Laughing Out Loud

How one family company ensures a born star never dies.

This is the story of two sisters who turned their grandmother’s old stories into their life’s work. Along the way, they learned the value of being “laugh friendly.”

It started like this: Many years ago, a grandmother told her young grandson stories about the Moonman and all of his friends as the two would gaze up at the night sky. Then the boy moved away. But, the grandmother gave the boy a sense of home— no matter how far apart the pair were— by mailing her grandchild characters cut out from construction paper and decorated with markers. This is how the grandmother, Elizabeth Owens, became known as Nana Star.

When the boy was killed in a car accident, the paper characters were stashed in a shoebox on a closet shelf. However, this turns into a happy story. As Nana Star’s legacy illustrates, finding the goodness in all things is essentially what it means to be laugh friendly.

Years later, granddaughters of Owens, creative-junkie sisters Elizabeth Sills and Elena Patrice, brought the magical world of Nana Star out of the shoebox and into the spotlight by founding ee publishing & productions, LLC, the laugh-friendly company®.

The company, pronounced “double e,” specializes in deliberately low-tech, high-imagination and therefore nostalgic children’s books and toys. Nana Star is at the heart of the business. As is laughter.
“One day in 2004, we started talking about what we would do if we could do anything,” remembers Sills. “Like many moms, we knew we needed to find a balance between devoting ourselves to our families and doing something worthwhile professionally.”

Patrice adds: “Around the same time, we realized that we got shushed a lot when we were together in public for laughing too loudly— if you can believe that! It hit us that we needed to do work that gave us reasons to laugh everyday. And voilà, the laugh-friendly company was born.”

Launching the business out of a home office seemed like the best bet for the sisters’ desired laugh-friendly work environment. Bonus points included not having to send their young children to full-time daycare, and the ability to work around their families’ schedules.

As the sisters derived ee from Nana Star, they didn’t have to think long or look far to figure out their mission. “The laugh-friendly work ethic centers on cultivating imagination, celebrating the wonderment of childhood and inspiring character,” says Patrice. “Oh, and changing the world. We truly believe that laughter and a positive attitude can change the world. That’s what Nana Star— and all of our endeavors— are committed to doing.”

Because the laugh-friendly company’s first priority is family, it’s not surprising that the Nana Star line is a family affair. Sills and Patrice have expanded their grandmother’s original characters into a storybook series about a little girl who promises to return a lost baby star to the heavens where he belongs. Each book in the series promotes a character-building virtue in little listeners and early readers. Sills and Patrice’s mother, Linda Saker, serves as ee’s creative director and also reinterprets her mother’s original characters for the series.

What’s it like to start a business and work with your sister/mother/daughters day in and day out? All three women roll their eyes and, of course, laugh. What’s it like to run a business out of a home with young children? It’s not easy, but Sills and Patrice admit they wouldn’t want it any other way. “Working from home with toddlers tests our commitment to the laugh-friendly philosophy,” smiles Patrice.

The concept seems to be working. The Nana Star book series was a Mom’s Choice Award-winning finalist in the Inspirational Children’s Book category for 2007. The companion Web site, ww.nanastar.com, won an iParenting Media Award last May. The Nana Star picture book (ee publishing) was also a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Children’s Book of the Year Award in 2006. Most recently, ee teamed up with internationally recognized expert on toys and child development, Dr. Toy, for a PBS National Education Report segment on intentional parenting. A new edition of Nana Star, along with the second book in the series, Nana Star and the Moonman, are due out early this year, in addition to companion dolls.

Being laugh friendly means giving back— a core aspect of ee’s mission. Sills and Patrice developed the Nana Star Foundation to help terminally-ill children and under-resourced inner-city schools. Books and dolls are regularly donated to schools and hospitals around the country. Through a donation to First Book and The Quota Club, Nana Star merchandise made its way to Gulf Coast children who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Also, in 2006, ee became a corporate sponsor of the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation. The company made an even larger donation to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation this past holiday season.

Along with continuing the Nana Star series, ee is excited about the new line of CutiePatootie WannaBe Babies™. These collectible Kewpie-like dolls represent vocations of yesterday and today, and are designed to inspire kids to dream about what they “wanna be” when they grow up. Sounds old-fashioned, right? Well, that’s the idea.