You won't find Dora the Explorer at Ladels Children's Book Boutique, though you will find Fancy Nancy. That's because, owner Lauren Thomas says, Dora the Explorer books are spun off from the television cartoon series, created primarily by corporate marketers to make money. And Fancy Nancy, despite the games, the dolls, the accessories, “speaks to the child. It came from the book first.”
“If it wasn't a book first, we don't sell it,” Thomas, who turned 30 today, continues. She's adamant that every title she stocks in the 1,500-sq.-ft. bookstore she opened in the Corktown neighborhood west of downtown Detroit in June 2007 contribute to a child's mental development, whether it be visually stimulating a newborn, engaging a prepubescent reluctant reader or firing up a teen's imagination. “I handpick the books so they have healthy aspects to them,” she says.”
“You can tell when things are created just to make money off the things children love, as opposed to an actual author, an actual illustrator, making the book,” she insists, describing the approximately 1,500 titles in her inventory as “something for everybody,” including Arabic and Muslim children's books, in recognition of the Detroit metro area's growing numbers of Middle Eastern immigrants.
Books have always been important to Thomas. She and her older sister, Lisa, were raised by their mother, Debra Walker, who provided much of the financial backing for and is co-owner and only other full-time employee of Ladels—a name created by stringing together the first letters of the three's first names. “I was very much a bookworm,” Thomas says. She credits her grandparents, both janitors in the Detroit public schools, with encouraging her love of learning: “It was very important to them that we were educated.”
While working a summer job in 1997 at a Borders bookstore in Southfield, a Detroit suburb, Thomas began to dream of opening a children's bookstore of her own. “I was stuck in the children's section. Nobody wanted to work there, but I loved it,” she says, describing the satisfaction she felt interacting with young patrons and rediscovering the books she'd read as a child.
Although Thomas also worked at Borders in downtown Chicago and then the Truth Bookstore, a Southfield independent specializing in African-American literature, it wasn't until her son (now seven years old) was three that she came to the conclusion that books inspired by children's television shows could be detrimental to a child's brain development—not to mention, a parent's nerves. She recalls being overwhelmed while trying to read a Little Einsteins book to her son. “It was so difficult to read. There was so much happening on the page; there was no focus,” she recalls. “It was like they just took the TV show and put it in book form.”
While Thomas is against TV cartoons being spun off into books, she's not against the notion of literary characters becoming cartoons—such as Dr. Seuss and Curious George—or books being adapted for the big screen. As long as it's done right. “There are some books that could benefit from being made into a movie,” Thomas declares. “I'd be interested in seeing any of Christopher Paul Curtis's amazing books made into a movie, especially The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.”
Thomas acknowledges that the current economy is challenging, but she believes books remain a good value, noting that some titles in her store are priced as low as $3. She says sales have grown steadily since the store opened, and Ladels is now making a tiny profit.
Describing her customer demographic as a mix of middle-class African-Americans and Caucasians from all over the metro area, with a sprinkling of Latinos, Thomas says she spends a lot of time educating parents to seriously consider the books they choose for their children. “[Parents] appreciate that we take the time to think about the books we offer, as opposed to just ordering a bunch of stuff and trying to sell it to them.”