Austin moms look to increase diversity in children’s book options

Brytani reading to her two sons.
Research shows that when children see themselves reflected in book characters, they’re more engaged with learning and reading.

But for many children of color, they often don’t come across many books where the main characters look like them. 

When college-friends-turned-mommy-friends Brytani Cavil and Darianna Donegan noticed they were having a difficult time finding books with characters who looked like their young, Black children, they decided to be part of the solution for other Black kids across the country. 

The women launched the Brown Book Box in February 2019 to fill the void of books with Black and Brown protagonists available to children who look like theirs. Each box contains between two and three books and accompanying activities and is curated around themes like kinship care, blended families, different abilities, and a number of other representative experiences and interests children might appreciate.

Both women initially started their careers in youth development and have experience facilitating programs with elementary-age students, and they sometimes work with Cavil’s mother, a school administrator, to develop the box activities. The books are vetted carefully by Cavil and Donegan, who conduct “hours and hours of research” into titles that might be a good fit, and then they’re run through the intense scrutiny of their own children. 

“If they’re a thumbs up with our kids, and if they fit into our themes, that’s how we decide what goes into the boxes,” said Donegan. 

While other businesses have struggled to remain open during the pandemic, the Brown Book Box has seen business and revenue increase dramatically as parents are home searching for things to keep their children engaged and supplement school learning. When the pair started out last year, they hoped to sell 25 subscriptions, “because that’s the minimum number of books we could order” from the distributor they were working with at the time, laughed Cavil. Now, they’re finding themselves struggling to keep up with demand. 

“I think the main barrier has been being able to get the access to capital to allow us to scale our business up,” said Donegan, who added their time and capacity has also been a challenge, as both women continue to juggle full-time careers and their families here.

“We’ve been bootstrapping our business, funding our business ourselves and funding it through the revenue that we have coming in, and that process is not very conducive to the pace that we are growing, so it just makes things much more difficult logistically and makes it hard to plan ahead,” Cavil added. 

In addition to the book bundles, Cavil and Donegan have been looking for ways to engage with the community to increase literacy and engagement for children in the Austin Metro area. In February, to celebrate their one year anniversary, the Brown Book Box partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of America and local barbershops to provide free haircuts to local students as they read to their barbers. The event raised over $5,000 to provide free book bundles to low-income families in the area. 

“We have lots of ideas about what we’d like to do with schools before the coronavirus. We were really trying to focus on hosting story and crafting programs with schools, where we’d come in once a week and read a book to kids and do an activity with them,” Donegan said. 

Now they’re looking for new ways to serve families virtually. They worked with Cavil’s mother, Tiffany Burris, to develop a reading journal that highlights the skills young readers should be pulling from the books, and included it in a reading resource kit they made available to families. They have also implemented a weekly virtual story hour, which children from around the country can access on their Facebook and YouTube pages Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. CST. 

this year has been about growth and trying to become more visible

As they look ahead to their second anniversary, Cavil and Donegan said they’re hoping to continue to see the business grow, and would like to eventually open a storefront where families can come and engage with the content and do activities in person. 

“In our first year of business, it was really about us learning about the subscription industry and getting all of our logistics in place, and this year has been about growth and trying to become more visible,” said Cavil. “We’ve tried to be intentional about our social media presence and really just trying to get our brand out there and solidify who we are and what we stand for. This year, we grew a lot … and I definitely think the goal is for us to be able to run the Brown Book Box full-time” one day.

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