Red Clover Reader creates an online marketplace for diverse, educational children’s books

Melanie Keil and her fiancé Armand Tossou know the struggles of self-publishing a children’s book.

The Champaign residents and University of Illinois students hope to solve the problems they endured—and help countless authors along the way—with the creation of Red Clover Reader, an early stage educational tech startup.Melanie Keil & Armand Tossou

The couple’s venture currently features a few dozen authors from across the world with stories that “address parents’ and educators’ concerns surrounding poor quality screen time and lack of diversity in children’s literature.” The team works with independent authors to feature high quality, more diverse, value-focused children’s books at home and in school.

Red Clover Reader’s recently released website allows parents, teachers or librarians to register for free to have access to the books listed, while authors can join the site’s “indie kids author community” for no charge. All of the books are vetted by Red Clover Reader’s internal review board.

Their project is part of the iVenture Accelerator, a program run out of Gies College of Business and open to all Illinois students. Keil is starting a master’s program in applied health sciences in public health in the fall, while Tossou is completing his PhD in applied economics.

Through the iVenture 50-week program, Tossou said he and Keil have secured $15,000 in total funding, which they’ll use for marketing and product development. The recently started the program and are set to finish in May 2019.

“iVenture has been a tremendous help for us because it’s both an accelerator and incubator for top student ventures,” Tossou said. “It’s provided us with mentorship and connected us with a lot of people. It’s a cohort thing. We can interact with anyone on other teams in terms of feedback and connections.”

Many of the site’s first group of authors are those Tossou and Keil met online through their own journey of marketing a book.

“We made a lot of friends online, and those are the type of people we want to bring on board,” Keil said.

Red Clover Reader solves the lack of cultural diversity in children’s literature by connecting parents and self-published and independent authors of children’s books on an online platform that facilitates the co-creation and dissemination of more culturally diverse and value-focused content.

Both Keil and Tossou have an entrepreneurial spirit. In her native Ithaca, New York, Keil ran a landscaping company in her early 20s, and while she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Colorado State, she sold local honey and gluten-free baked goods from small stand at the local farmer’s market. Tossou, a native of Benin, Africa, has an MBA in entrepreneurship with global, social, and sustainable enterprise.

They feel they’re combining those passions into their quest to build Red Clover Reader.

“It’s really rewarding,” Keil said. “We can see the impact and the way authors are really happy to come on board, and thanking us for bringing them on board.”

Keil and Tossou hope to capitalize on a thriving market for children’s independent books and related merchandise. In the U.S. alone, the couple – citing data from the IBISWorld Industry Report for Children’s Book Publishing and Author Earnings – believes the market for books and related merchandise exceeds $1 billion annually. Their current goal is to capture about 5 percent of that market.

“We are trying to help parents discover a better alternative to the content they find online that they don’t feel good about letting their kids consume,” Tossou said.

Keil and Tossou met while students at Colorado State University, and they have two children – ages 16 and 6. They are getting married on August 19 in upstate New York, but not taking a honeymoon in part to focus on building Red Clover Reader.

“We have to get to work,” Keil said, laughing.