Starting in the Netherlands, and now with a franchise in the United Kingdom and more to come, the business is based around unique subscription boxes (for ages 0-3, 4-7 and 8-11) and products that are created specifically to give children the tools they need to question and challenge the standard narrative, and build their own sense of self-worth.
Ani’s World is the first inclusive book subscription in the Netherlands and was recently recognised for its “contribution to a more diverse and inclusive society” when the business won the Caty Asscher Award in 2021.
We spoke to Anne and Linzi about why, as they eloquently state it on their website, being an open and loving parent is not enough to combat the negative stereoptypes that children learn at a young age, and why they have poured heart and soul into creating a business to help parents give their children another world – Ani’s World.
Can you give us some insight into how you took Ani’s World from an idea into the real world?
Anne: After we were introduced to each other I think we both felt, very quickly, that we were on the same path. We arranged to meet for coffee, to share ideas about doing something together that would have impact. During that conversation it became clear that we had both experienced difficulty in finding toys and books that reflected the representation that we wanted for our children and we decided to pursue this further. I shared with Linzi how I still remember there were hardly any black characters in the books I read as a child. In the rare times there was a black lead, they were running from a war situation or dealing with painful experiences. After our initial discussions we undertook a survey and found that even if parents wanted to find books reflecting diversity and their own backgrounds, they didn’t have the time to easily find them in shops. They usually came across them by chance.
Linzi: From the beginning we wanted to create a safe space – a community – for parents who want their children to have an inclusive upbringing; who share the same values. We started with books because stories are so powerful in achieving this and so Books by Ani was born. But we quickly realised that books were the central part of what is in fact a whole world and so we became Ani’s World. Key in taking our idea into the real world has been book publishers and it has been gratifying to see how their response to us has changed over the past two years. In the beginning we were just another customer but now we have a relationship with many that sees them reaching out to us when they have new childrens books that reflect diversity and inclusion and asking for our opinion. This is partly because of the way our business has grown and evolved but also because of movements like Black Lives Matter which has had a massive impact on the way that people view what their children read and are surrounded by. But there is a very long way to go in creating a world for all children through books and toys and so we still have a lot of work to do.
Why is reflecting and so helping create a world that is diverse and inclusive important to you personally?
Anne: When I was growing up – and this counts for very many people in different countries – I was reading books with people who did not look like me. Kids want to read stories in which they see themselves. My children want that.
Linzi: A lot of people wonder why, as a privileged white woman, I am doing this work. The easy answer is that I have mixed race children so of course I want to see my kids in the books they are reading and I see, up close, what happens when they don’t see this. My children are a huge inspiration for me; in what Ani’s World looks like on a day-to-day basis. I do believe that even if I had white children I would still be doing this work. There were things in my childhood that made me struggle with self-love and which gave me more empathy for those who cannot see themselves represented in the world. As I grew older, I started to see the massive inequalities and power imbalance in society. I travelled a lot and lived in Indonesia and Rwanda which gave me more of an international perspective. I was always searching for something to do that would help rectify the power imbalance in the world but it was only when I met Anne that I knew what that was.
And for children and families?
Anne: One of the reasons why we wanted to focus on books is that children are the next generation so if they can read books, or have books read to them, where everyone is equal, where you have equal representation of different people, then you also create children with more compassion and more empathy. It is very simple – or at least it seems very simple to us.
Linzi: Studies show that children as young as three years old start to categorise people into hierarchies according to skin colour, and other characteristics. But we believe that children are born being able to see a full human in front of them, regardless of anything around that human. That is what we are trying to do with the books - to make sure that that gift that children have continues to be nurtured and protected, rather than waiting until they are older and we have to undo all the stuff that society has done to them. Sometimes people come into my house and ask me what the problem is with, for instance, Elsa from Frozen. “She’s a strong lead,” they say. But because my house is filled with black and brown princesses doesn’t mean that I am anti-white. It’s because as soon as my daughter leaves my house, it is always the other way round.
Anne: When we started our business, people would ask why we couldn’t use books that address this topic, through stories about animals or objects. That question is the very reason why we are doing this.
We love your Dutch role-model card set and join you in believing in the importance of inclusive role-models in our children’s lives. Tell us a little about how this came into being?
Anne: We started off with trying out some role model activities in our book boxes and that was well received. And then we felt we had to do something more as it was super hard to find anything on different, diverse role-models who are local - and not from the US. We approached everyone who we feature on the cards – letting them know we wanted to include them and how much we considered them to be role-models. It wasn’t easy working with 26 different people who are busy but we are so proud of the set!
