Jessica Riley ’98 binds together children, art, and a good cause with Kiba Kiba Books.
With all due respect to the artists exhibiting work at Middlebury’s Mahaney Center for the Arts, the most electrifying stuff here on a recent afternoon isn’t hung on the walls, tinkling from the pianos, or even gleaming from Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture outside. It’s a collection of paperback books strewn across a coffee table in the lounge.
But these are no ordinary paperbacks. Slim and popping with color, they beg to be picked up and opened—to worlds where perfectly imperfect sea dragons slither through oceans, cosmic creatures spin in circles, and impish spirits slide down mountains on blocks of ice. Small enough for small hands and with such titles as Fearless Fifi and Silly Jack, the books are for children, yes. But what makes them extraordinary is the fact that these volumes are also illustrated by children.
“It’s a new business model that I really think the world could use,” says Jessica Riley ’98, the founder and owner of Kiba Kiba Books LLC, as she glances across her collection of publications. “I’m hopeful that it does take off and that people get it. It’s such a beautiful thing when you realize how it’s connected and how the pieces fit together.”
Riley never intended to be a book publisher. As a kid growing up in Saratoga, New York, she wanted to be on a TV show; later, she wanted to be a screenwriter. But from an early age, Riley had a knack for art. “I think I was four or five, and somebody bought me a paint set that was intended for an older kid, with really small brushes and really small tubes of paint,” she recalls. “When my parents were in another room, I opened it up and painted in a picture that came with the set. I remember my mom coming back into my room in shock because all the little spaces were filled in perfectly with different colors. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why am I getting so praised for something that was so easy for me to do?’”
Riley found that she was also pretty good at making life more joyful for other kids. On a youth speed-skating team, she was appointed “games coordinator,” whose job it was to get everyone else to play and have fun. Flash forward several years to Riley’s time at Middlebury, where, as an English and film major, she took a “body and earth” dance class with Professor Andrea Olsen. “She taught me the creative process,” says Riley. “After I graduated, I said to Andrea, ‘Whatever it is you taught in the class, that’s what I want to do, but I don’t know how to get there.’”
It would be a colorful journey. Riley spent two years designing handbags in Park City, Utah, and four more working for PBS. “But people my whole life always told me, children’s books, children’s books,” says Riley, who had, in fact, been compiling a list of children’s books she wanted to do eventually.
Then, in 2005, while Riley was volunteering back in Saratoga, she held a workshop for local kids, reading them a story she’d written about the endangered Karner blue butterfly. The kids illustrated it and the result was Blue Blew (now out of print). After searching for a publisher, Riley decided to start her own publishing company. She called it Kiba Kiba, which, in the language of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, means peace. The word was one of several Riley had stumbled across and written down over the years, along with the number 72—for how many books she’d like to publish. Why 72? The number just came to her, says Riley.
The pieces started coming together—literally. At another workshop, Riley showed up with snippets of fabric she had cut into various shapes, and she read aloud such phrases as “I dream trees grow tall enough to reach the sky.” The children began creating images for Riley’s words with the fabric, and the result was The Dream of the New Earth. “It’s amazing,” says Riley. “When you give children abstract ways to paste and beautiful fabric or beautiful materials, then it’s really easy to come up with a beautiful thing and art.”
The Dream of the New Earth has now been translated into six languages and has been followed by five more stories. All but one are illustrated by kids, ages four to 13, who’ve enrolled in one of Riley’s weeklong workshops. “It’s so cool,” says Riley of witnessing the children at work. “You have no control over what the kids are going to do, and it always works out. By the end of the week, we’re all like, ‘Wow!’”
Five of the Kiba Kiba books may be purchased with their original artwork or as a “companion art book,” with space for young readers to paste, paint, or draw their own creations. The exception is Kiba Kiba’s newest book, OMG! One Million Giraffes, which features drawings from all ages and from all over the world.
But that’s not all. Because every Kiba Kiba book has its own special vision of cleaner water, a healthier Earth, etc.—Riley has dedicated a “pod” to each project, detailed on the Kiba Kiba Web site, whereby children can send in artwork and songs; teachers can create lesson plans; and artists, musicians, and community organizers can help build grassroots campaigns.
Kiba Kiba is preserving the magic of the printed page, but is also embracing the connectivity of the digital age. In the process, this small company is making books fluid. Soon, The London Frogs will be republished with a foreword by Chad Urmston ’98 of the band State Radio; Riley hopes this will help inspire new songs for the pod.
“Together we can change the world,” she promises readers on the Web site. And she may be right. The nonprofit Water.org, cofounded by Gary White and Matt Damon, has agreed to partner with Kiba Kiba to share its Global Water Supply Curriculum as part of The London Frogs pod. “Everyone benefits,” explains Riley of her pod concept. “My books are being utilized, nonprofits are getting a campaign, and the schools and the children involved feel good about what they’re doing.”
This is the new business model of which Riley speaks. And while it may not be the most lucrative one—she is hardly the first to admit that there’s not a lot of money in children’s books (Harry Potter excluded)—the fluidity of Kiba Kiba books and the flexibility of Riley’s life point to the power of possibility.
Take, for example, The Play Spirits’ Playground, one of Kiba Kiba’s latest projects, whose vision is free play and movement in nature. Co-written by Hedda Bernsten ’99, Riley calls the book her “great work” and “meant to be.” The pair wrote the story just days before Bernsten won an Olympic silver medal in Vancouver, where children from the St. George’s School illustrated the book. Now they are focusing on creating the Play Spirits concept into a TV show and are pitching it to various children’s television networks.
Riley says she gets goose bumps when she thinks about how The Play Spirits’ Playground came to be and how she came to be not a book publisher but a “creative project facilitator.” Looking around the Middlebury arts facility, Riley says she wishes Olsen would appear. “I’d be like, ‘I did it!’” says Riley. “I came full circle, and I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do 10 years ago. It’s just being in the moment, and whatever comes next is what I do next. In the process you can see the greater work.”
Sarah Tuff ’95 is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vermont. Jessica Riley’s Web site can be found at www.kibakiba.com.