57 | An Open Book: LGBTQ+ Inclusivity in Children’s Literature with Alli Harper at Ourshelves

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Episode Transcript

Emily McGranachan (00:00):
Welcome to Outspoken Voices, a podcast from Family Equality that’s by and for LGBTQ+ families. I am Emily McGranachan and I’m here with Dakota, also at Family Equality. Hey, Dakota!

Dakota Fine (00:14):
I’m just so excited to be back doing the pod with you.

Emily McGranachan (00:17):
I know, me too. I’m really excited to share this really awesome conversation that we had. And as a teaser bit: what do your kids’ bookshelves look like now compared to maybe what books you remember having that represented families growing up?

Dakota Fine (00:30):
Wow. What a great question. Um, I mean, I am always, when I’m looking at my kids’ bookshelf, just blown away by how much more diverse the characters are on the pages. It feels very different to me. Do you have that same experience?

Emily McGranachan (00:45):
Oh yeah. I know growing up, the only book that I had that had an LGBTQ+ family in it was one of those, like you would write to a company and give them details and they would like custom make a book for you where they didn’t, like, show anybody’s faces, but it was like “Emily had a recital and then Mom and Diddy, like, clapped or whatever, and Nana and Papa were there.” Like, it was one of those things that you would, like, insert personal details via I’m sure some sort of paper form, some like mail-away paper form. So it had to be custom-made for my family to see a book that had references to two moms. And now there are so many books, although, you know, of course, could be more

Dakota Fine (01:27):
That’s, that’s amazing that your parents even had, were able to do that. I had nothing like that, uh, on my bookshelves.

Emily McGranachan (01:34):
Yeah, it is great how much is changing. And we heard when we had this great conversation, there’s still so much work to do so….Dakota and I, we really got to talk about representation of diverse families in children’s books with Alli Harper. And it was really awesome. Um, Allie Harper is an LGBTQ+ parent and the founder and CEO of Ourshelves: A Diverse Children’s Book Subscription Service and Advocacy Effort. Allie is also a lawyer and community organizer and lives in Maine with her family. And, oh my gosh, I learned so much when we got to talk to Alli.

Dakota Fine (02:11):
I was blown away. She is just such an incredible resource. And not only that, she provided us in the context of our conversation with a bunch of other really great resources.

Emily McGranachan (02:24):
I hope folks check out the show notes for the episode, because we really have a whole host of resources coming from Alli—information about Ourshelves and also some of the books and other advocacy efforts that we talk about in the episode. So we hope you all enjoy it as much as we really did.

Emily McGranachan (02:41):
So Alli, thank you for being here. Welcome! To start us off, it’s my favorite question that I ask everyone: who is in your family and how was your family formed?

Alli Harper (02:54):
Yes. Well, first of all, just thank you so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of Family Equality. I’m so glad to be with you both today. Um, so in my family, there is me, my wife, Jen, Isaac, who just turned two and, um, our almost eight-year-old Anna and we used an anonymous donor to create them. And I carried and birthed, Anna and my wife, Jen…—Um, and there’s a funny story that, cause I actually birthed her in our Subaru Outback car. I didn’t quite make it to the hospital…

Emily McGranachan (03:29):
That is also like so queer of you too.

Dakota Fine (03:37):
I read that on your website last night. And I was like…

Alli Harper (03:41):
We should totally be in a commercial, right? Like why are we not in the Subaru Outback commercial? Yeah.

Emily McGranachan (03:45):
Oh yeah, slide into Subaru’s DMs. You got to do it.

Alli Harper (03:51):
Um, so, um, so I birthed Anna and then, uh, my wife, Jen, and she also—it was funny because she was the opposite. She was actually working. She was a health care worker. She was working in the hospital when she went into labor. So she just had to kind of walk upstairs so, and—she birthed Isaac. So that’s us.

Emily McGranachan (04:08):
And you are also the creator of Ourshelves. Can you tell us about what Ourshelves is and why you started it?

Alli Harper (04:18):
Sure. So Ourshelves is an, um, an LGBTQ and other diverse kids’ books subscription service and advocacy effort. And I suppose the reason we started Ourshelves goes back to when we birthed our oldest, Anna, I had actually been carrying her while working on the marriage equality campaign and we won marriage just in time to get legally married, to birth her, birthed her. And then we quickly turned our attention to looking for books for her. Books were always important to Jen and me, and we were actually even married in a library. And so we started looking for books. We were really surprised—and maybe I shouldn’t have been, but we were actually really surprised—at how hard it was to find high quality, age-appropriate kids books that both affirmed our two mom family type, but also we wanted our bookshelves to also reflect our values of equity and inclusion and diversity and social justice.

