CSU alumni launches new platform to promote diverse children’s books

Samantha Ye

Melanie Keil and Armand Tossou, Colorado State University alumni, stand beside a demonstration for their digital children’s book startup, Red Clover Reader. (Photo courtesy of Armand Tossou)

Children’s books hold a place in our hearts as the first stories we heard. Now two Colorado State alumni are taking children’s book and making them more inclusive for a new generation of readers. 

Colorado State University alumni Melanie Keil and Armand Tossou hope to give diverse and independent children’s book a new platform.

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Red Clover Reader is the name of the alumni’s digital library and its aim is threefold: to give children access to more diverse, representative stories, improve children’s quality of screen time and give independent authors exposure through a larger platform.

Keil said she and her partner were inspired to make Red Clover Reader after self-publishing their own children’s book.

As a self-publisher, you don’t have a publishing team behind you for marketing your book in all those traditional venues,” Keil said. “(The) marketing is kind of up to the authors and that is a steep learning curve, so we created Red Clover Reader to help other authors.”

The digital library allows independent authors to add their books to the recently launched website for no charge. The books can then be accessed as eBooks by parents, teachers or anyone who registers with the website.

More information and a collection of 50+ children’s books are available at redclovereader.com

Currently, it costs nothing to register and users are encouraged to submit feedback to help the program improve. It will later move to a monthly subscription model of around $5.99, Keil said, likely when the collection hits 100 books.

The revenue generated from subscriptions and sales from the website’s “boutique” will help pay authors and program operations. But in the process, Keil and Tossou discovered other problems within the industry.

“Children’s literature doesn’t really reflect the makeup of the country, as far as diversity,” Keil said. “We really wanted to also focus on highlighting diverse stories (and) diverse characters.”

An analysis by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of 3,700 children’s books published in 2017 showed about 25 percent of the books featured characters of color, continuing the upward trend since 2014.

These numbers still fall short of representative of the U.S. population, which is currently 41 non-white or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Parents are concerned about how much time their kids are spending online, the kind of content they’re consuming online, and we know that the internet is not going anywhere. We think that this could be a really cool way of helping to recapture some of that time and use it for developing a love of reading.”Melanie Keil, CSU alumni and cofounder of Red Clover Reader

Representation also falls short in terms of who is writing the books and who is publishing them. Lee & Low books found in that in 2015, 79 percent of the publishing industry is white, while, according to the CCBC, only 14 percent of authors and illustrators are people of color.

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“Because the children’s publishing book industry is pretty exclusive and predominantly white, they pass up stories from African-American authors, Latino authors, stories that don’t look like the dominant paradigm of kids books,” Keil said.

Consequently, many of those authors may end up self-publishing, putting in Red Clover Reader, which naturally draws those diverse stories, Keil said. 

Of course, Red Clover Reader looks for more than just diversity; they focus on providing fun and engaging content which helps kids’ social and emotional skills. The project is also developing an app and “enhanced” reading books to help kids build their reading skills.

Keil and Tossou are now at the University of Illinois where Tossou is earning his Ph.D. in applied economics and Keil a Masters in public health, but their time as Rams remains instrumental to their work.

Tossou “really got into the entrepreneurial spirit” while earning his global social and sustainable enterprise MBA at CSU, Keil said. And, Keil, who studied environmental and radiological sciences, noted how literacy and child development are directly tied to environmental and public health.

“Parents are concerned about how much time their kids are spending online, the kind of content they’re consuming online, and we know that the internet is not going anywhere,” Keil said. “We think that this could be a really cool way of helping to recapture some of that time and use it for developing a love of reading.”

Collegian reporter Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.