Fatherhood interview: Asi Sharabi, founder of Wonderbly.
Asi Sharabi is an accidental publisher and dad of three. Originally from Tel Aviv, he’s lived in London for 20 years, where he started Wonderbly as a DIY project with friends in 2012, a storytelling start-up with the ambition of making millions of kids around the world more curious, clever and kind.
How did Wonderbly get started ?
The seed was planted when Thalia was three years old and received a gift from her aunty and uncle in Tel Aviv: a personalised book with her name in it. The warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing my daughter’s name in a book lasted for around two seconds once I realised how totally lame the book was.
I showed it to my friends, Tal a creative technologist and David, a writer. Then we found Pedro, the genius illustrator of our book and now a partner in the business.
The question was, could we do it better than anyone has ever done it before? We thought we could. And so Lost my Name (now Wonderbly) was born.
How does being a parent inform your work?
I was incredibly fortunate to start this company when Thalia (now 12) was three and Aya (now 10) was one. A couple of years later Alma (now seven) was born and so I’ve had the perfect audience to test any ideas.
My daughters helped me figure out that when done right, with the level of care and uncompromising quality, personalised books can have a very positive impact on children across different ages and developmental stages.
What have been your favourite books to read with your daughters?
Oh there’s so many: The Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell, Wild by Emily Hughes, and That’s MY Cake by Wonderbly.
How about the books which inspired you when you were little?
I remember some early years Hebrew books I enjoyed in pre-school and then a lot of Enid Blyton.
Do you find personalised books help children engage with the stories?
Absolutely. A National Literacy Trust study demonstrates the educational benefits of personalised books. They found it motivated children to read more, speak more, and for longer, boosting their vocabulary and improving listening and comprehension skills.
But for us it’s always been about telling stories to show children that, with enough belief, they can be anything they want. They let children see themselves doing extraordinary things, showing courage, kindness, empathy, and determination. This tells children something very powerful: You have these traits and abilities inside you. Use them once, and you can use them again.
How can we encourage children to read more?
Oh the greatest battle! First, and most importantly, help kids fall in love with reading as early as possible. Read them a story on the day they are born and every day after that until they learn to read on their own and they beg you to leave them to their own. Then, be tuned to their developing taste and to what makes them tick, and encourage them to try different genres. Make going to the bookshop or library an exciting event.
Then, as they grow up, when screens become ubiquitous in their lives it’s about carving out time for reading and setting clear, decisive rules and limits. They might kick, protest and scream but if you’ve raised book loving kids, even if they do protest initially, once they have a book in their hands they will get lost in the story.
How do you balance the preferences of more than 5 million young readers in more than 200 countries?
It’s fascinating to see those different trends. Some books like the original Lost My Name are absolutely universal and loved by parents and kids in all markets and languages. But as we developed we saw some interesting cultural trends. Our personalised bedtime tale was a huge success in cultures that maintain a bedtime routine like Germany and UK but less so in Mediterranean countries. A recent heartwarming story is our success in Japan, with our Where Are You series.
Has the global pandemic changed the way you work?
It changed everything! We haven’t been together in the office for nearly nine months now and I really, really miss the office. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to run the business completely remotely and even saw an increase in demand. I’ve been fairly vocal against the idea of remote work, but during the forced lockdown period, I was proved oh so wrong. The team has been absolutely amazing and we’ve enjoyed some unexpected, yet significant, productivity and happiness gains. So we’re going to adopt a hybrid flexible model.
What are children looking for in a book these days? Has that changed?
I don’t think so. Books have always been the most wonderfully effective way of engaging imagination, as they bring to life the words on the page in their minds. Books stimulate your brain and get you thinking about yourself, the world and everything in it.
How about parents? What do we want?
The best books are equally enjoyable to kids and adults alike. When you, as a parent, genuinely love the book you read to your child, a real magic happens. That joy infiltrates the room. Perhaps more than any other shared activity, reading together is the one where you can feel connected to a deeper purpose of being responsible to the security and wellbeing of your children.
Is there a book you’d like to receive in your Christmas stocking this year?
Yes please. The Bookers Prize shortlist. I haven’t read any of them yet.
What do you have planned for 2021?
We will continue to publish the highest quality, most memorable, personalised books in the world. And we have plans to grow beyond children by creating some books for the grown ups too. Watch this space…
Shop the collection: www.wonderbly.com