Alli Harper (05:18):
And so also how hard it was to find those books showing other kinds of kids and families. So we really just started to…it kind of, it comes from a very parent perspective of, you know, just looking for these books and we, we kind of asked everyone we knew. So one thing we learned is that there were a lot of other people also looking for these books, but after spending time kind of observing things ourselves and talking to anyone we could— librarians, booksellers. We came to kind of, two systemic structural observations of the kids’ book industry that go to why it was so hard to find these books and forgive me if they sound kind of obvious, but I think they’re important because they tee up why we started Ourshelves. So the first one is just that there are not enough LGBTQ and other diverse books (for this conversation I’ll talk mostly about LGBTQ), but there aren’t enough. That’s just…there aren’t enough high quality age-appropriate diverse kids books, particularly with LGBTQ characters and families. So, and, and of course that also means if you don’t have enough of them, then you can’t even scratch the surface about the diversity within our families. So that was kind of the first problem. And then the second problem is that there actually are some great books with LGBTQ kids and families, but often they’re too hard to find. And we can talk about why that is if we want to, but that’s the second problem. And, and the interesting thing is the two problems are intertwined and impact the industry. Because if you have great books that are coming out with LGBTQ kids and families that people want these books, but if they can’t find these books, the sales of the books underperform. And if the sales underperform, it perpetuates this false notion that many publishers have that the books don’t sell well. And if they think the books don’t sell well, then they don’t create enough of these books. They might do a few here and there because they think it’s important or they think it’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t get at all to the actual audience that exists for them or the real need for these books. So those are the two problems that Ourshelves was created to address.

Emily McGranachan (07:09):
What do you think are some of those, the reasons, I mean, there, there are creators, there are artists, there are writers that are out there what’s happening that is in the way of those books being out there and those books being found? How do they get buried? Like what can publishers and others be doing? I think this is just really great insight for me. I think I, I know the process of how those books get from someone’s mind into our house. I don’t really know how that ends up happening.

Alli Harper (07:36):
Yeah. So it’s been really, it’s been really interesting. So one reason is that often these books are still not being created by the major American publishers that have the most distribution of marketing resources. A fair amount of these books are being created by smaller publishers and they just don’t have those marketing and distribution resources to get them out as far as the majors could. That’s one reason. Similarly with foreign presses, a fair amount of the books we find from foreign presses, same thing. They don’t have the marketing and distribution resources in the United States. So an example of this is: there’s a book, a great book called My Mommy, My Mama, My Brother, and Me – These are the Things We Find By the Sea as part of the title. And it is a great book, centering a two mom multiracial family, exploring the beach together.

Alli Harper (08:22):
It’s by a small Canadian press. And we learned about this book soon after it came out, and it was approaching summertime. And the book, and this is a beach book. So for our boxes, we were thinking, this is a great book to put in our summer book boxes. And the book was not available in the United States. And so we became the first to bring it to the United States, but it was really interesting, right? So that was an exciting find, like that’s the curation team finds it, but it goes to this systemic problem of, we shouldn’t have to. I mean, we were like sorting out exchange rates and I was trying to figure it out. I live in the Northern part of the country. I’m trying to figure out, am I going to drive to their warehouse to pick it up? You know, do I cross the border, what happens with customs?

Alli Harper (08:56):
So we shouldn’t have to figure out exchange rates and customs to have a great beach book, um, that shows our families. So that’s an example of how that book wasn’t even in the— wasn’t even available. And then a third, another interesting trend we’ve seen…So there are some books and forgive the oversimplification of the terms, but I might call them an “everyday book” where there’s a story, but the storyline isn’t about the LGBTQ identity itself. So it’s, you know, it could be a bedtime story. It could be a beach story. These everyday stories, um, can be a bit harder to find. And what we’ve found with some of those is that if the storyline isn’t about being LGBTQ, there’s a tagging system for books, tags, and a metadata that librarians, booksellers, different people use to search for search terms for bucks. And if a book isn’t about the LGBTQ identity, sometimes it doesn’t have any LGBTQ or queer label.

