Four years ago, when her big sister Giana was writing her first book, I took notice. As a writer myself and one who teaches people to express themselves as a form of communing with the True Self within, I was as excited by my god-daughter’s writing endeavor as I was curious what the then-10-year-old might remind me about the art of self-expression.
Would she reveal some precious insight that fellow adult writers might take to heart?
Would she embody a childlike love of writing that, perhaps, I was losing touch with?
(Was she already a better writer than me?!)
Now four years later, Giana’s younger sister, my cousin Kendal, who just turned 9-years-old in July, has followed suit.
Kendal hasn’t just written one book. In her estimation, she’s written nearly 20.
And as if it wasn’t enough (writing an average of 3 and 1/3 books per month since last Christmas), Kendal has started her own book publishing company.
It’s called Books On Books.
They have a website.
And 8 employees, I’m told.
And even a list of customer emails for future marketing campaigns.
Sure, the website is a free Wix site — and it’s still under construction. Their employees aren’t being paid a full salary and benefits — at least, not yet. And their email list consists of 11 customers who all happen to be family members of the company’s co-founders.
She’s started her own book publishing business.
I learned about Books on Books upon receiving a flurry of text messages and emails from the company in April (coincidentally, the very week of Kendal’s and her friends’ public school vacation). During the publisher’s inaugural marketing campaign, more than 9 books were available for purchase, including raved-about hits like The Missing Banana, Chocolate Bar Guy ALIVE!!! and my personal favorite, The Cereal That Needed Milk.
I promptly placed an order for all 9 books, and a few weeks later received them in a thick manila envelope with an invoice.
“Please send $16.02 to the following address,” with a hand-signed note from the author and co-founder herself, Kendal.
Clearly a very bespoke and authentic operation.
I was enthralled by the stories and their characters. Mike the Banana is a clear fan-favorite of Books On Books’ lineup, being that he’s featured in two stories. In one (spoiler alert), Mike discovers a perfect pair of one-legged pants for himself (being that he is, after all, a banana).
In the sequel title, Banana Goes Back to School, Mike is thrown into the bureaucracy and politics of the modern educational system — a ripe topic and an ambitious social observation for the young author — when Mike (now a math teacher) is challenged to a math contest by a rival teacher at the school at which he is employed.
After devouring all 9 books in a single sitting, and promptly adding these works to my list of “Read Books” on Goodreads for 2017, I knew I had to speak with the author and company co-founder Kendal to hear the story behind her business, her vision of the future, and why she — like her sister — gravitated toward the written word at such a young age.
Over an hour before we’re scheduled to meet at the coffee shop, Kendal texts me.
“Hello. Watcha doin?” A subtle hint for the big cousin as if to say, Hey guy, what’s the hold up? I’m ready when you are!
I tell her that I’m cleaning my apartment and excited to be interviewing her later in the morning.
Twenty minutes pass before another not-so-subtle hint arrives:
“I just finished getting ready, what should I do now?”
As scheduled at 10 AM sharp, Kendal’s mom drops her off at the coffee shop moments after I park in the slanted row of spaces neighboring the burnt orange and purple-trimmed building. Kendal pops out of her booster seat in the back, lugging a large arm bag around her right side.
It’s full of papers, her laptop, and, of course, books.
She wears an expression I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in her throughout her young life: a sweet, subdued smile, as if she would not appear overeager — especially with business to attend to. And yet, the quiet gleam in her eyes betrays her cool-collectedness. This is awesome, she’s thinking. And maybe, This is sooo what grown ups do!
Even as a toddler, Kendal displayed a thorough sense of humor and a deep range of emotional intelligence. She’s wise beyond her years and deeply perceptive of adults, their expressions and their conversations. At any family party or gathering, I can tell when Kendal is quietly absorbing a distant conversation across the room and pretending not to, because I used to do that too.
We enter the coffee house and stand side by side and, like the 1988 movie Twins — she the DeVito to my Arnold — customers eye the size difference between us cutely, each with our own laptop bags and journals in hand.
We stand as business peers, assessing the shop’s hanging menu.
“Have you had breakfast yet?” I ask.
She shakes her head no.
“Are you hungry?”
Kendal’s eyes widen in agreement.
“How about we get you a muffin?”
Corn, she indicates.
“Do you know what you want to drink?”
“Mmmmm,” she begins slowly, pausing, and raising an eyebrow, “Mom lets me drink coffee…?” she replies in half-statement and half-inquiry, as if for permission.
“Does she really?” I counter, suspiciously.
“Well, she does when it’s my birthday…”
It’s in this moment that I flashback to when Kendal was still a toddler in a highchair at her family’s kitchen table, leaning desperately towards the extended green straw of her mom’s iced Starbucks latte. We stopped her, laughing at such a little kid somehow taking to the bitter taste of coffee, but only after she had a quick pull of the good stuff. An old soul? Maybe she just desired whatever it was that the adults around her were having.
Within a year of this memory, though, Kendal’s mature tastes would show again — this time, toward entrepreneurship.
On the tail end of a visit to Nordstrom with her grandmother, Kendal began asking questions like,
“If I wanted to design a dress, would I have to make it myself? Could someone else make it for me? How would I get the dress into the store so someone could buy it?”
She lacked the words in her vocabulary, but was inquiring about things like outsourcing, hiring, manufacturing and supply chain.
She was three.
Books On Books began one fated day in school when Kendal had had enough of the “secret” nature of their secret writing club.
