Belonging books: La Jolla native launches nonprofit to bring diversity-focused books to kids

Considering she wasn’t an avid reader growing up, Annie Totten might not be the first person you think would start a literature-based nonprofit.

But the La Jolla native (who went by her maiden name, Turner, during her time here) founded Books of Belonging to create access to children’s books that celebrate and highlight differences. She also curates publicly available lists of age-appropriate children’s books.

Totten acknowledges she “didn’t like to read” growing up – “I wasn’t one of those kids” – but says she was heavily inspired by her father, Bird Rock resident Jim Turner.

“My dad is 100% the biggest literary influence I have,” she said. “He is an avid reader and writes poetry. This is where my passion and taste for literature comes from. But I have always seen the importance of literature and the effect it can have on a reader, the promotion of self-exploration and the ability to see yourself in a different light or in an aspirational sense.

Like many people, she “got a lot more into reading” when her children, Jack, Maeve and Aela, were born.

“My eldest, Jack, came early and had complications at birth that resulted in a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, so I was propelled into parenthood in a unique way that didn’t fit the mold I was in. grew up,” Totten said. “My perspective changed immediately.”

Years later, when the Totten family moved to North Carolina, the children began attending a school where the main mission focuses on diversity and inclusion. After being there for a year, Totten met a relative whose daughter is deaf and uses cochlear implants. The two bonded and decided to host a fundraiser to place books in the classroom centered around diversity and inclusion.

“Our mission and our goal was to expose children to the many differences that we all embody, through history and literature,” Totten said. “It’s so important at a young age, when minds and hearts are open, to expose ourselves to the fact that we all have a unique story. It’s also important that children see themselves represented in books. There’s therefore a double objective.

The two partnered with wholesalers so they could buy the books at cost and donate them when needed. They consulted librarians to keep up to date with the latest diversity-focused titles.

Books of Belonging was launched to provide books to classrooms, underserved communities and public spaces such as doctors’ offices and churches. The organization also offers lists of public books with titles broken down into categories such as “family differences”, dealing with topics such as divorce; “invisible differences,” such as disorders like autism and diabetes; LGBTQA; “kindness and inclusion”; race, ethnicity and culture; physical and other disabilities.

“We want to see our next generation generally be inclusive and lead with love,” Totten said. “My business partner and I have often discussed that society draws lines from where we belong. Our goal is to show children what life might be like for someone on the other side of that line. When you hear someone’s story, it builds empathy.One thing that is special about books is that there are opportunities for self-exploration and a time to pause… and ask questions. You can see yourself in these characters. This opportunity for introspection is huge.

Even when reading new titles to consider as an adult, Totten said she often finds herself in a state of self-reflection.

“Every book I read touches me in some way, especially middle-level books that go a little deeper than a picture,” she said. On a recent plane trip, she read a story that broaches the subject of someone “coming out” as part of the LGBTQA community, centered on a fifth grader.

“This one really hit me,” Totten said. “What touched me as a parent was the idea of ​​knowing when to introduce certain topics to children. We don’t have the answer. Books are a starting point to ask questions, but if a parent or teacher is not ready to answer these questions, we want to provide them with the support and resources to answer these questions.

Find out more, make a donation or consult the book lists on booksofbelonging.org. ◆

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