Linzi: It took us a 18 months of hard work to get the set of cards out in September last year, with Anne working on the content and our wonderful illustrator Anouschka Boswinous bringing the role-models to life visually. We are very grateful to the role-models who helped spread the word on their social media platforms. Support like that is such a great help for a small business. We’ve had a lovely response from individual customers and the set is now also available in shops and a growing number of museum shops.
Do you have any advice about building a social change business for our community?
Linzi: We definitely have a great deal of passion for what we do and that has kept us going – especially as we find a balance between our massive visions and the reality of building the business. We are driven by such a desire to create a big and vibrant Ani’s World community but the reality is you have to also deal with putting many books in many boxes! But not doing this isn’t an option. It is part of who I am, my third child. If I was doing this to make money I would have quit a long time ago. It takes such a long time to get to your vision of where you want to be, but every time we receive a message from a parent who tells us that their child looked at one of our books and said “that looks like me”, well time stops and everything make sense. This is 100 percent why we are doing this.
Anne: We want to do so much, all at once but we are building this business alongside being parents so we have to decide what ideas to materialise in a given year. I get a lot of energy from Linzi.
Linzi: Our partnership is everything! Ani’s World would not have been born if it wasn’t for Anne. Both of our spirits are poured into it and if you take one out, we are left with half.
Anne: We of course do have help from others - like our amazing illustrator, Anouschka and our partner in the UK, Clare Jeffery.
Yes! You’ve recently expanded to the UK. Congratulations! Tell us more about this move.
Linzi: We have franchised Ani’s World in the UK which is very exciting. It is going well but it is, of course, a very different market and there are massive learning curves for all three of us. From a small company perspective – which we are now but not forever – launching in a new territory is like launching a new business. But it brings such a richness to our business. For instance, the book market is so progressed in the UK that one of the things that our UK franchise is helping us with is thinking about what more we can we bring to the table. So we are currently looking into digital and other things that can support our offering. It is pushing us in terms of innovation.
Anne: We have been excited about this from the start. We always wanted it to expand country by country. There is also interest from Germany and Spain. We are trying to keep it open to what people want – franchise or distributor.
You won the Caty Asscher Award in 2021 – an award won previously by our Executive Director, Prof. Hanneke Takkenberg. What does this kind of recognition mean to you?
Anne: It was a surprise to us to be chosen as one of the nominees and such a huge honour. That there are people who reviewed different companies and chose us makes us very thankful.
Linzi: We are currently working with Caty on creating an inclusive library for Leefkringhuis in Amsterdam, with the support of the Rotary Club Amsterdam. This feels like a wonderful outcome of winning the prize.
Small things count. My daughter was given a book and the skin colour pencils when her baby was born last year and was so happy to receive both – especially as her partner has Filipino heritage. Your business also brings joy! Is that what you intended?
Anne: Wonderful! That is what we intended – for both children and adults. We get many messages from white parents who say that the books help them understand the world more.
Linzi: And sometimes they come to us with requests for more support on how to talk to their children about sometimes uncomfortable issues in the books - which prompts us to send out questions as part of the activities that go with each of our book boxes. And every time we get feedback that someone – a child or an adult - has experienced a powerful moment through our books, well it is worth a year of packing boxes.
How do you choose the books to go into the age-appropriate boxes?
Anne: We have to review the books that are out there. There are so many and we have to make sure they are free from stigma and stereotype. It takes a lot of time but we have become better with it and know the publishers that we can rely on more than others.
Linzi: We have made mistakes too as we don’t represent every background. There have been times when subscribers have said to us that a part of a book felt stereotypical of their background and we are so open for these conversations. We are human too and we have a position of responsibility to make sure what goes in our boxes is fully representative. We also pull in people in our community as readers when we are unsure and that they are willing to do that is a massive gift. It’s a tricky process picking the books but it is the best job in the world.
What kind of world does Ani want to live in?
Anne: A world that is normalising what is already normal for us. Making sure the stories that we read are not stigmatising and stereotypical. Where kids from every background can be the lead and have the magical experiences that are intrinsic to children’s books.
Linzi: Ani wants to live in a world where, when she meets other children, she has no concept of who they are until they open their mouth and tell her. Ani’s world full of fantasy and imagination and all the different people of the world.
What plans do you have for the business for 2022?
Anne: We are focusing on growing our community so that it becomes even more inclusive and accessible. We are working with students from Hogeschool Utrecht who are helping us to find ways to build a community, and also to digitalise some of our offerings so that we can reach more people.