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Books of Belonging: La Jolla native launches nonprofit to bring diversity-centered books to children

Annie Totten says she wants "to expose children to the many differences we all embody, through story and literature."
La Jolla native Annie Totten says she wants “to expose children to the many differences we all embody, through story and literature.”
(Courtesy of Annie Totten)

Considering she wasn’t an avid reader growing up, Annie Totten might not be the first person you’d think would establish a literary-based nonprofit organization.

But the La Jolla native (who went by her maiden name, Turner, during her time here) founded Books of Belonging to create access to children’s books that celebrate and showcase differences. She also curates lists available to the public of age-appropriate children’s books.

Totten acknowledges she “did not love to read” growing up — “I was not one of those kids” — but says she was heavily inspired by her father, Bird Rock resident Jim Turner.

“My dad is 100 percent the biggest literary influence I have,” she said. “He is an avid reader and wrote poetry. That is where my passion and appreciation for literature came from. But I always saw the importance of literature and the effect it can have on a reader, the fostering of self-exploration and the ability to see yourself in a different light or in an aspirational sense.”

Like many people, she “dove into reading much more” when her children, Jack, Maeve and Aela, were born.

“My oldest, Jack, came early and had complications at birth that resulted in a cerebral palsy diagnosis, so I was thrust into parenthood in a unique way that didn’t fit the mold of what I grew up with,” Totten said. “My perspective changed immediately.”

Years later, when the Totten family moved to North Carolina, the children started attending a school where the core mission focuses on diversity and inclusion. After being there for a year, Totten met a parent whose daughter is deaf and uses cochlear implants. The two bonded and decided to hold a fundraiser to place books in the classroom centered on diversity and inclusion.

“Our mission and purpose was to expose children to the many differences we all embody, through story and literature,” Totten said. “It is so important at a young age, when minds and hearts are open, to expose us to the fact that we all have a unique story. It’s also important for kids to see themselves represented in books. So there is a dual purpose.”

The two partnered with wholesalers so they could buy the books at cost and donate them where needed. They consulted with librarians to keep abreast of the latest diversity-centered titles.

Books of Belonging was launched to provide books to classrooms, underserved communities and public spaces such as doctor’s offices and churches. The organization also features public book lists with titles broken into categories such as “family differences,” dealing with topics such as divorce; “invisible differences,” such as disorders like autism and diabetes; LGBTQA; “kindness and inclusion”; race, ethnicity and culture; physical disabilities and more.

“We want to see our next generation be generally inclusive and lead with love,” Totten said. “My business partner and I often discussed that society draws lines of where we belong. Our goal is to show kids what someone’s life might look like on the other side of that line. When you hear someone’s story, it creates empathy. One thing that is special about books is there are chances for self-exploration and a time for pause … and ask questions. You can see yourself in these characters. That opportunity for self-reflection is huge.”

Even in reading new titles for consideration as an adult, Totten said she often finds herself in a state of self-reflection.

“Every book I read hits me in some way, especially the middle-grade books that go a little deeper than a picture,” she said. During a recent plane ride, she read a story that tackles the topic of someone “coming out” as part of the LGBTQA community, centered on a child in fifth grade.

“This one really hit me,” Totten said. “What resonated with me as a parent is the idea of when to present certain subjects to kids. We don’t have the answer. The books are a starting point to ask questions, but if a parent or a teacher is not ready to answer those questions, we want to provide that support and resources for them to answer those questions.”

Learn more, donate or see the book lists at booksofbelonging.org. ◆