ITHACA, N.Y. — As parents, they wanted their kids to have quality screen time. As authors, they found a gap in the marketplace. So Armand Tossou and Ithaca native Melanie Keil-Tossou created Red Clover Reader, a digital library of value-focused children’s books by indie writers

“We wanted to create something that people want that kids are happy to engage with and parents don’t feel guilty about letting their kids use,” said Keil-Tossou.

With so much parental guilt around screen time, Keil-Tossou said she wanted to create a better solution.

The result was Red Clover Reader, which features over 100 books by self-published authors in multiple languages, and is aimed at young readers 12 and under. Parents and children can access the books on computer, tablet or smartphone through the website. Readers can digitally flip the pages back and forth as they wish, or press play to have the story proceed from beginning to end. Some books also include additional resources like lesson plans or activity books that can be printed out for later.

“My business partner, and now husband, wrote and self published a children’s book of positive affirmations for kids as part of a bedtime routine. My husband is really kind of passionate about the power of how your own thoughts can shape your attitude and your mood and wanted a way to reinforce that to our kids,” Keil-Tossou said.

In that first drive to create the book that became “Goodnight Magic Garden,” the pair also thought about how to present those ideas to kids in a way that’s both approachable and fun. “We had this book, but since we didn’t work with a traditional publisher we didn’t have any channels for distribution.”

In the process, Melanie and Armand discovered that many self-published authors ran into the same issue. The pair decided to create a platform to help families and anyone with children in their life to find books with a greater diversity of character, and as a solution to poor screen time.

Knowing that Internet activity can be absorbing for kids (and sometimes, too much so), Melanie hoped to create a platform children would love to engage with and use screen time to foster a love of reading.

Many of the books are picture books, but there are a growing number of short novels for beginning readers. A number of books are available in different languages (Spanish, French, Dutch and Swahili), and much of the collection features a diverse cast of characters and tackles values like courtesy, respect, inclusion and determination. Red Clover Reader is currently free for users to sign-up and read entire books online, but print copies are also available for purchase on the website.

Keil-Tossou grew up just outside of Syracuse, in Liverpool, New York. After some time in Colorado, she moved to Ithaca to raise her daughter in a place she knew was family-oriented.

“It’s such a nice community of moms. Even though we are removed from Ithaca now, I’m still part of the Ithaca Mama and Ithaca Family Gift Economy (Facebook groups). Ithaca’s definitely my unofficial hometown,” Keil-Tossou said.

She and Tossou live with their two kids in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, a Midwest college town with a similar entrepreneurial spirit to Ithaca, where Tossou is in his third year of a Ph.D. program in applied economics and Keil-Tossou is a master of public health student. Earlier in 2018, they launched Red Clover Reader with the help of the University of Illinois iVenture Accelerator, a business accelerator and incubator for student ventures at Urbana-Champaign.

The learning curve to create an online platform was a hurdle for both of them, as neither is a programmer or developer. Keil-Tossou said that she hopes to expand their subscription base, and eventually provide schools with their diversity and value-focused content.

The most fun part, Keil-Tossou said, is interacting with independent authors who are passionate about having a platform to share their work on.

On top of being students and working full-time on their startup, Keil-Tossou and Tossou returned to the Finger Lakes to get married late in August. After a weekend celebrating in Geneva with friends and family, the pair headed back to Urbana excited for the new semester.

“We’d like to start to use some algorithms, artificial intelligence based on what kids are learning and liking, but can help them achieve certain goals like literary or cultural competency and empathy.”

Jennifer Wholey

Jennifer Wholey is a feature writer and Head of Dining Partnerships for the Ithaca Voice. Contact her at jwholey@ithacavoice.com.