In a destination focused on Disney characters and theme parks, and in a state where laws strive to limit conversations surrounding diversity, a new Orlando, Florida boutique hotel is quietly trying to change the narrative of inclusion.
Partnering with Pranoo Kumar Skomra, owner of Rohi’s Readery in West Palm Beach, Lake Nona Wave Hotel—which opened in late 2021—debuted a rarely seen amenity: a children’s-book library. Around 100 titles can be either checked out (and enjoyed in guest rooms or in the library) or purchased. As the library is next to the welcome desk, it can’t be missed.
“We actually gift books to younger guests, too, as a welcome amenity,” says James Tattersall, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
“Every single book in here is from a historically marginalized community,” Kumar Skomra says about the offshoot of her social-justice-driven bookstore and learning center. “The authors and illustrators are all reflective of this.”
Ethnic diversity is not only highlighted. Other examples are books where characters are same-sex parents or children in wheelchairs.
For young kids, her goal is to express universality through stories. “Maybe [the characters] look different than you but they also might be experiencing ‘first day of kindergarten jitters,’” she says. “Our babies deserve to feel seen, valued, and loved—and a sense of belonging. It really does have a tremendous effect on social and emotional health. It’s really important we have experiences and spaces like this so kids know, outside of their homes, there are other spaces [to be safe and inclusive].”
Working with a boutique hotel in a destination that’s already popular with families is one thing. But the bigger gain for Kumar Skomra is “the opportunity to be open about the passion around DEAI [Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion] without any guard rails, loops, or barriers about what I can and cannot say,” she says.
Kumar Skomra, who taught in Harlem and South Bronx, New York, before opening Rohi’s Readery in 2021, points to three bills creating conflict among Florida residents that aim to restrict rights for residents. This includes the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in March and prohibits classroom conversation about gender identity or sexual orientation; a book-banning bill that goes into effect July 1; and the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” Act (referred to as The Stop W.O.K.E. Act), aimed to ban critical-race theory teachings in schools, which DeSantis signed in April.
Partnering with organizations that are not schools gives Kumar Skomra even more breadth when choosing books to stock in the hotel’s library as well as Rohi’s Readery. “Schools are banning the very books that are inside the store,” she says. As a teacher, there were books Kumar Skomra wanted to share with students—but couldn’t. “There are so many beautiful pieces of literature written by marginalized people,” she says.
Response from hotel guests has been inspiring. “We have had great feedback from our younger guests who enjoy reading books they haven’t discovered before, but we have had an even stronger response from parents who love seeing their child empowered by characters that represent their community, gender, or ability,” says Tattersall. Success from the library led to the creation of a coloring sheet—designed by Bloomingdale’s art director Jamille Cadey—depicting same-sex families, international languages, and nods to Orlando’s BEEP shuttles that provide transportation to guests who are disabled and locals in the region.
For those not at the hotel, they can still tap into this literary initiative. Kumar Skomra recorded bedtime stories through the hotel’s app. One of those stories is Papa, Daddy, and Riley by Seamus Kirst, about a Black girl with a Black dad and a white father, and an ALA 2021 Rainbow Book List Selection. Dear Black Boy by Martellus Bennett is written in the style of a letter to young Black boys empowering them to seek strength in areas other than sports. Each story is followed by engagement questions with children or among family members. “Families could also approach questions about the book in a way that [feels] like an authentic conversation,” she says.
Says Tattersall, “The bedtime stories read-aloud on our in-room iPads have been a particular hit as this blends storytelling, technology, and inclusion in a whole new way. This is what the hotel is all about.” Soon, he says, there will be live read-aloud events utilizing the library’s books.
This partnership with Lake Nona Wave Hotel has already led to another opportunity for Kumar Skomra: hosting and reading aloud books dedicated to illness and disability at Lake Nona Medical City. It’s part of the 650-acre hospital campus’ goal to diversify children’s literature made available to guests and patients.
“As we establish the hotel with the community, we intend on partnering with our neighbors here in Lake Nona—Nemours Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House—to host a number of read-aloud events with Pranoo,” says Tattersall. “We are excited to share more details later this year.”