Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jessa Howes' name. It has been corrected.

Simplified: Jessa Howes and Stephanie Gongopoulos formed both a friendship and a company over early-morning walks during the pandemic. Now, the Sioux Falls women are helping make reading a hands-on activity from coast to coast.

Why it matters

  • Howes and Gongopoulos launched A Novel Type one year ago this week. The company pairs books with surprise packages curated to help bring the story to life. A book about band-aids, for example, might include a package of band-aids for the reader to open when they reach a specific page.
  • In its first year, A Novel Type has sent book boxes across the United States – from custom curated gift boxes for large companies to give as employee gifts to kid-friendly boxes to give parents and kids a way to connect over a new story.
  • Both women have a background in education. This helps them not only select books, but it also helps them identify opportunities within the book to create an experience for the reader. Howes said one of the big goals is to make reading more active.
"It's something you do," she said of the curated gifts in the book boxes. "You're using or tasting (along with characters in the book). This is an activity, not a decoration."

Tell me more about the women behind the business

Both Howes and Gongopoulos grew up in Sioux Falls.

  • Howes worked as a Spanish teacher for several years and is now enrolled in law school (in addition to her work with A Novel Type).
  • Gongopoulos started her career in early education and then spent 20 years in the banking and finance sector, where she still serves on some boards.

The two women had long been acquaintances, but they really became close during the pandemic, when Howes reached out to invite Gongopoulos on regular walks in the mornings.

It was on those walks that A Novel Type was born.

"We actually built our whole business plan on the bike trail," Gongopoulos said.

A Novel Type launched in October 2021

So, how do the book boxes work?

A Novel Type categorizes books by age group, ranging from 2-year-olds to 17 and up.

Each book comes packaged in a box with three separate, individually wrapped gifts to be opened at specific points in the novel.

  • In kids books, the gifts correspond with a specific word or phrase in the book, and a sticky note with an arrow indicating when it's time to open a package.
  • The process is similar in young adult and adult books, but instead of a sticky note with a word or phrase, there's a metal "book dart" indicating when packages should be opened.

The packages are meant to be a surprise, so buyers have to trust in the process, Howes said. But the items are intended to spur an activity, she added, and the items are quality.

What's next for A Novel Type?

Howes and Gongopoulus are working on ways to give back as a business, including an upcoming partnership with a local middle school.

They're also hoping to spread the word even further about their business, recognizing that their product often requires some education for customers.

And, it's meaningful to them to be able to reach a national audience while based in Sioux Falls.

"I think people are surprised that two women from Sioux Falls have created this product that is unique, that is educational but also fun," Howes said. "And we're just – not just – we are from Sioux Falls. And Sioux Falls, business-wise, this shouldn't be a surprise. Look around us, people are creating amazing things."