Alli Harper (09:50):
So there was a great book called A Plan for Pops, again from a Canadian publisher. Beautiful text, beautiful illustration, the main character we don’t know—the gender isn’t specified, so you can interpret in a variety of ways. And the main character has two gay grandpas. And for this book, if you look at the library of Congress tags for how it’s labeled the different categories and Dana Rudolph at Mombian goes into depth on this in one of her blog posts, it has no tag about being LGBTQ or queer. So this is a great book that our members loved, but because it’s not about being LGBTQ, it doesn’t carry the tag so it might not be found when somebody’s searching for it. So these are some examples of why these books can be hard to find, which of course is not just bad because then we don’t see them and get to enjoy them. But it’s also bad because it’s, it’s sending the wrong message to publishers when they undersell.

Emily McGranachan (10:41):
That’s really interesting because it feels important that there be books that are the sort of those “everyday” too, about our families and that we’re able to find them. Um, I, I definitely am a believer that there’s value in a book that is about an individual or a family that is LGBTQ or holds some other identity—and that is just an everyday part of their story. AND, there’s values in books that are specifically about an identity or specifically about an experience or often a challenge related to someone’s identity, or you’re helping them with understanding…Like all of those are important, but it’s those “everyday”s that I know I didn’t experience or see or read growing up. And that even today, when that pops up casually, I get very excited.

Alli Harper (11:28):
Me too!

Dakota Fine (11:31):
I have a quick question. Like one of the ways that I find books for my kid is I’ll go and look at the Caldicott nominees, right? Like that’s like the first place I’ll go. Are there, um, specific awards that are dedicated to, uh…Do we need to create a category or lobby for more inclusion in these kinds of awards so that we can get better marketing for diverse LGBTQ inclusive books?

Alli Harper (12:02):
That’s a great question. That’s a great question. And it’s, it’s a larger question for kind of all diverse books. Um, in the LGBTQ front, so we included a book called When Aidan Became a Brother, which is a great book and a significant step forward in trans representation. And it was, it won the Stonewall Award. So that’s one of the big awards. The American Library Association puts out a Rainbow List. So there are some places where you can find lists of books. And I think, I believe that comes out once a year and then you have a few that do get awards and those will tend to be, those will be clearly more well-known for librarians or people who know to look for them. But I think you, you’re raising a point Dakota that I very much relate to as coming to this question from an everyday parents’ perspective.

Alli Harper (12:53):
You know, when I came into this, I was asking every bookstore owner, every library, and as just an everyday parent, I didn’t know about the Stonewall award. I didn’t know about the ALA. I didn’t know about the Rainbow List and it was still, it was still hard to find these. It’s kind of, I mean, I also say, you know, I was talking about how we have these two systemic problems and we have a dual mission in response to these two systemic problems. And for these books that are hard to find, we choose books. We select books for kids ages zero to eight. So it’s families, teachers of young kids, librarians of young kids. So you’re kind of taking many people at kind of the busiest time of their life. So the need to kind of do a PhD level research to find these books can be really challenging!

Alli Harper (13:33):
But anyway, so the first part of our mission is coming to this again from me as a parent, this busy stage of life, we are trying to help and make that easier. So the first part of the mission is to help find, to make it easier to find these harder-to-find books. And so we have assembled a curation team that, you know, brings expertise from academia, from librarianship, from teaching, early childhood development, psychology, early childhood bias, parenting, and a hundred percent of the people—so the curation team is majority LGBTQ, majority people of color—a hundred percent people have the lived experience of themselves being underrepresented and having kids who are underrepresented in kids’ books. So that’s, that’s, you know, we, the assumption here is that these are hard to find for busy people and we’re trying to make them easier to find and then…

Alli Harper (14:22):
The second part of the mission goes to this problem of there aren’t enough of these LGBTQ books period, and that’s our advocacy mission. So we are trying to advocate for the many more books still needed. And there are two components to that: One is the education communication component. And we can go into more depth about that if we want, but we’re essentially really trying to open direct lines with publishers. As we buy books from them where we’re asking, this is what we’re looking for. This is what our members are looking for. What do you have? What don’t you have? How can we communicate this to your editorial team that we need more of this? So there’s the education communication piece. And then the second piece is that we are trying to prove the audience for these books. We’re trying to organize and prove the marketplace. I think this is actually data from Family Equality, but you know, there’s almost 10 million LGBTQ millennials who are growing, talking about growing their families.

