Confession: I never buy my children new books. I was once a man who purchased half a shelf of new picture books for my future children well before my wife and I started making babies. But these days I can't even bring myself to walk into a big-box bookstore and pay retail for a book that only takes a couple minutes to read. In the back of my brain I know that somewhere that same book is just sitting in a pile at a thrift store. Sure, will be sticky from another kid's jelly-smeared fingers or smell like the ceiling of a dive bar, but I CAN BUY A HUNDRED BOOKS AT VALUE WORLD FOR THE COST OF ONE AT BORDERS. Seriously: I was there the other day and kid's books were 10 for a dollar. I bought a garbage bag full of them. That's one of my favorite things about Value World: after you hand over your cash, they hand over your purchases in a generic Hefty Bag, as if to say, Stop trying to kid yourself, dude, you just bought garbage. I found a lot of my Terrifying Nixon-Era Children's Books this way, along with some depressingly-illustrated biblical texts and some awful books from small presses that could only have entered the stream of commerce as pity purchases made by the author's friends.

What the thrift store does not provide, we often make. It's so easy these days to make professional-looking books for your kids. Even if you can't draw, you can always use photos from the internet (as long as you don't try to sell it there's no harm in writing whatever twisted, copyright-infringing book you want: epic, gruesome photoshopped battles between the Backyardigans and The Wonder Pets; the secret diaries of David the Gnome; Or you could even make boardbooks out of classic Beastie Boys or Metallica songs. You really are limited only by your imagination (and photoshop skills)).

I've made alphabet books in the past using photos of graffiti (this was the first, and this was the second). The challenge was finding characters for each letter of the alphabet, but it was also kind of fun. A few months ago, I decided to do another mythological alphabet. I wanted to try to find as many letters as we could in a single outing, so we drove up to the beautiful campus of the Cranbrook Educational Community where we wandered around looking for statues to photograph. The prolific Swedish sculptor Carl Milles worked in residence there for two decades and covered the grounds with his work, many with mythological themes. In the 40 acres of terraced gardens surrounding the 1908 Arts and Crafts-style mansion there are also many traditional sculptures of classical subjects. We had an awesome morning of beautiful weather, and when we got home, I put together a book to teach the Greek alphabet. This will prove important some day in the distant future: if one of my children ever finds themselves wandering around Hanover or New Haven searching for a poetry reading at the Phi Beta Kappa house, they won't accidentally wander into a keg party at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house and follow the inevitable path of debauchery and date rape that a little knowledge of the Greek alphabet could have helped them avoid. See, I did it for the children!

I knew that some of the statues represented different figures than the ones I would assign them, such as Flapper Eve here who makes a fine Aphrodite. The story of the judgment of Paris is way less terrifying than the expulsion from Eden. Added bonus: no fig leafs.

This one is Milles' Rape of Europa. I'm telling you, it's important to start associating Epsilon with rape at an early age.

Hebe was the goddess who brought all the other gods ambrosia. Have you ever explained the concept of ambrosia to a 4-year-old? You will drink it from empty cups at tea parties for weeks.

Cross-eyed Zeus here is the coolest statue at Cranbrook because he CRIES when you step on a certain ground tile. My daughter hates it when anyone cries (but especially all-powerful deities), so seeing Zeus piss water out of his eyeballs sends her into hysterics. We always have to visit Zeus last because she's pretty useless after I've made her watch this:

After Zeus we did manage to head over to the school grounds to see the iron Pegasus gates, after which I fantasized about someday sending the kids to school there (even though, as my friend puts it, "the tuition cost is the same as financing a million-dollar car").

I reminded myself that kids are more likely to become drug addicts at Cranbrook than they are on the streets of Detroit, and we moved on to the Centaurs:

Man, I am totally going to get blacklisted at Cranbrook for letting the kid ride the Centaurs.

And don't get me started about the Sphinxes.

Here's a riddle: how do you get two kids off the sphinxes? Answer: promise to let them ride the centaurs.

I don't know who the following statue was supposed to be, but when I saw this photo there was no way she could be anything but Medusa for the purposes of my alphabet book:

The girl is getting into stories from the Odyssey right now, so this was easy:

I managed to represent every letter of the Greek alphabet except for Xi and Omega (some were a stretch---I used carvings on the helmet in the photo above to represent the Phoenix for Phi and the Lapith for Lambda). What I really loved about making this book was that the kids and I had an adventure making it together. You can't go for a walk like this without stories, and I know the girl already associates the book with the good memory of that morning.

We've done other books (that I won't share here) to help Gram remember the names and faces of his family and friends; my mother has made the kids books that tell stories from my childhood and her own. Next I think we're going to take a hike around the neighborhood and take photos of the different plants the kids find, identify them and make a book to give names to the nature that surrounds them. In the future, someone might scavenge through the detritus of our lives in some thrift store somewhere and find the books we've made and wonder what the hell we were thinking. If there's any justice in this world, he'll have whatever the equivalent of a blog is in 2036 and use it to totally make fun of me for these books: Pretentious Abecedaries from the Turn of the Millennium.

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The on-demand book publisher Shutterfly has bought advertising here on Sweet Juniper, and they let me use their new picture book service to print this one:

She may have been brown-nosing for a Popsicle, but I swear she turned to me and said, "I love this book, pops."

Shutterfly has also given me the codes to let twelve Sweet Juniper readers print their own books for free. All you have to do to enter this random drawing is leave a comment on this post. I'd love to hear any ideas you might have for DIY books. I'm a firm believer in taking the things you're passionate about and sharing them with kids. Even if they don't end up passionate about the same things, I believe the passion itself is contagious. Too often the things that make us excited get sidelined in life. I long ago decided against a career in academia because I knew my interest in the classics would become a life of reading esoteric French journal articles and a constant fear of budget cuts. Like most people, what I really loved were the stories, and having kids has given me every reason to rekindle those old joys. So what are you passionate about that you'd like to share with your kids (or nieces/nephews, etc.) one day? Obscure early 80s hardcore bands? Ectoparasite entomology? Do you have a PhD in Post-romantic French Literature (A is for Absinthe. . .B is for Baudelaire)? Do you want to help a kid differentiate between the hood ornaments of classic American cars? What passions did your parents pass on to you? Leave a comment on those post to win an opportunity to create something for yourself or your kids to help make your passion contagious.

The contest will run through Friday, July 24 at 3:00 p.m. EST, at which point I will immediately announce the winners. I'm not sure the random date/time thing is the most fair, so I will be choosing the winners randomly some other way. Good luck!