I never got the full story on precisely how Top Secret Writing Club (or “TSWC” for short) had gotten started. But I suspect that it began because Kendal and her friends wanted time in school to write creatively. They weren’t provided with it. Reading time, Kendal told me, was built in to every day of school. But not writing. TSWC addressed the dilemma but necessitated stealth.
That is, until Kendal approached her friend Rachael — the eventual co-founder of Books On Books — with, in her own words, a “very serious” proposition. Enough of the secretness! They were to go public with their secret writing club.
Moreover, they were going to turn their secret hobby, snuck into moments of the school day, into a full-blown profession.
Top Secret Writing Club was to become a business. An actual business.
Just like Kendal had been thinking about since she was 3.
Right then and there, they voted on the name: Books On Books.
They brainstormed catchy slogans (“Pages and pages of creativity”) and marketing pitches (“Tired of words on books?”).
Then, the two co-founders, Kendal and Rachael, began writing. Luckily, a number of works had already been produced during their time with Top Secret Writing Club. Mike the Banana’s tale was originally written around Christmas vacation of 2016. As if to beta test the market, Kendal published a limited number of books for family members.
Each an artist with her own particular style and taste, Kendal and Rachel endeavored to create their own series of books:
With a proclivity for first-person narratives, Rachael came up with the Yucky Kindergarten series (“Yucky Kindergarten is a series all about a five-year old girl named Flora. She has many great adventures in this series.”) and Kendal’s deep love of vivid storytelling produced to the That Needed series (“This series is all about objects that need something. It’s one of our most popular series ever created.”)
By the time April vacation arrived, my own mother, Kendal’s Auntie Janie, found herself as the unsuspecting first customer of Books On Books — before the company would reveal its visionary plan to become “the best bookstore” anywhere, ever.
The reveal began when her Auntie Janie was going for a walk in the neighborhood with her and her friend, Rachael:
“Auntie Janie started talking to us about cul-de-sacs,” Kendal says in our interview.
“Cul-de-sacs?” I ask, “Why was my mom talking to you girls about cul-de-sacs?”
“I don’t know,” Kendal insists.
I’m imagining that, when they were walking together, the three had come upon a cul-de-sac and someone had asked why the street ended in a circle. Ever-intent to solve curiosities for the world, my mom later went home and emailed Kendal with… more information about the history of cul-de-sacs.
Kendal saw an opportunity and seized it, replying,
“Would you like to buy a book?”
Books On Books was born.
Two months later, Books on Books is cash-flow positive.
Technically, mom and dad are still helping with the printing expenses. Including all that printer ink. And the shipping costs, too, because all those pages are heavy.
(Let’s just call it this a young startup’s seed money, okay?)
In between bites of a whole grain corn muffin and sips of a small decaf iced coffee, Kendal opens up Google Drive on her laptop, sifting through dozens of files like Books On Books Newsletter and Books On Books Business Cards that the employees have collaboratively written and edited on the free cloud service.
They’ve been on-boarding new employees (including dad, who is considered an employee) who have vital marketing duties (like hanging fliers around the neighborhood) that ensure the survival of the company during a time of notorious struggle for all book publishers, what with the age of the Internet and advent of digital media and all.
Kendal reads aloud a few of her favorite books, and a new work-in-progress. She edits the documents as she reads them aloud, noting a typo here or misplaced punctuation there.
“Did you think it would be hard to start your own business?” I ask Kendal, “Or did you think it would be easy?”
“I thought it would be hard, not easy,” she tells me, “But I thought it would be fun.”
“What’s the biggest obstacle you’re facing in your business today?” I ask.
“Well, the problem was that we only sold books to our family so far. So it’s not really like a real business.”
What’s perhaps most resourceful of all is how Kendal, Rachael and the Books On Books team propositioned their home room teacher to set up a special event by the end of the school year.
When the authors learned that a Scholastic Book Fair would be happening at their school, they scheduled a meeting with their home room teacher (like, a sit-down meeting) about getting their books sold alongside the other books at the book fair. The teacher told them that the book fair was a fundraiser, but offered to help them host their own Books On Books Book Fair on the last day of school.
Sadly, though, the school year came to and end too quickly and there was not enough time to organize the event — clearly, a bitter disappointment for the authors, but one that they’ll be better for, as most hustling entrepreneurs can attest.
“What about your plans for the summer?” I ask.
“Well,” Kendal replies, smiling, “I want to get an account on CreateSpace so we can self-publish our books in paperback. Even though mom said she would help me sign up for one a month ago,” her face hardens, “But, nope, not yet…”
(Better get on that, Lau.)
“How about your biggest dream for your business?”
Kendal pauses and thinks hard, looking out over her laptop. “To sell a book to somebody that I don’t know,” she says. “Then it would actually be a business, not just a family business.”
Still intent to discover the connection between Kendal’s book-writing and her sister’s years earlier, I do my best Barbara Walters impression and put the kid on the hot seat, just one last time.
“Why books, Kendal?” I ask her, prompting an existential pause, pregnant with patience and intrigue.
“I like to make stories,” Kendal replies, “And I like to type, so…”
As beautiful a reason as it is simple.
Because she enjoys it.
That’s always enough.
Kendal and I wrap up our interview, our iced coffees warming in the summer sun. Her mother returns to pick her up, and Kendal lugs her laptop bag and books into the back seat, right next to her booster seat.
Before they drive away, I lean into the backseat window and tell her that we will have to get together some time over the summer to co-work together, each of us working on our own writing. She agrees.
The next day, I get a text on my phone:
“Make sure you include my email in the interview.”
P.S. — The company email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You might like inquire about their book selection — and possibly become the company’s first non-family customer ;)