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Alli Harper: Ensuring Equal Representation on Kids Bookshelves

Alli Harper: Ensuring Equal Representation on Kids Bookshelves

Hi everyone! I’m Spiffy, your favorite interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference on equality. Today I’m going to learn about children’s books, and how OurShelves is working to make sure everyone is represented in the books we read. Join me as I welcome Alli Harper, founder and CEO of OurShelves. Are you ready to be inspired?

Spiffy: Welcome, Alli! I understand OurShelves and Ladderworks have something in common! Can you tell me what challenges you are addressing through your company? 

Alli: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! So, picture yourself in front of some bookshelves. Maybe you're at home, in your classroom, or at the library. Now think about the books on those shelves. Which ones do you really love? Which ones make you laugh? Which ones do you come back to again and again? Now think about the books on those shelves, and think about what types of characters you find in those books. Are there types of characters you see again and again? And are there certain kinds of characters or families missing in those books? Too often, it's really hard to find books that show all the different kinds of awesome kids and families out there—what we call "diverse" books! In short, too many kinds of kids and families are missing on OurShelves, and we need to change that!

Spiffy: Yes, everyone needs to be represented! What was the big motivation for you to launch OurShelves? 

Alli: Well, Spiffy, I have two kids, Isaac (age 2) and Anna (ages 8), and they have two moms, me and my wife, Jenn. My kids deserve to have beautiful, funny, silly and awesome books that include families like theirs. In fact, all kids deserve to find themselves in the books they love! And all kids also deserve to have books that help them get to know all the different kinds of awesome and fun kids and families out there! I'm motivated to do this work because all kids and all families, including mine and yours and everyone else's, deserve a place on OurShelves in super-fun books!

Spiffy: Agreed! I’m curious about the ways that you and OurShelves are working to create a more equitable world. 

Alli: Sometimes these diverse books—with many kinds of kids and families— exist, but they are too hard to find. Ugg! So we have an amazing team of experts who help to find these books so we can send them to you, your families, teachers and librarians in book boxes, making them easier to find. We also know that not enough of these books exist, so we must advocate, or ask, for many more! Our community members share videos or letters asking publishers (the people who make the books) to make books with those of us still missing. You can send us a video or letter to share with publishers too! Finally, sometimes publishers don't know how many of us want these books. So we're buying a lot of books to prove it!

Spiffy: Can you tell me about some initiatives that you’re particularly excited about? 

Alli: We now have members (kids, families, teachers, librarians, healthcare offices) in all 50 states and Washington D.C. receiving awesome books that include all different kinds of kids and families! We're excited because when they receive our books, they can then share the books with those in their communities—kids, families, schools, libraries, YMCA's, and others! So more and more kids will be able to see themselves in their books AND get to know many other kinds of awesome kids and families! The more books we buy from publishers (the people who make the books), the more we're proving to publishers that a lot of people want these books—so they need to make many, many more!

Some of the diverse children's books curated and sent by OurShelves. (Photo credit, Alli Harper)

Spiffy: What about failure? Can you share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up? 

Alli: When I couldn't find enough books that showed my kids their kind of family, and so many other kinds of kids and families, I felt like I failed because I know how important it is for kids to read books with all different kinds of kids and families. So what did I do? First, I started talking to my friends, and even strangers, and learned I wasn't alone. Next, I started asking a lot of questions to understand why these books were so hard to find. Finally, I started OurShelves so that the millions of people who care about finding wonderful books with all different kinds of kids and families can work together to share these books—and advocate for many more! When we discover a problem, we can solve it if we work together!

Spiffy: I’m so glad you did this, Alli. What is something really interesting you’ve learned from someone recently? 

Alli: I learn a lot from my two-year-old and eight-year-old. Recently, my two-year-old and I have been watching flowers transitioning from buds to blossoms. It's only possible to see the differences each day if we take the time to look each day, which can be hard when life is really busy. I've learned from him about all of the beauty around us if we can just pay attention. My eight-year-old recently started taking kung fu classes all by herself.  It's inspired me to be brave and try new things, even when I may feel nervous at the start!

Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience? 

Alli: Before I began OurShelves, I learned of an everyday beautiful baby book that happened to feature a multi-racial, two-dad family, still a rarity. I wrote to the publisher, Barefoot Books, and asked to meet. I didn't know if they'd respond, but they did. : )  I met with their team and shared who I thought was missing in books, including two-mom families like mine and so many others. Fast forward—that publisher, Barefoot Books, recently published a fun and silly book, THE BREAD PET, featuring a girl in a multi-racial two-mom family and who has a cochlear implant for hearing. The publisher said we influenced them in making this book! So we "can" use our voices to make a difference! And there are many allies out there who want to do so with us!

Spiffy: Count me in, Alli! Thanks so much for working to make everyone visible, and thanks for telling me all about it. It’s been an honor!


Alli Harper is the founder and owner of OurShelves, a diverse children’s books subscription service and advocacy effort. She is also a lawyer and community organizer who believes in fairness. She and her wife, Jenn, are "Mommy" and “Mama” to Anna (ages 8), Isaac (age 2), Uru (our kitten), and Scale (our fish). (First published on the Ladderworks website on June 1, 2021.)


© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.