The new publishing venture by the two alums released its first book, “The Grocery Game” by Tori Murphy ’17 and Theodora Smiley Lacey, in May.
As seniors at Elon, Kelsea Johnson ’17 and Kyle Porro ’17 teamed up as Student Government Association leaders to advocate for their fellow students. Now the two members of the Class of 2017 are collaborating again — this time to help lift up the voices of underrepresented populations through their publishing venture, Stirred Stories.
Launched in 2019, the nascent publishing company recently released its first work — “The Grocery Game” — penned by classmate Tori Murphy ’17 and her grandmother, Theodora Smiley Lacey. The children’s book, now available for free online, will have a print release later, and is expected to be the first in a wide variety of works in various genres and coming from multiple perspectives.
“Our real mission comes from a belief that the publishing industry is stagnant, and there is a lot of room for improvement by stirring things up,” said Porro, who served as executive president of SGA at Elon and recently graduated from the New England Law | Boston.
Johnson, who works in political communications in Washington, D.C., says the name of their publishing house is “catchy, but with a purpose,” noting that “we have always said that the same stories keep being told repeatedly, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to address.”
Johnson and Porro met during their first year at Elon as residents of the Global Neighborhood, and became more connected through their work with student government. The pair worked together on the Acorn Fund, which is run under the umbrella of SGA and makes investments in student ventures. “Kelsea was one of the people who was always making my life easier,” Porro said.
The pair remained connected following graduation, in part due to discussions they had while still at Elon about the lack of representation of a diverse array of cultures in the media. One would come across an article with interesting insights in the area, and ship it off to the other. A thought would spur a conversation, and then a discussion about tangible actions they might take.
Plans began to take shape during the summer of 2018 and by early spring 2019, Stirred Stories had solidified as a concept. Neither Johnson nor Porro approached the project with any professional publishing experience, though Porro did spend the summer of 2019 interning in a publishing house. “I could see under the hood and pull the curtain back and see what it was like,” Porro said. “I think it helps that we don’t have that extensive experience. In order to make this as authentic as possible, we can just put all of the emphasis on the authors.”
Stirred Stories started by soliciting ideas from friends and members of the public for books without limitations on the type of work. “The biggest thing for us is to make sure it aligns with our mission to uplift narratives that don’t receive mainstream attention,” Johnson said.
That led them to Murphy, who teaches preschool in New York City. She saw a Facebook post from Porro about Stirred Stories looking for authors, and it seemed like a perfect avenue for a book she had been working on with her grandmother, who taught for more than 40 years. The pair had been talking for some time about writing a children’s book together.
They decided to focus on the questions that kids ask, with “The Grocery Game” taking shape as a story of a child at the store with her grandmother playing a game called, “What If.”
“What if oaks were the only tree?” Maya asks her grandmother.
“There would be no apple, pecan or redwoods to see,” her grandmother responds.
The story speaks to the value that variety and diversity bring to the world, with Maya finally asking “what if all people in the whole world looked just the same?” to which her grandmother responds, “You would miss what makes each of us unique, and wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Murphy said it’s been an amazing experience to work with her grandmother, who was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement. Stirred Stories matched the writing team with Megan Rizzo, a graphic designer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and teaches children’s art classes.
“Watching it all unfold and launch was pretty amazing,” Murphy said.
Oh, and that mention of the “oak” in the story? It was a nod to Elon, which is the Hebrew word for oak, with the tree woven into the university’s symbols and traditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Stirred Stories to shift its plans to release “The Grocery Game.” Instead of a traditional release of a print version of the book, Stirred Stories released the book online for free in May, in large part so that parents and teachers could take advantage of it as a resource for children and students during such a challenging time. Strong initial response from teachers in particular is laying the groundwork for a release of a print edition later this year.
“We just wanted to have the story out there for people to enjoy,” Porro said.
Johnson and Porro continue to focus on finding new authors to work with as Stirred Stories continues to pursue its mission. Murphy said that while she and her grandmother had initially approached “The Grocery Game” as a one-off project, they’re now thinking about working on another book together.
“Our hope is to really create this publishing universe that offers authentic and genuine stories that society can really benefit from,” Porro said.
For more information about Stirred Stories, visit www.stirredstories.com.