Worst thing ever: when you can recall the storyline and details of a book you’ve read—maybe even describe the cover art!—but can’t remember the title or the author. Occasionally Google can help if you happen to know a distinctive character name (Spider Storch!) or other snippets, but when all you have to go on are a few plot points—i.e., boy whose little sister is presumed drowned watches the home video of the day she disappeared and believes she may be alive*—the search engines can be pretty useless.
Children’s and YA books tend to generate a lot of book mysteries, since it’s those very first reading experiences that tend to stick with us, even when the particulars are fuzzy. (Who were those three little blond girls who looked and dressed exactly alike?*) But of course those early books are also often shared experiences, too, which makes it possible to call on collective memories in order to figure out those forgotten titles. Here’s a few sites that take advantage of that common ground:
Book critic and author Lizzie Skurnick, whose book Shelf Discovery looks back at YA and middle-grade classics, has launched an occasional feature called Plotfinder, wherein readers can post their lost-book descriptions on Shelf Discovery’s Facebook Page for others to figure out (though keep in mind that SD’s Facebook fans are into novels, not picture books). Tomato Nation blogger Sarah Bunting offers similar help on her long-running advice column, The Vine, which has a regular “Ask the Readers” feature. While The Vine’s letter-writers seek everything from shoe recommendations to cat-owner advice, often they’re looking to identify an old book; readers post their guesses in the comments, and frequently the mystery is solved within a day.
The “What’s the Name of That Book” group on Goodreads.com and What Was That Book on Livejournal kick the hive-mind power into even higher gear by putting internet communities and social media to work. And then there’s the site What’s That Book, which has sections devoted to different genres (here’s the kids’ book section) and a search box that enables you to see if past visitors have posted similar book quests. It’s also one of the best places to look for a half-remembered picture book.
One of the best things about these book search sites is that inevitably you find yourself—and your memory—wanting to help out. Either something rings a bell (why yes, I DO know that book about the kid who traded his much-hated swimming classes for another boy’s ballroom dance lessons!*) or else you begin to scroll through all the story and cover descriptions, looking for a book that you can recognize. As an editor and writer, I really love reading these lists of descriptions and clues and seeing what kinds of details stick with readers even after the titles fade away. Plus it’s always deeply satisfying to see these little mysteries solved, and readers reunited with their long-lost book friends.
*These are clues about Albert Whitman books—can you name these? There might be a prize for the first person who can name all three books (or book series) in the comments. Must not be an Albert Whitman employee. (Sorry, Michelle.)
Photo by Leo Reynolds from Flickr.