Alli Harper (15:13):
And there’s 12 million—I tell researchers—there’s 12 million millennial moms who are supportive of our families. There’s a majority of kids in this country are kids of color. There’s millions and millions of people who want these books and we need to organize and prove so that when we go to publishers, we’re not just saying, oh, will you create a book that centers a family with trans parent, a trans parent? But we’re not just asking you, we’re also saying, and we’re here to buy this book in significant numbers. So publishers start to perceive more opportunity rather than risk in creating these books.

Emily McGranachan (15:46):
The challenges of advocating within a system that is seeking profit, but ultimately is having a deep impact on our families. And that that advocacy can start changing that, um, when kind of, you know, communicate in their language a little bit. Um, but that’s really exciting that that at least those meetings are happening. And it sounds like if they’re not necessarily like listening to take action right now, they’re still listening and there’s there’s movement. Hopefully, you know what, something that I know I’m a, still a new-ish parent, but it’s really interesting to me to learn from you, Alli, a little bit more about why is it, or how, how important is it for young people to be both finding representation that reflects their own lives in books or in, in other, you know, mediums, but we’re just speaking about books in particular. And also how important is it to see folks and families that don’t look like them, live like them, celebrate like them.

Alli Harper (16:49):
Dr. Krista Aronson, who is the founder and director of the Diverse Book Finder is also in our curation team. And I saw her, she gave a presentation where she asked in a room. She said, you know, at what age do you think children notice racial differences? At what age do you think children start to internalize bias? And it was very interesting to see, and I think most people think bias comes a lot later in life. And so what she said, and the research is very clear, kids are noticing racial differences at six months and starting at two years old kids are internalizing bias about self and others. I mean, I think we can probably all relate to this to some extent who have young kids and one example that we’ve received feedback—So there’s a great board book called Baby’s First Words, which is just an everyday beautiful, lovely illustrated board book about a — the main family in the book is a two-dad multiracial family.

Alli Harper (17:45):
We got feedback from one of our members that their child is in a mom-dad, family, and the child kept changing, kept saying, this is a mom and dad as they were reading it because that’s what the child knew. And by reading the book and you could tell the child, it’s great to see kids like they’re bringing stuff — what’s going on inside often comes out at a very young age. So clearly the child was working through this. And every time they read the book, the child wanted to read the book again, again, they kept reading it and the family kept having the opportunity to say, actually, you know, there are many kinds of families. There’s families with one mom. There’s families with two dads. There’s families with two moms and a dad, you know, all different kinds of family types. And ultimately the child now, this one to two year old now knows that there are many different kinds of families. And that’s a very, so that’s kind of a concrete example, but I think, you know, in our own, what’s so nice about very young kids is that they will verbalize these things and give us the opportunity if we make sure we don’t silence it or clash it, books are a great way to kind of raise these kinds of things and kids will bring them up.

Emily McGranachan (18:45):
I love that. I love that example too. I mean, I know I’ve been thinking a great deal about this because my little one just turned one and so was born at the cusp of the pandemic. And so like really, you know, during the pandemic, I only see the folks who live in my home, our baby only sees the folks that live in there in our home. So it feels like a whole other level of importance that we are not the only idea of family and the idea of identities and what folks look like. Just like we can’t go out and just see other people the way that I would, you know, would want to. And so this, the pandemic makes like really kind of, um, has been highlighting that for me.

Alli Harper (19:25):
Yeah, it’s really true. My youngest, as I said is two, and we do a lot with books for the same way. I feel so badly that, you know, he has so few friends, but, um, but he still seems very happy, but his books, his characters and his books are his friends in many ways. And, um, and really talking about whether it’s talking about kids have all different kinds of hair color, all different kinds of beautiful skin colors, all different kinds of families. It’s really a way to explicitly affirm that it’s okay to talk about these things, that’s okay to ask questions about these things and look at all these people, having fun, sharing love, just like you.

