Axol and Friends: Shaping the Next Generation

It was a chilly winter morning when Jonathan R. L. Grosso, founder of the socially-conscious startup Axol and Friends, greeted me at his door offering a warm cup of Earl Grey Tea. His modest, and well organized Jersey City apartment had hints of his start-up organization everywhere. A stand of plush toys, pins, a table with newly packaged stuffed animals to be sent out, and plush toys peeking over shelves could be seen as we made ourselves comfortable. Originally from Florida, Jonathan came to the Tri-State area to study non-profits, human rights, and social justice at Fordam University before going to law school. How did a law student become a rock star activist fighting for animal rights and human trafficking?

While in law school, Jonathan worked on a sustainable startup that sold luxury jewelry, where he made international connections and naturally became hooked on sustainable business. In 2018, Axol and Friends came to fruition and when asked about his inspiration he said “I decided to create something I thought was more of my expertise. I’ve always been passionate about drawing and stories, especially on endangered animals.” His socially-conscious startup not only raises awareness of endangered species through his kids’ book and plush toys, but also raises money to empower the next generation to be activists and environmental conservationists.

Axol and Friends
Jonathan’s signature Axol plush toys. Photos by Janine Ngai

“Jersey City felt like the natural choice” according to Jonathan when he was deciding where to base his start-up. Before law school, he was living in JC pursuing a masters in New York City. He loved his proximity to New York but really enjoyed the unique character and quality that Jersey City is known for. He expressed how the diversity and family-oriented neighborhood made JC more approachable and authentic. He went on to add that NYC is so commercialized but Jersey City offers a real community of artists that he has been able to have random sparks of connections with, especially at the Grove Street Market.

Axol and Friends
Jonathan talking to EJC writer Emily. Photo by Janine Ngai


Who is Axol? Who are their friends?

Axol, short for Axolotl (pronounced: ak-suh-laa-tl), is a character based on an endangered species in Jonathan’s children’s book, which he also brought to life as a plush toy along with other merchandise including pins and a backpack to raise money for the nonprofits that he partners with. He chose Axolotls because they are critically endangered salamanders indigenous to Mexico that have the special ability to breathe in and out of water due to their lungs and external gills, dubbing them the nickname ‘walking fish’. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard about an axolotl please look here to see just how cute they really are! Axol’s friend in the book is a Pangolin named Java, which are endangered ant-eaters indigenous to Asia and Africa who are equally adorable, please prepare yourself for the cuteness and look here. These two animals live on completely opposite sides of the world, so how do they become friends? Axolotls and Pangolins are some of the most trafficked animals in the world with Pangolins accounting for 20% of all illegal wildlife trade alone, due to their much sought after scales. In Jonathan’s children’s book, he starts their story together incorporating powerful topics like animal trafficking, but in a manner that young children can understand.

Axol and Friends
Jonathan showing us Java the pangolin and Axol the axolotl. Photo by Janine Ngai


Breaking Down the Book

Kids ask nearly 300 questions a day and answering some of the more complicated questions can be a real challenge for parents. Opening channels of discussion is incredibly important and Jonathan’s book is doing just that, but subtly. He explained to me that parents have already started reaching out because they’re recognizing how their young children, from kindergarten to 2nd grade, are resonating with Axol. There are moments in the book that Axol is noticeably sad, giving the parents an opportunity to discuss sadness and how to cope. Jonathan has opened up a whole new idea to what children’s books can really do, including understanding gender identity. Jonathan uses the gender neutral pronoun ‘they’ when referring to Axol which continues to allow parents to have these open conversations with their children without being too abrasive about the topic. By presenting difficult topics like sadness, loneliness, animal trafficking and gender identity sprinkled throughout the entire book, Jonathan has successfully found a small way to make a difference by encouraging kids to come to their own conclusions rather than telling them how they should think.

Jonathan reading his children’s book. Photo by Janine Ngai


International Fight

Axol and Friends partners with a nonprofit in Central Mexico, Zapotlán Ecológico, which funds after-school programs to empower and teach children the importance of conservation as well as organizations that help fight against the trafficking of human beings. His main partnership organization, The Mirror Foundation is in the North of Thailand, a local NGO operated by Thai people to build schools and shelters for children who are stateless, mostly refugees or former human trafficking victims. Like Axol and his friends being trafficked across the world, it’s estimated that between 21 million to 45 million people are trapped within the human trafficking system. Jonathan has taken on the challenge through Axol and Friends to support organizations that share his desire to put an end to trafficking of all forms and to free animals and people alike! Additionally, he has been able to maintain a successful business while also striving to be as sustainable as possible through fair-wage ethical production, creating his plush toys with eco-friendly materials, and packaging them in recycled cardboard boxes. He has truly set a precedent in today’s business world.

Axol and Friends Valentine’s Day editions. Photo by Janine Ngai


What’s Next?

If you aren’t already convinced to go out to buy one of his adorable plush toys and do your part to make a small difference, I have the exclusive on some of his upcoming work! The next animals he intends to bring to life in Axol’s world are the Saiga antelope and the Florida panther. The next book in his series is slated to come out this year, as well as a coloring book of endangered species. We know that Jonathan will continue to do great things and make a positive impact on children’s lives. Stay tuned for more from Axol and Friends!

Emily Davis
Author: Emily Davis

Emily Davis loves the outdoors and can be found taking hikes or relaxing on the beach. If she can't be outside she enjoys playing with her four cats and watching a good movie!