A Reflection at Five Years

When I started OurShelves five years ago, I did so because I wanted my kids, who have two moms, and all kids, to deeply know and feel that they belong, exactly as they are. 
At that time, most families and teachers I knew had zero books with LGBTQ+* characters, not to mention the many others never- or under-represented in kids’ books. A small number of these LGBTQ+ books did exist, but they were too often very hard to find. Many LGBTQ+ families like mine were replacing pronouns in books to will our families into stories where we weren’t intended to exist. A kindergarten teacher at my daughter’s school refused to read books that included LGBTQ+ families like ours. In many of these contexts, just one LGBTQ+ story – my kids being able to see themselves, and other kids being introduced to families like ours, in just one story – felt like a victory. (I say this recognizing that for many, finding even just this one book remains distant.)
Starting OurShelves was my way of addressing the cultural forces telling my children, and many children, that they and their families don’t belong. We know the stakes involved in a child’s authentic belonging are high, and sometimes life and death. We also know that a child’s sense of belonging and bias of self and others begins younger than most think. Through our curating and our collective sharing of high-quality diverse children’s books featuring racially and ethnically diverse, LGBTQ+, disabled, feminist, and other characters and families currently under-represented in kids’ books, we take concrete action to advance toward our vision that:
All kids belong on OurShelves. All kids belong.
So where are we five years into this journey?
First, it’s impossible to reference the last five years without reminding ourselves of the global, national, and local crises, tragedies, systems of oppression, and many other challenges we have experienced collectively and all we’ve each experienced individually – not to mention raising and caring for young kids is . . . humbling. 🙂

Second, to truly understand where we are with diverse kids’ books in 2023 would require a wide range of input from the many diverse book advocates, including each of you, to share lived experience, data, analysis, and much more than is possible here.

So I will narrow my answer to sharing two observations.

First, we have made great progress. Here’s just one example: Take representation of LGBTQ+ families like mine – more LGBTQ+ books exist than there were five years ago. Check out our Pride Bingo for families, schools, and libraries that we created with Mombian, Family Equality, Medal On My Mind, and 8 other partner organizations. Check. It. Out. !!! OurShelves members, and hopefully many others, can check off every circle on the bingo card.

As you play Pride Bingo with your kids, be proud that you and they are part of history. The advocacy and work of many, including you, brought us to today where more and more kids enjoy books that were not accessible nor even imaginable to many of us five years ago.

Pride Bingo also reminds us that we have higher expectations now; one or a few LGBTQ+ books are not nearly enough. We now work to fill OurShelves with higher quality collections: Books with more varied storylines - we seek stories that make us laugh and sing, stories about missing a loved one, bedtime stories, and more. Books with a wider range of characters and by a wider range of author and illustrator identities within the LGBTQ+ community. We particularly seek stories from and featuring those living at the intersection of multiple under-represented identities and those most marginalized, like transgender and nonbinary folks and those who are both LGBTQ+ and BIPOC**.

I ask you to honor this progress by embracing and sharing these higher standards across all under-represented identities. Don’t settle for less, and let’s keep pushing higher, which leads me to my second observation: 

We must work hard to protect gains made and to continue to significantly expand representation. A vocal minority is working tenaciously to reverse our progress, and many remain never- or vastly under-represented.

Last year’s unprecedented 3,362 (!!!) book bans primarily targeting racially and ethnically diverse and LGBTQ+ books  and the thirty (30) states with related pending or passed legislation are attempts to send a clear message that some of us (including families like mine) don’t belong on OurShelves, and most devastating, that some of us don’t belong in our communities at all.

Just weeks ago, national news broke that Scholastic book fairs segregated many of their diverse book offerings – mostly featuring BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people – into one shelf and made that shelf optional to exclude from its 120,000 book fairs across the country reaching 35 million children in the U.S. and internationally. Scholastic is the "world's largest publisher . . . of children's books," with all the power, privilege, and potential that position entails. 

On a Tuesday in October, I took my kids to a local Scholastic book fair. My 10-year-old daughter, Anna, found zero LGBTQ+ picture books and very few books with BIPOC and other diverse identities. When we shared this observation with the school, the school contact wrote to their Scholastic representative who then sent the segregated diverse shelf, which included three LGBTQ+ picture books and some additional books featuring BIPOC and other diverse identities for the final day of the book fair that Saturday. Even on that Saturday, with the diverse books shelf, the offerings stood in stark contrast to the diverse books Anna is used to experiencing through OurShelves.

While we celebrated Anna’s advocacy and the change she created, deep down for me, it felt like we had returned to fighting for “just one LGBTQ+ book,” or three in this case. And that’s just one of many under-represented identities at these book fairs.

Because of the advocacy of many, Scholastic rescinded, albeit weakly, this specific policy, but Scholastic’s actions, and inaction, leave little hope that Scholastic book fairs will be the bold and trusted leaders we need in diverse offerings in the near future (although I hope to be proven wrong.). Scholastic’s actions are another reminder of how quickly some leaders can be to prioritize the demands of a vocal minority over those of us, the majority, working toward authentic belonging, safety, equity, inclusion, and celebration of the diverse world in which we live.

Scholastic’s policy is also a reminder that there is no neutral position in the quest for authentic diverse representation and belonging. Publishers, through the books and creators they support or fail to support, either legitimate the inequities of the status quo or challenge them. We, as everyday book purchasers, borrowers, and readers, also make choices about the books we intentionally share with our kids that similarly can serve to either reinforce or deconstruct long-standing structures of oppression. At OurShelves, we choose to employ diverse books to deconstruct such structures, all the while reconstructing a world in which more and more children deeply feel that they belong.

And so, because of you, I have great hope:

  • OurShelves members, and hopefully many others, can check each circle on our Pride Bingo sheet, evidence of growing opportunities for more moments of belonging
  • This past month, Anna’s actions, like many of your kids’ actions over the years, created concrete change in one local book fair, advancing belonging in that community.
  • School and other community leaders are partnering with OurShelves to offer in-person and virtual book fair options that proudly share expert-curated diverse kids' books, affirming belonging in their communities.
  • Children in the OurShelves community are regularly enjoying playful, serious, thoughtful, relatable diverse books that didn’t exist five years ago and that directly result in more kids belonging.
  • OurShelves educators are modeling for others how to affirm belonging through diverse books in all aspects of curriculum, not just identity months.
  • OurShelves librarians and healthcare and social services providers are visibly displaying diverse books to signal that all kids and all families belong in those community spaces, exactly as they are.

            Now pause and take a moment to think about a time when you took an action, perhaps sharing a book or something else, in which a child you know deeply experienced the feeling of belonging, safety, and freedom to be, explore and celebrate exactly who they are. 

            This is our work.

            It is an honor to partner with you.

            With gratitude for five years of partnership with you,

            Alli Harper (She/Hers), Founder of OurShelves

            *LGBTQ+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and those community members with other identities

            **BIPOC: Black and Indigenous people and People of Color 

            I would like to thank Anastasia Collins, Dana Rudolph, Dr. Krista Aronson, Lauren Dumont, and Kelly Allen for their contributions to this blog post and the OurShelves effort.