Emily McGranachan (20:02):
What are some of the, those, the specific trends or, um, holes in representation? Like, you know, even if we could kind of, you mentioned that when there’s almost nothing…you can barely, then you especially, can’t really scratch deeper into the many, many, many different identities and intersecting identities that individuals and families hold, but are there particular subsets or, or, you know, specific examples that really feel, um, like, like they’re glaring that they’re not there that feel really important, and that you’re also hearing from some of, of the, Ourshelves community.

Alli Harper (20:39):
Yes. Well, so in terms of trends of what we are seeing. First, I would say, we’re definitely still seeing, again, forgive the oversimplification, but if you call them kind of “everyday” versus what I’d call more issue-oriented books, like again, the identity is part of the storyline. They might involve homophobia. They might involve bullying. They might involve somebody who doesn’t understand that there are different kinds of families and needing to explain to them. Or it’s mother’s day, and you have two dads, you know, those kinds of bucks. Still, I think the trend is that most of the books are more of these more issue oriented books with the flip side of that is another whole, is we still need more of these everyday books. And as you said, Emily, I very much agree. Both are very important. It’s also really important to name, you know, we’re talking about kids’ books and at Ourshelves so far, we’re focused on board and picture books, which are generally for kind of zero to eight-ish.

Alli Harper (21:29):
Sometimes they’re ones that can stretch a little bit older. And then we’re just starting early chapter books is kind of a whole nother thing and then chapter books…But for zero to eight, it’s also important to note, there’s a huge difference, obviously between a six month old, an 18 month old, a three-year-old, a seven year old, and with so few books like it shouldn’t be…we have to read…Like, I remember when we first started Ourshelves, we were interviewing people and kind of everybody only knew about Heather has Two Moms and Mommy, Mama and Me for like eight years! To span like eight years! Um, and a lot of us do a lot of other things like changing pronouns and, you know, trying to do things. We can talk about that too. But it’s important. You know, ideally our kids would have books that meet our different developmental stages as well.

Alli Harper (22:10):
And so sometimes with development, like, I didn’t feel, I didn’t want to be introducing my one and two year old to like a strong bullying story, right? That’s not age-appropriate. Sometimes it can depend these more “everyday” versus, you know, there’s an age-appropriateness issue there as well. So we’re still seeing the trend is still more issue-oriented books. And I think part of that is because publishers, if you’re only producing, if each publisher maybe only produces one or two a year and you feel like you need to do the most dramatic story, you know, there’s something going on. I think a lot of these problems will get solved when we get more volume. Anyway. So some of the other trends are a fair amount of books that focus on pride, pride colors, pride numbers, pride parades. So we’re seeing that’s an area where there are more books.

Alli Harper (22:54):
And also, I think we still continue to see a fair amount of books each year, one or a few books, just about different kinds of families. So you’ll see our families will show up in those kinds of books. So those are some of the things we’re seeing. In terms of holes…Yes. I mean, I could go on and on because as we try to curate these boxes, I feel like my whole life is about the holes. So clearly characters that live at the intersection of multiple underrepresented identities is a huge hole, right? So LGBTQ families of color, we’re starting to see more multiracial families, but still very hard to find a book. And When Aidan Became a Brother, that’s actually an example, that’s a family of color. It is a great example of, we need more of that. That’s a great example.

Alli Harper (23:37):
Also, similarly, books written by both LGBTQ folks and by Black Indigenous People of Color and you know, more under-represented identities. So in the children’s book world, we call this “own voices,” which is a term coined by Corrine. I’m going to spell Corrine’s last name because I don’t know how to pronounce it. It’s D U Y V I S. The term own voices means that a story is written or illustrated by someone who shares the identity of the underrepresented character in the book. So more own voices. So these books should, we need more books written by queer authors, illustrators, Black, Indigenous People of Color, disabled, you know, different religions that are underrepresented. So we need more own voices content. And I’d also say like, we need more books with main characters. It’s okay for a story to actually just…like our family to be the main family.

Alli Harper (24:27):
Cause there are there more books of, we’re kind of one of many families or we’re kind of one family on one page, but like main characters! We need main characters. We also really need trans non-binary characters, families with they/them/their pronouns. That’s another area. We’re looking at a great book on that front right now with a main character with they/them/their pronouns. But that’s another space that we get asked a lot about also families like all different families with just many different family compositions. We were asked recently about families with more than two parents, families that have been divorced, separated, live in different homes, co-parenting, adoptive/foster books about, I guess the other is, you know, just this kind of like falls into the everyday category. But you know, for us as parents with kids, I feel like, you know, whenever there’s like a ritual or a holiday or a season change or an issue we’re dealing with, maybe it’s kids avoiding bedtime, or maybe it’s like spring is here and flowers are blooming. Just any of those books that would include LGBTQ families. Those are still hard to just the everyday rituals, holidays, changing of seasons. So that’s, that’s a lot, there’s many more on my wishlist, but there are some examples.

