Once upon a time, in a magical land called Vermont, a talented Texas Ex and her charming husband dreamed up a smart new storytelling platform for children with picky parents. After decades of mind-boggling media choices, families all around the world could finally get a good night’s sleep.
It all started four years ago, with two boys facing a very common problem. David and Lisabeth Sewell McCann’s sons, 4 and 7 years old, were having a hard time accepting the idea of moving to a new town. The boys were nervous and overwhelmed, so their father decided to improvise. A natural storyteller with a voice like lambswool, David told his sons a tale about two siblings who visited their new town several times while saying goodbye to their old home.
“This story created a model for the boys, giving them ways to say goodbye while welcoming the new,” says Lisabeth, MFA ’96. “And it worked!”
David had been making up stories for the boys and their friends for ages, enthralling young and old alike at the local library and community farm. After watching him quell the boys’ nerves, Lisabeth says, an idea came to her in a flash. What if they could combine David’s mesmerizing voice with her narrative sensibility and vision? Lisabeth is a editor, director, and producer who studied playwriting at UT.
“My epiphany—which in the moment gave me incredible goosebumps,” she says, “was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a great idea.’”
In that moment, Sparkle Stories, a website where parents can download wholesome and educational audio stories for their children, was born. The business is one part fairy tale, two parts new media, and just a touch of public radio.
Lisabeth and David built Sparkle Stories from scratch out of their home in rural Vermont. They sat in their home office, huddled under an oversized cardboard box soundproofed with egg cartons, and David spoke into a microphone attached to their personal computer. The first stories—Martin and Sylvia, Junkyard Tales, and So Many Fairies—were uploaded in mid-2010 and emailed to family and friends. Thanks to legions of moms who shared the stories online, the idea caught on quickly.
The stories themselves are a bit old-fashioned. Some revolve around Martin and Sylvia, the brother and sister duo inspired by those early stories told to the Sewell McCann’s sons. Martin and Sylvia spend their days playing outside, building fairy houses, and of course cleaning up after themselves and munching on healthy snacks. Others revolve around a group of animals who have names like “Ben Thompson” and live in a junkyard. While the stories drive home important childhood lessons, they also paint pictures of a quieter, more innocent world.
After the first stories were published, it only took a year and a half for the couple to start making a living from the business. Now in its second year, Sparkle Stories has just launched as a free podcast on iTunes and is quickly climbing the charts.
In a time when Disney stars booty-dance and lunchroom trades are conducted by text message, the website gives modern parents a simpler, sweeter stream of entertainment. Parents can download single stories or subscribe to receive them the moment they are published. Sparkle Stories even has two separate services—one for the Northern Hemisphere and one for the Southern Hemisphere. “If you are a Canadian subscriber, Lisabeth says, “you’re hearing summer stories, and if you’re in South Africa, you’re hearing winter.”
As the company has grown, Lisabeth and David have tapped into a large and growing community of parents that is very particular about what their children take in. “There’s a growing body of research that says visual media, like movies and television, aren’t as deeply stimulating for brain development as things like books, or having stories told aloud,” Lisabeth says.
These days, even with an audience that regularly hits 2,000 downloads per day, the production process is relatively simple. First, David dreams up a story from Sparkle’s stable of characters by reciting it aloud. Then he transcribes it and hands it off to Lisabeth, who puts her MFA training to work: cutting, slicing, and perfecting the narrative for their hungry fans. They record it in their home studio—more advanced now than in the laptop days—and send it out to the world.
With “sparklers” now listening across the English-speaking world, nine subscriptions series, free stories each month on their blog, and an army of media-savvy moms and dads, the business is a bonafide success. Lisabeth says they are floored. “Whatever force it was that whispered in my ear, whatever neurons fired to give me that epiphany,” she says, “I’m incredibly grateful because it’s turned out to be a real gift of a business.”
To prevent the all-too-common stresses of working with your spouse, the couple has taken a proactive approach by
“It’s really important that we keep our marriage healthy, as well as our business relationship,” Lisabeth says, “and there are wonderful and difficult ways in which our business relationship mirrors our marriage. We had to get really thoughtful about that, because it could get really messy,” she says, breaking into a laugh. It’s clear it hasn’t become too messy to slow their growth or stifle their relationship. She describes their working hours as marked by “kind and respectful awareness.” sitting down with both a business coach and a couples counselor.
So what’s next for the Sewell McCanns and Sparkle Stories? Lisabeth wants to bring the stories to more people by translating them, first to Spanish. It won’t be easy, but neither is launching an ever-growing small business with your spouse and jumping in head first. It’s a challenge worth taking, Lisabeth says, and together, she and David are helping to write their own happy ending.
Right: Lisabeth and David Sewell McCann
Credits: Thinkstock, Ambient Photography
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