CUMBERLAND — When Alli Harper and her wife were looking for children’s books that affirmed their two-mom family, the Cumberland couple was surprised by how few existed and how difficult it was to find quality books from the ones that did exist.

Recognizing this hole in children’s literature, Harper founded OurShelves, a diverse children’s book subscription service and advocacy effort.  

Ali Harper, founder of OurShelves. Courtesy / Ali Harper

Harper knew that children’s literature featuring racially diverse, LGBTQ+ and feminist characters and families had a significant audience. But because they were so few and far between, sales of these books underperformed, reflecting the false notion that these kinds of books are riskier to publish. 

Data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that books featuring white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes and other familiar figures make up almost three quarters (71%) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019. 

Ourshelves launched two years ago at ourshelves.com in an effort to start seeing “ourselves on our shelves,” said Harper. In the last year, the number of subscriptions doubled and boxes have been sent to every state in the country, Harper said, as well as Washington, D.C.

“As our membership grows we’re showing the publications that there’s opportunity rather than risk in creating these books,” Harper said. 

Harper reaches out to publications and sends along prospective books to the OurShelves curation team, which reviews and selects books for the subscription boxes. Each member of the team has seen both people like themselves and their kids being underrepresented in children’s books.  

“For those of us intentionally trying to cultivate values of inclusion, equity, social justice, diversity, kindness, love and fun during a really challenging year, one concrete action, among others we can take, is to ensure the books our kids are reading in these critical years of identity and bias formation reflect our values,” Harper said. 

Krista Aronson, associate dean of the faculty and professor of psychology at Bates College and director at Diverse BookFinder, adds her expertise in early childhood bias as a member of the OurShelves curation team.

Books featured in OurShelves subscription box. Courtesy / Ali Harper

“Through our research, we know that when children read books about human characters interacting across some sort of social difference, whether it be race, culture, ability, they experience a positive change in attitude towards the out group, the group that’s not like them, as well as their intended behaviors or their interest in interacting across that particular type of difference,” said Aronson.

In a time when direct contact with people outside of one’s family unit isn’t as safe, reading about these interactions can be just as beneficial in developing familiarity and understanding across differences.

“Our books can either perpetuate the inequity of the status quo or they can challenge them,” Harper said, “OurShelves wants to ensure that we are showing our kids a vision of the world we seek for them, which is a world where all kids and families are worthy of a place on our shelves, which sends the message that all kids and families are worthy, period.” 

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