Emily McGranachan (25:37):
I really, really love that the own voices. For anyone who doesn’t have significant time to be doing research, how do you do some preliminary quick checks for some of those own voices indicators? You find a book like how do you kind of try to determine that this is written by someone for themselves, for their own family, for their own identities? If that makes sense.

Alli Harper (26:02):
That’s a great question. We, I mean, we ask very directly and we’re very clear on our website and publishers and to people, um, to whom we’re talking that we prioritize own voices. It’s not possible yet unfortunately, you know, to be a hundred percent, but we, we will ask directly. Um, and if I’m often, you know, sometimes you can tell because when an author/illustrator talks about why they wrote a book and an article or on their website or in the bio, they’ll say “I wrote this because, you know, I couldn’t find my kids represented.” And if it’s unclear, I will ask, I’ll ask the publisher. And it’s interesting. It can lead to interesting stories. There was, uh, there was a board book called Uh-Oh, that the queer community has really claimed for itself. It’s just, it’s a little beach book. I think the only words in it are “Uh-oh.” It’s just like two little kids at the beach with these two women.

Alli Harper (26:52):
And when I first saw it—again with a baby and could find almost none of these everyday books—I mean, we were just kind of like all over this book, read this book all the time. And so when it came to selecting it for Ourshelves, I went to the publisher and said, is this? And I was like, I’m so excited about this LGBTQ book. It didn’t even cross my mind that it might not be LGBTQ. And they were like, oh, this isn’t, you must be mistaken. This isn’t an LGBTQ book. Oh no. I said, is it own voices? And they were like, well, own voices…what? And I was like, well, LGBTQ, obviously it’s an LGBTQ book. And they were like, it’s not an LGBTQ book. And it’s not own voices. And I was like, oh really? And so I came back and I was like, oh, it looks like it was two moms.

Alli Harper (27:29):
So anyway, that conversation resulted in me learning that the book was not intended to be a queer book. And I reached out, I’m trying to remember if either the author or illustrator, I reached out to one of them. So I found that out. And then I reached out to the author/illustrator to be like, did you know that the LGBTQ community has claimed this? And how do you feel about that? Because I wanted to know that before we included it in the book box and they responded and said that they were happy to know that that was a good thing. And, but it was a very interesting dynamic that this, you know, this question had ended up uncovering that the queer community had claimed this. And also, you know, it goes to show just the state of things. Like that’s kind of where we are at. We still have to claim things that weren’t necessarily intended that way. Which again, I think a lot of us can relate to.

Emily McGranachan (28:12):
Oh yeah, I did that growing up. I thought everybody, like, I definitely interpreted representations that were not supposed to be LGBTQ. I a hundred percent interpreted them that way.

Alli Harper (28:24):
Yeah. I think that’s very common. I mean the changing of pronouns, like we joke about, like, it’s funny. I feel like we joke about it, but it’s like, you’re laying down for bedtime. All you want to do is read the words. You’re about to fall asleep, trying to stay awake, to read your kids a story. And you just want to read the words, but you gotta like keep it together. Cause you got to keep the pronouns straight. So your kids, you know, believe that there are books with two moms or two dads or, you know, whatever you call the family members in your book. And that goes to actually another hole is just books where the grownups aren’t…their names aren’t identified, their names and gender aren’t identify and they could be more creatively interpreted. So in terms of also your own voices question, we do, if folks want to, we keep a bunch of…Our authors and illustrators have made wonderful videos that talk about why they created the books that they created.

Alli Harper (29:13):
And we’ve selected for Ourshelves boxes and our Facebook page is @Ourshelveskids. And if you go to @OurshelvesKids, you can see, um, the video section, um, you’ll see a whole host, both queer and not queer authors and illustrators talking about why. And you really, you hear from them, I think a hundred percent of them, that the reason they created – the reason these books are special to them is because they were sharing their identity because they weren’t able to find it for their own kids. Not all of them have kids actually.

