After Alli Harper and wife Jen Monti became parents almost a decade ago, they began to notice that something was missing from most of the children’s books available at the time: diversity. The couple not only observed a huge lack of stories containing families that resembled their own, they also noticed a lack of diversity all around, especially in areas of race, ethnicity, feminism, and differing abilities . So Harper decided to change all that.
Not that changing the system is anything new for her. She and Monti were the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Baltimore in 2013 — partly due to Harper’s diligent work as a lawyer and community organizer during Maryland’s 2012 marriage equality campaign.
In late 2018 Harper founded OurShelves, a subscription-based children’s book service focused on diversity. The company has tripled its membership numbers in 2020 alone. Harper credits much of the company’s success to the huge need for more inclusive representation in kids’ books.
“My wife and I were married in a library, so books were important to us,” says Harper. “And maybe I shouldn’t have been, but we were surprised at how hard it was to find high-quality, age-appropriate kids’ books that included two-mom families like ours and also so many other kinds of kids and families. And we started to ask around and really learned that there were many people asking for these books. We came to two observations of systemic problems.”
Harper explains that “the first problem is there just aren’t enough high-quality LGBTQ and other diverse kids’ books, period. And if that’s the case, of course, that means we can’t even scratch the surface of the diversity within our families. … It was also particularly hard to find everyday stories that didn’t center on bullying or homophobia. … [We also need] stories where our families are OK, and the story could actually be about...kids avoiding bedtime, or it could be about superheroes or fairies or just things kids love. Our families deserve to be in those books, too.”
OurShelves founder Alli Harper
Harper adds that the lack of other types of diversity, both within and outside of the realm of LGBTQ+ kids’ books, ultimately influenced the direction of OurShelves. And she’s done her homework. She notes, for example, that over half of babies in the U.S. today are of color and that by the age of 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences — and by ages 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias.
“We had many discussions about whether our books would only feature LGBTQ characters or not, and we ended up going with more broadly diverse books. The people we tested really said they wanted diversity more broadly. And secondly, we felt like the current book offerings featuring LGBTQ characters are not diverse enough. And so we didn’t feel comfortable sending book boxes out with only LGBTQ books, because they would not have represented particularly how racially and ethnically diverse our families are. So we hope that our book boxes…offer that kind of intersectional diversity.”
Additional barriers to getting these books on the market are biases within the publishing world and the belief that such books aren’t marketable. “If publishers are creating books, and the books are too hard to find, then the sales inherently underperform... because people can’t find the books,” Harper explains. “And when the sales underperform, it perpetuates the false notion that these books don’t sell well.”
Part of Harper’s purpose with OurShelves is to begin to dismantle these types of discrepancies within the chain of supply and demand. “When someone signs up to be an OurShelves member…they’re not only enjoying the book, but they’re also being counted. When we go to publishers…we’re not just advocating and saying, ‘Will you produce more books that include x kind of character or family?’ But we’re saying, ‘If you do that, we’ll be here to buy these books, and in significant, ever-growing numbers.’” (OurShelves.com)
Check out more LGBTQ-friendly books for the whole family at Advocate.com/books.