Storytelling has long since been a rich tradition in the Black community. From the folktales shared by ancestors that have been passed down for generations to the new generation of musicians, poets, and writers, who are capturing their experiences through their artistry; oral traditions within Black culture have been instrumental in the preservation of our narratives. Entrepreneur Mike Coles is on a mission to elevate the storytelling experience, build community and preserve legacies through his app Choose Your Reader.
For Coles—a lawyer, screenwriter, and author who was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio—books were often used as an escape. He grew up in a town that was segregated and as a result was bussed to a school on the other side of town during his grade school years. He says that experience forced him to level up and sparked a passion for education. It was during this time in his life where Coles fell in love with reading and storytelling. Amongst some of the earliest books he read—which were given to him by his mother who earned a master’s degree in child psychology—were the Big Red series penned by author Jim Kjelgaard and the books The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London. During his teenage years, he started reading comic books and collected hundreds of them.
Fast forward decades later and the passion for stories is something that has been passed down to his son. One evening, while getting his son ready for bed the 3-year-old child asked that Coles tell him a story. While Coles was headed to the bookshelf to grab a book, his son told him that he wanted him to make the story up off the top of his head. His son shared three things that he wanted to be included in the story—a baseball, softball, and golf ball. Coles’ improvisational skills led to the creation of a compelling story; so compelling that his son wanted the same story repeated the following three nights. Then his son began to ask that he add other elements to the story including illustrations. While struggling to find content to bring the story to life, Coles discovered there was a need for apps that featured stories which merged engaging narratives with good illustrations. He then developed the concept for Choose Your Reader in 2016 and decided to move forward with bringing the app to fruition.
Choose Your Reader gives individuals the ability to create and voice record stories to share with the children in their lives. Coles started out with the stories that he created for his son and now there are a total of 20 stories on the app; half a dozen of which are in different languages. The app features stories in English, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, and Hindi. Choose Your Reader was created to build a stronger sense of community. “People are becoming less connected and informed,” he told NewsOne. “Thinking about the legacy that individuals can leave behind, we can continue to build upon an oral tradition that is strong within the Black community. We have the ability to leverage the platform to create content and archive it for generations to come.”
For Coles, Choose Your Reader is also about bringing diverse narratives to the forefront. He plans on launching a section of the app that will highlight writers of color. Through the app, he’s also helping writers lower the cost of distributing and promoting their content. He says a lot of content creators of color are locked out of the publishing industry due to a flawed economic structure and he wants to change that narrative.
Coles is also adamant about increasing the representation of Black protagonists in children’s stories. “Our stories have diversity and importance and are not monolithic. We tell the illustrators that diversity is important. We want to incorporate people of color into nursery rhymes and other stories that have been around for a long time. Nobody said what Little Jack Horner looked like, why can’t he be Black?”
As for what’s on the horizon for Choose Your Reader, Coles says he wants to work with schools in underserved communities so they can aid teachers in cutting the costs for schoolbooks and sharing compelling content with students to spark their interest in different fields. The app will also have the capability to track the progression of a reader. He’s aiming to have 100 books available on the app by the end of the year. The app is free through December.