Dakota Fine (29:41):
I found those videos on YouTube as well. And I, and one other thing I just want to plug, if I can on your website, uh, Ourshevles very helpfully has a tab for subscribe and it also has a gift tab. You know, I, I know the, my four-year-old’s best friends, uh, have two dads and you know, this would be an probably an excellent gift to give. And I, and I just love that you guys have thought that through in terms of like, well, yeah, I want to subscribe for myself, but I can also easily click on this tab to gift it to someone else. So that’s, that’s very cool.

Emily McGranachan (30:17):
Allie, I did want to then ask or, you know, you talked to us a lot of the advocacy that Ourshelves is doing, which is really exciting. And it feels, you know, for myself who, if I don’t feel like I have the ear of a publisher or, or, you know, could get a meeting or whatever, maybe – maybe I could, I think I would just love your thoughts of how can, uh, any kind of family, a young person, anyone be doing this advocacy as well to be, you know, helping Ourshelves and enjoining Ourshelves in this work, because we all want more representation. And we want others, especially those gatekeepers, really, we want them to know that we want this, that we’re demanding this, that it is past time, that more families, more voices, more experiences by those who hold those identities are being published and are being like widely celebrated and shared with fanfare. How can we be doing that?

Alli Harper (31:10):
Yeah, it’s a great question. So yes, I mean, first of all, Ourshelves is an advocacy strategy. So when you, when you sign up to receive yourself, or as Dakota pointed out to gift Ourshelves books, you are being counted to make us stronger when we advocate collectively and go to publishers. The more books we buy from them…we’re really excited, qe have members in all 50 states, we tripled our membership size last year and we’re growing quickly. And I think it really matters. Like publishers will ask us what we think about things and what we’re looking for because they want to sell books. And we’re, we’re organizing that marketplace. And every single member matters to that. Every person, every time we can say we have X number, we can buy X number of these books that will make us more and more powerful in our advocacy.

Alli Harper (31:56):
So that’s one thing is you, you can join part of a collective advocating, which is Ourshelves as one vehicle for that. In terms of just individually, there are many things—Oh, and I’ll say also related to Ourshelves, we are constantly sending out surveys to our members supporters after you get a book back and we always ask, what are you looking for that you can’t find? So many of the holes I just mentioned, even though there are many more, all came from our members. And before we even launched Ourshelves, we interviewed hundreds and surveyed hundreds of people asking, what are you looking for that you can’t find? So that’s a way too, that you can share. We share that information anonymously with publishers, but in terms of everyday advocacy, outside of Ourshelves, there are many things you can do, whether it’s your child’s classroom, whether it’s at your local library, whether it’s a bookstore, you can ask, “Do you have LGBTQ or many other identities, but for the, for this, I’ll just mention LGBTQ, do you, um, have LGBTQ books here?”

Alli Harper (32:56):
I still ask everywhere I go, what LGBTQ books you have. And, but I also go a step further. So you can ask, that’s kind of the first question, library, teacher, bookstore, and not from – it doesn’t have to be adversarial. It can really be from a, “I want to help and support,” you know, like I can give you some titles, you can connect them to an entity with booklists. We can connect them to Ourshelves to help fill holes, but we’re trying to get at not just do you have LGBTQ representation, but then we go a step further because LGBTQ, as we know, very diverse within itself, do you have books with two dads? Do you have books with trans kids? Do you have books with kids with they/them pronouns? So really kind of dig deeper on it. And even a step further, what kinds of books?

Alli Harper (33:34):
This was my big thing before I started Ourshelves, I would go in and I would ask these questions. And then I would say also they’d pull out the books and almost all the books they’d pull out would be these more issue oriented books, most of which were about bullying, which again, very important. And we also need these other kinds too. And I would say, “And, do you have any that aren’t about the identity. Do you have like a bedtime story? Do you have like a beach story? Do you have a playground story?” You know, often what happens is the dynamic becomes like very, like we’re kind of partners in this. Like they want that too. They’re like, yes, like this is, we need more of this, but all those people have connections to other people. They all…like bookstores buy their books from the publishers and distributors.

