By PATRICA GUTHRIE
Special to the News-Times
From her dining room table in Greenbank, Hải Anh Vũ is building an international business piece by piece, order by order, address by address.
She’s the founder, creative director and working mom behind Little Bean’s Toy Chest, a series of handmade felt books for children that emphasize diversity, cultural awareness and life lessons.
For sale in local stores and online globally, Vũ sketches out concepts for a book’s theme, such as “Whidbey’s Animals” or “I’m a Big Brother,” then sends designs and details to a small overseas company where the pieces and pages are cut, stitched and assembled. They are sent to Vũ ’s home where she tracks orders, makes shipping labels and makes many trips to local post offices and gift stores.
“It’s a team in Vietnam that really are the art designers,” she said. “They are so good.”
Vũ touts her book supplier as a leading Vietnamese social enterprise that employs people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s received funding from international development foundations and recognition for charitable work and social responsibility, she said.
Born and raised in Hanoi, Vũ landed on Whidbey Island in 2020 via her marriage to Scott Cheshier, who grew up in Edmonds. She’s lived in many places throughout Asia, Europe and the United States, including Maine, where she studied economics and French at Bowdoin College.
The couple met in Hong Kong and it’s where their first daughter, Natalie, was born. When Vũ started searching for environmentally friendly toys without pink and blue gender labels, she quickly became disillusioned.
“Hong Kong is like a little kingdom of toys but a lot of it is cheap plastic,” she said. “Or else you go to stores and buy wooden European things that are super high-priced.”
The young mom found a solution in quiet books, also called felt books or busy books. Made of soft touchable fabric, the books contain removable and interactive parts that often teach every day activities, such as buttoning, tying shoes, mastering a zipper, even putting on a seat belt using a small buckle.
“They are really open-ended play,” Vũ said.
Popular on Etsy, therapists also champion the tactile feel of quiet books to teach concentration, eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills.
Vũ created her debut book in 2016 by looking out the window.
“I created the Hong Kong book first as a way to memorize the city for my kids,” she said.
Another book featuring places, food and festivities of Vietnam is popular with Vietnamese-Americans who want to keep their heritage alive, she said.
Showing a Hanoi temple and a Saigon market, the book contains detachable traditional clothes and foods, such as pho and mooncake, lanterns and other accessories needed to celebrate the mid-Autumn moon harvest and Lunar New Year.
Wrote one reviewer of the “Vietnam” book: “The best thing about this book is that it exists in the first place.”
Vũ hopes her books take children on adventures of the mind and spirit and that they become “little changemakers” — the same wish she has for Natalie, 9, and Leah, almost 6.
“I want to raise my third-culture children to be free thinkers, nature lovers and confident global citizens who are proud of their identities,” she said.
Recommended for children ages 6 months to 5 years, Little Bean’s Toy Chest is divided into categories of babies, toddlers and preschoolers. The books range in price from $45 to $55, which is comparable to other soft book producers. (They can be customized with a child’s name on the cover for an extra $5. The name is added by Vũ with a glue gun, felt letters and a touch of joy.)
Online reviewers often remark that the books are ideal for travel because they are small, flexible and have pockets for numerous pieces.
With no words to read, kids zero in on moving around little people, animals, clothes, hats, spoons, toothbrushes, bicycles, even rocket ships.
Little felt figures in the book “What Will I Be?” come with outfits from a variety of professions — firefighters, doctors, construction workers, astronauts or athletes.
Carrisa Morris of Langley said she loves how Vũ’s books unleash the imaginations of her two daughters. Her 4-year-old particularly loves taking treks into the make-believe world of grownups.
“My older child loves to play doctor with the ‘What Will I Be?’ book,” Morris said. “And then the doctor goes to the jungle to help the jungle animals, plays basketball, and works at a construction site before coming back to check on her patient.”
And when her one-and-a-half-year-old seems cranky, finger puppets from “Whidbey’s Animals” book work magic.
“It’s great that our kids can play with the books without us,” Morris said. “As every parent with young kids knows, anything that helps with independent play is worth its weight in gold.”
She also appreciates Vũ’s emphasis on diversity. Figures of children and moms and dads come in a variety of skin tones, hair color and hair styles. Vũ also plans to incorporate the many versions of modern families, such as two dads and two moms.
Sometimes in her home office but more often on the dining room table, Vũ sketches out story concepts, sometimes with help from her own growing Little Bean, daughter Natalie. She suggested making a book about Whidbey’s animals, sketching a scene with sea creatures, birds, forest and farm animals, a ferry, mountains and the sea.
In her draft, Vũ initially included a bright red cardinal as one of Whidbey’s birds. Then Facebook friends informed her cardinals don’t live here.
Or anywhere in the Northwest.
Robins are plentiful, though. So they star in the cast of 20 Whidbey animals, some of which got lost in translation from concept to creation.
Trying to explain Bruiser, the lone elk of Whidbey Island, raccoons, foxes and orcas, Vũ remembered an important cultural difference.
“They’d never seen these animals,” she said of her Vietnamese book designers. “It took three iterations to get some animals right. The fox is still a bit odd.”
Little Bean’s Toy Chest soft books are for sale on Whidbey Island in these locations; in Oak Harbor at Hive Jive, Wind & Tide Bookstore, Pamela’s Legacy, The Book Rack, Whidbey Farm & Market; in Coupeville at Aqua Gifts; in Langley at Bard’s Boutique, Beach House Langley, Casey’s Crafts; and in Clinton at Madrona Supply Co.