, I'd thought Helium would be mad, but instead they offered me more money! Their next promotion was $3.50 per article, but of course every topic now had to be pre-approved. No longer could you earn fast cash just by reviewing Elvis Presley movies or the Cyndi Lauper Christmas album. Now each article had to be genuinely useful. Tax advice, home improvement tips, and — yes — book reviews.

Any book, I wondered? Not that I could read an entire book in 20 minutes anyways. And then a light bulb went off in my head. They would probably accept reviews of 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
Go to Sleep, Groundhog
Peppe the Lamplighter
Pig Pig Gets a Job
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.

"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...

One month 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 books...

Once Upon MacDonald's Farm
Don't Wake Up The Bear
Bigfoot Cinderella
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 department...")

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 playing around...?"

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 reviews.

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 creepy.

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 end.

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....

Gleam 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 no more. 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.

Click 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

Return to my blog