On Friday Oct. 27, Dr. Melissa-Sue John, assistant professor of Psychology at USJ, received a CT Women Rising award from the Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC). Dr. John, the founder and CEO of Lauren Simone Publishing, was honored along with six other women business owners at the WBDC’s annual Women Rising Gala and Awards Celebration for “success in their business and tenacity in pursuing their goals.”
Dr. John founded Lauren Simone Publishing in 2017 and since then, the goal of the mother-daughter run company has been to publish children’s books that show diversity and to promote underrepresented authors and illustrators.
“It is an honor and privilege to receive this award,” Dr. John said. “We were one of six women-owned businesses chosen of over 1,000 businesses. We are very grateful. We are motivated to continue our social impact and use our profits to uplift our community.”
Dr. John was inspired to start Lauren Simone Publishing when she and her two daughters— Alyssa Simone and Olivia Lauren— became frustrated with the lack of diversity in children’s books. Both Alyssa Simone and Olivia Lauren were active in the performing and creative arts and began writing their own stories.
“In 2015, children’s book characters were 73.3 percent White, 12.5 per cent inanimate objects, 7.6 percent Black, 3.3 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders, 2.4 percent Latinx, and 0.9 percent indigenous Americans,” said Dr. John. “Lauren Simone Publishing was birthed because my younger daughter, Olivia Lauren commissioned me to not complain about the problem but to be part of the solution.”
To date, Lauren Simone Publishing has published more than three dozen books produced by 20 authors and 10 illustrators. This includes the Olivia Lauren series, written by Dr. John and her daughters.
“As a family, we have written six books in the Olivia Lauren series (Occupations A to Z, Olivia Travels (English and Spanish), Guide to becoming an Actor, Olivia Connects, A Guide to Things We Wear, and A Guide to Animal Habitats),” Dr. John said. “Our books empower girls. In addition, our books counter stereotypes of BIPOC individuals. Most black characters are seen playing basketball. We have an Asian character who plays basketball and show black girls swimming and rowing.”
Dr. John says that her work at USJ and as a publisher are inter-connected.
“I am a social psychologist by training with expertise in prejudice. At USJ, I teach Introduction to Psychology, Psychology of Women, Social Psychology, and Human Development. My research scholarship and my entrepreneurship inform my teaching. My colleagues and I also have publications on the impact of using children’s literature to develop an engineering curriculum for preschoolers.”
Lauren Simone Publishing has grown beyond books to include Lauren Simone apparel, tote bags, and pins that can be found on the company’s website. “I have completed several business accelerators which have educated me about marketing and branding. We aspire to have a whole children’s line like Eric Carle, author of The Hungry Caterpillar.”
The main goal of Lauren Simone Publishing though, is to be a force for empowerment in the communities it serves. “We have committed to giving 10 percent of profit from the Olivia Lauren series to Charter Oak Cultural Center, a vibrant multi-cultural arts center committed to doing the work of social justice through the arts. We volunteer at schools, community centers, and nonprofits such as “Read to a Child,” said Dr. John. “We need to meet children where they are. So, our goal is to get books animated on YouTube. Our books are also available in audio version on a platform called iReadify. Diversity is important to us, but we are also very concerned that 21 percent of Americans 18 and older are illiterate. We want to make reading fun and accessible to all students.”
Dr. John and Lauren Simone Publishing have been named the Buy from Black Woman Publisher of the Year, Best of Shop Black Connecticut, Citizens Bank Community Champion Award, and Hartford Yard Goats Community Hero.
Today Dr. John’s daughter Alyssa Simone, 22, is a graduate of UConn with a double major in Communications and Sociology, and Olivia Lauren, 16, is a high school junior and an inductee in the National Honor Society. They both excel in the arts and sports and continue to be an inspiration to their mother in her goal to represent diversity in children’s literature.
“All children love seeing characters that look like them. Many parents embrace the idea of diverse children’s books and are impressed to learn many stories were written and\or illustrated by youth talent. However, right now we are facing an issue around the country where organizations are asking for the banning of diverse literature in their children’s schools,” she explained. “It saddens my heart, but it shows me that our books are needed now more than ever.”