Children, impressionable as they are, absorb information about the world from everything they see. When the movies they watch and books they read don’t represent characters who look like them, though, children are less likely to develop an understanding that they, too, can do the things those characters do.
It’s an issue that Mike Vaggalis, Co-Founder of Chapel Hill-based Keepsake Tales, is on a mission to change. The self-described “book nerd” with entrepreneurial ambitions has built a business around putting children at the center of the story.
“When you hear a mom say, ‘My kid has never been able to see herself in stories because she has Down’s Syndrome and they don’t make books for kids like that,’ that’s truly heartbreaking,” Vaggalis said.
Keepsake Tales uses photos of the child, uploaded during the purchasing process, as the jumping-off point for personalized illustrations. Children receive a book featuring their name and image throughout the story.
Beyond helping address the lack of representation, Vaggalis is also trying to lead kids away from the pull of electronic devices.
“Some of our first customers have sent us videos of them coming into the living room and seeing their daughter, for instance, flipping through pages of the story and pointing to pictures of herself in the story,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she chose our book over an iPad. This thing is really working.’”
Today, Keepsake Tales launches its second book, Mount Jungle, in which the protagonist (a character with the same name and appearance as the book reader) overcomes obstacles with their “Rope Team.” This comes after the company’s September 2019 launch with Animals of the Nativity, a book featuring personalized dedication pages.
Partners pull them along
Vaggalis, with his love of literature, co-founded Keepsake Tales with children’s author Erin Burchik. He manages the business side of operations, while she handles creative and publishing matters.
Keepsake Tales recently brought on as a creative partner Mandy Harvey, a deaf singer who makes music using the feel of vibrations and found success in the 2017 season of “America’s Got Talent.”
The company has also partnered with No Barriers USA, a nonprofit that offers programs and educational materials with the mission of helping people with disabilities break down barriers, and which co-branded Keepsake Tales’ latest book.
“It’s a great relationship because they have all this amazing messaging and a very established brand,” Vaggalis said, “and we create a way for them to help translate that brand to children.”
Keepsake Tales has worked thus far with a production team based in the Philippines called NarraSoft, which executes the personalization process. Though Vaggalis says he is exploring options to systemize that process, he intends to continue a long-term partnership with NarraSoft in other ways, like developing base illustrations for new stories.
Vaggalis says Covid froze the investment pipelines that the company was looking to, but the partnerships give him confidence that the company can bootstrap even longer.
Keepsake Tales has adopted a model of inclusionary literature, Vaggalis says, which means that even if the protagonist doesn’t have a disability, they will see themself interacting in the story with someone who does. That ultimately creates a healthy way for a child to ask questions and learn about accepting different types of people.
Says Vaggalis: “We’ve seen this real social need, and we have never seen a model that’s been built specifically to meet this need. That’s what fires us and fuels us. That’s the core DNA of who we are and why we exist.”