Alli Harper (34:13):
So they then go to their next meeting and say, “Do you have this?” And then it gets the publishers. And I just, I spoke to about 10 different publishers last week. Cause we’re really looking for board books with LGBTQ characters and the ones, one of the major of the – there’s kind of big five publishers – one of the major ones had zero board books with LGBTQ characters. Another one I think had one or two and their response had to be, “Well, I’m going to bring this up at my next editorial and sales meeting.” Right? And so this, I think when you ask those questions, if you keep asking them, they do work their way…we need to all be kind of using our voice wherever we can. The other thing I would say is in addition to asking for these different places, classrooms, libraries, bookstores, to have the books is also pay attention to, are they visually visible?

Alli Harper (34:59):
Are they the ones up, you know, with the open spreads on the shelf so people can see them? Are they read at story times? Are they read not only during pride month or Black history month. Are they read at other times as well? And again, I think one can bring this up in a way of also offering support. I think there’s obviously a lot of -there can be depending on your context – political pressure and other forces. So one can bring this up in the context of, you know, “I know you’re so committed to this, how can I help support you?” And again, there’s entities like us for help in getting age-appropriate, high quality books. And there’s also entities like GLSEN that is a national nonprofit focused on LGBTQ education/kids in schools. And they have resources for how, like how to use these books. And I asked them like in our, in one of our, I think GLSEN often does free trainings for schools, so there’s resources and you can always reach out to me, I’m at info@ourshelves.com, but there’s resources too, that you could be offering to people.

Alli Harper (35:57):
So it doesn’t become a, “Oh, you don’t have any, I gotcha.” Cause we don’t want that because a lot of people, again, they’re just hard to find, but it’s like if, if I were to connect you to resources, if, if, you know, would you put these up? Would you include them in story time? But I think those are some of the ways that we can use our voices to improve the representation. And I would just say, I think we can all relate to, I think it’s worth saying explicitly when I walk into a library and I see, I can, I can tell within like 30 seconds kind of the vibe of the place by looking at the books that are out, right? And as soon as I see books, when I see when Aiden Became a Brother, as soon as I see that, I’m like, okay, this feels like they’re trying to be proactively inclusive, intentional about this.

Alli Harper (36:43):
And again, if you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean they’re not, it could just mean that, you know, they’re busy and underfunded and don’t have time to find the books. But when I see it, I just automatically feel safer. And that’s another way to have the conversation with people is, you know, “I just, I feel like I see that you put that book…That just makes me—I always say this to my kids’ teachers—I just felt so good when you said that or when you asked, you know, when you shared your pronouns or whatever it is.” Those are some examples.

Emily McGranachan (37:06):
We appreciate all of those, those tips and advice. Uh, I know that Family Equality also does have resources. We have our Book Nook with just a whole bunch of—all kinds of books that you can find by age and others, you know, have had some other good resources. Our back to school tool kit that we created for the start of 2020 also has like exactly that like template emails and, and lists things that can be shared with educators and librarians too. Like, this is great. We can do this together. And, um, you know, we’ll also share like folks who are listening, connect with Family Equality. Connect with Ourshelves. Like we have, we have staff, we have resources, we have tips we have, you know, can, can support one another to be doing this together because as Allie you’ve pointed out and are doing, you know, the collection of our voices in this particular space of can be heard very differently than the individual voice sometimes.

Emily McGranachan (37:56):
And so that there’s power in that collective voice. And so we can be doing this together and yeah, get, get more families, get more identities, get more celebration and joy in, in our, in our bookshelves. I love this. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your insights. I’ve also will have lots of notes in the, and links, in the show notes for folks to find some of these books and find a lot of these excellent resources. You were just a wealth of insight and information. And I’m so excited to be really improving our own library here at home. And to now be when I can safely go back to my town’s library, to be really doing this with some fresh perspectives, fresh insights, and really looking to see what they got and asking those questions. So thank you so much for talking with us today.

Alli Harper (38:43):
Thank you so much for having me. Thank you again so much to Family Equality for all you do for our families from a very personal place. Me, my wife and our two kids are just the most grateful for everything from Family Week to the advocacy, to the legislation, to the lobbying. It’s- you all are just doing it in all the different venues that directly impact us in the head, heart, legal protections, all those different contexts. So thank you so much for both of you and all of Family Equality does for all of us.

Emily McGranachan (39:14):
Thanks for listening. Connect with Family Equality at familyequality.org and find us on social media @FamilyEquality on Facebook and Instagram and @family_Equality on Twitter.