Austin, Texas, to Bangalore, India. 9,400 miles. It’s a long way to go hunting for children’s literature, but when Literati says it scours the planet looking for the most exceptional books, we mean it.
A few months back, in the frigid, dark days of January (yes, even in Texas!), a friend handed our Creative Director, Kelly Carroll, a small board book entitled If There Was One Thing I Could Be. She was struck by the strength of how well-conceived both the prose and illustrations were in this strange little tome that had landed in her lap. Kelly had to know more.
Quickly, she realized it wasn’t available on Amazon, and that the only place it could be purchased in the US was an art shop in Santa Fe. She immediately arranged a long-distance call with the publishers, Vinay Diddee and his wife Neha, who ran Little Latitude from their home in Bangalore. “I told them: I need to see every one of your books,” Kelly said. “‘How soon can you get them to me?’”
Vinay overnighted all the titles in the Little Latitude catalog to Texas, and the next day Kelly put in the largest order of books the company had ever seen. For April’s theme, The Earth Speaks, she selected Where Shall We Go, Big Black Crow – a stunning lift-the-flap board book, full of wonderfully rendered characters that interact with a cheeky crow in search of his dinner.
Another incredible note of fact: it was written and illustrated by three generations of the same family: Arielle North Olson, a children’s book author in the U.S., wrote the story with her daughter, Christy Olson Kennedy, while her granddaughter, Caity Kennedy, did the illustrations. With that, Literati became the only other U.S. distributor of these charming titles by India’s only publisher of children’s board books.
So what’s the story behind Little Latitude? When she was two years old, Vinay and Neha Diddee’s daughter Anahi couldn’t read, but she loved Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. She’d flip the pages and move her fingers along the text as if she was reading – but it was the artwork she found captivating.
Vinay and Neha thought The Very Hungry Caterpillar was a fantastic book, but that it was the exception rather than the rule when it came to finding titles their daughter loved. By the time Anahi was five, the Diddees realized there was an opportunity to fill this void – particularly as she now had a brother, Vir, three years her junior, who they hoped would become an avid reader like Anahi.
“Books in English by Indian publishers were mostly mythological tales, or about Indian culture – which are important to us,” Neha says, but there wasn’t much variety. What’s more, she says the illustrations didn’t appeal. “We’d read a story to our children and they’d say ‘mama, why does this character look so angry when the story says something else?’ We realized then that when you can’t read, you’re looking at the visuals and that’s what you connect with instantly.”
As for imported Western titles, there were books by Eric Carle, Julia Donaldson, and Quentin Blake, but not much else with quirky illustrations and great written content. Vinay was running his own textile company, and Neha, a photographer, had been working for years with National Geographic as a picture researcher, but they thought: why not launch their own publishing company. In 2011, Little Latitude was born.
The subjects of their first books were obvious: their own children, Anahi and Vir. They recruited Kalpana Subramanian, an Indian filmmaker, to write the stories, and Prashant Miranda, an Indian artist based in Canada, to illustrate them. The result was The World of Anahi & Vir, a delightful series that explored, among other things, the depths of the ocean (If There was One Place I Could Be), the different places animals live (If I Lived in a Tree House), and what it’d be like to be a bird (If There was One Thing I Could Be).
The Diddees plowed all their savings in into the fledgling business and found a printer in Singapore that could handle the volume and offer the card stock they wanted. For the first print run Vinay flew there himself with the hand-painted artwork, helping with the scanning and color correction. All the books that Little Latitude publishes are made from paper and card stock from renewable forests using water-based inks that are safe for children.
They also found out that bookstores in India demanded high margins, and so they opted instead to sell their titles in shops that specialized in design. “We started a Facebook page and a website and it took us maybe two years to sell the first 6,000 books,” Neha said. “And we did that without having to give a distributor a margin.”
Then they started supplying schools. Their daughter Anahi used to attend a Montessori school in Bangalore, and Vinay said he and Neha used to see teachers struggle with the books they were using in the classroom. “Either there were too few pictures to explain the story, or the stories themselves were too long. This is when we started to explore a format which was rich in visual content and the text was fun to read, remember, and revisit.” Now, he said, a number of Montessori schools in India use Little Latitude’s books.
Kelly compares finding these undiscovered gems to sifting for gold; they can turn up anywhere. “Jess [Literati’s CEO] and I are constantly on the look out for treasure, and we walk around as if we have metal detectors – except it’s the pages of books we’re so carefully sifting through.”