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Lulu Jr. puts the power of publishing in the hands of kids

Avery Batson with the book she created with Lulu Jr. on her book, “Ego.”
Avery Batson with the book she created with Lulu Jr. on her book, “Ego.” Batson Family

Jane Reynolds loves the written word. She used to work as a historian, poring over Colonial-era records for clues as to what life was like before the American Revolution, and she still has her parents’ correspondence from when her mom was living in Britain and her dad in Canada. So it’s natural that she loves books. Reynolds wants to share not just the joy of reading, but also writing and publishing with younger generations.

“One of the reasons I joined Lulu is because I’m in the world of education,” says Reynolds, the senior vice president of education and children’s publishing at the Raleigh-based self-publishing company. In England, she owns Lammas School – “On Lammas Road next to the Lammas Leisure Centre,” she says, laughing – which she has used to test Lulu’s academic applications. From teachers writing lessons into comic books to students collaborating on their own books, it’s an approach Reynolds feels has promise.

The company’s Lulu Jr. division already sells kits with which children can write their own stories. They work like this: Kids fill in the included pages and draw the cover, then mail them to Lulu with an included envelope. A few weeks later, a bound and printed book arrives, with the child as the author. Granted, Lulu isn’t alone in the self-publishing game, even for young markets. Scribblitt.com has online tools kids can use to write and illustrate hardcover books, which can then be ordered for $24.99, while KidPub, a children’s writing community dating to 1995, briefly had its own publishing press.

Lulu Jr.’s prices range from a $19.99 softcover kit to a $39.99 hardback one. (Note: Lulu Jr. retains the books for 12 months in case you want to order extra copies, but selling books to the public must be done through Lulu.) In 2016, it will take its self-publishing technology into schools and beyond: It’s going international.

“In January we launch My Awesome Publishing (for schools), and we will be taking these products worldwide,” Reynolds says. “That is going to keep us very busy.”

Reynolds is sitting in an airy conference room at Lulu’s headquarters just off Hillsborough Street – appropriately, a short walk from used bookstores Reader’s Corner and Nice Price Books. That’s a dangerous proximity, says Erika Brooks, Lulu’s director of marketing and communications: What brought everyone to this company is a love of books. Lulu certainly contributes its share.

“We do 425 million pages a year,” Brooks says. It’s a lot of pages, with a wide geographical range. Jennifer Batson and her family live on the other side of the U.S. from Raleigh, and her two kids share Brooks and Reynolds’ passion for books.

“They have a great respect for books,” Batson says over the phone from Phoenix. “That was on their Christmas list – books.”

The love extends to writing: Avery, 13, uses the computer while Miles, 8, follows the time-honored childhood technique of stapling sheets of paper together to make books. When Avery was 12, though, they came across a contest through Illinois school supply company Rainbow Resource Center. Using Lulu Jr.’s kits – and completely without adult assistance – young contestants were to write their own book. Avery entered, and her book, “Ego,” which is about egotism getting in the way of friendship, won the grand prize.

“She put a lot of effort into it,” Batson says about her daughter’s work. “I was just stunned.”

Avery is good with ideas, Batson says, just not always with the follow-through. But Lulu Jr.’s promise of a printed and bound book at the end of the process helped her see through the planning and editing stages necessary to writing an award-winning book. Now that she knows what she can achieve by pushing herself, Batson says Avery applies that lesson to other aspects of her life.

Prize aside, receiving an actual physical copy of “Ego” was a big deal. When Avery and Miles received their books, Batson says, they were inspired. They were motivated to write more.

“The thrill that you can hold a book in your hand that you’ve written is just amazing,” Reynolds says. “That’s the power we give.” There’s a video Brooks likes to watch of a young girl seeing her book for the first time, and she cries every time she sees it. Brooks, too, once taped sheets of paper together to make books; she knows exactly what that girl is feeling.

“Every single child has a story they want to tell,” Reynolds says. And when those stories become something tangible – a book, say – that exists in the real world, they stick in a child’s mind. Thinking back to her grade-school days, Reynolds says she doesn’t remember much, though the things she does recall have one thing in common.

“I can remember my science fair projects, I can remember doing those. I remember certain papers I wrote in high school,” she says. “Unless you make something, you don’t remember it.”

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