“All children should get to see themselves as the hero,” says Katharine Harbord, founder of Oh Zoe books. That’s why she came up with the brilliant idea of diverse and inclusive personalised picture books…
The idea for Oh Zoe was born on a beach in Cornwall a number of summers ago. I was ready for a complete change of career, and we were planning to move up from London to York to start a family and a new life.
Matt, my husband, was going to keep his job in London, whilst I got the business off the ground prior to kids, so that we were in a position to be in control of how we balanced work and family.
As it happens, we found out I was pregnant with our daughter just a few days before the big move northwards, and a pregnancy plagued by hyperemesis put paid to any immediate plans.
Being unable to make progress on the business should have been frustrating, but in reality I went through that pregnancy in a daze, just surviving day to day and terrified that I would never feel normal again.
In a way I’m grateful for the enforced break from Oh Zoe; I think launching the business as a parent has positively and fundamentally shaped what we’re doing. I’ve always been passionate about picture books, but the personalisation element of our stories has taken on a whole new dimension since becoming parents.
We were finding it so hard to find exciting, aspirational books with girls as the hero. And the more we looked into it the more we realised how strong the gender stereotypes are, and how under-represented so many kids are in their books.
We became determined to tackle this through truly diverse personalisation options, offering diverse skin tone and hairstyle options, a wheelchair, glasses, hearing aid and more.
We’d always had the aim to make books which were truly personalised, and which offered choice for as many kids as possible, but since becoming a parent it’s become more emotional than that, because we understand so much more how the stories we tell our daughter affect her perception of her place in the world.
We were determined to move beyond personalisation as a gimmick, and make genuinely brilliant stories. So, finally, after trying trying to write our own book – and failing miserably – we launched the Oh Zoe Rising Talent Award in January 2017 to find new picture book talent.
From well over 500 entries we found Victoria Richards, and our first title The Forgotten Forest. We found our brilliant illustrators, Sarah and Yoshie of Sas and Yosh, who were just as passionate about making something magical that could be made with such diverse personalisation.
They also happen to be juggling parenthood with their design business, so it feels like we’re all in it together. After a good year or so of development with them, the book is now complete and ready to share with the world.
We’ve built the book and the business by partnering with super talented people who also believe that what we’re doing together can make a difference. But, we do need prove the concept and talk to as many customers as possible so crowd funding via Kickstarter seemed the obvious answer. And the response has been great.
People love the book simply as a great story, but some of the reviews from parents finally getting to see their kids represented so positively have actually made me cry.
One parent, whose son has cerebral palsy, said “it’s easy to underestimate the importance for all children to see themselves represented as the main character in a beautiful story until you see their face light up because it’s happening for the first time”, and that it sparked a conversation with his siblings that despite his wheelchair he can climb a rock mountain and be the hero.
Another mum said: “‘She is me’ said the kiddo. For a black girl that means a lot.” This insight into how much representation matters to children for whom it isn’t the norm made my heart fit to burst.
Our Kickstarter campaign ends on 28th September and the more backers we can get, the better the business will be. Additional support means we’ll be able to offer more personalisation and investigate additional inclusive options, such as limb difference or birthmarks.
Motherhood has provided huge motivation for setting up my own business, but it’s also been a huge source of stress and guilt. Even though you hope you’re doing what’s best for your child in the long run, it means short term pain and an over-reliance on CBeebies! It also means your relationship takes an additional hit with evenings taken up working, and pillow talk becoming work chat.
Working out how to balance your day between work and childcare has been a process of trial and error, and I still feel I get it wrong more often that right. Ultimately motherhood has shaped me, and the business, for the better so I can’t imagine life any other way.
Our Kickstarter page is kickstart.ohzoe.com.