Reading Rainbow

Families that looked like hers weren’t represented on her daughter’s bookshelves. Here’s how Alli Harper built a business to help others find picture books featuring diverse families.

Like many entrepreneurs, Alli Harper’s business idea emerged from a very personal place. As a lawyer and community organizer, Harper worked on the 2012 marriage equality campaign in Maryland. She and her wife Jen Monti were the first same sex couple to be legally married in Baltimore in 2013. Their daughter Anna was born just a few days later. Soon after, they asked their friends and networks to recommend children’s books featuring families with two moms so their bookshelves could reflect their family and values. “We were really surprised when we only found one board book, Mommy, Momma and Me,” Harper says. Dismayed, she devoted herself to building a personal collection of diverse children’s books including “every LGBTQ book I could find.”

Alli Harper prepares one of the quarterly packages of books OurShelves sends to subscribers. The Cumberland entrepreneur aims to connect families with books filled with storylines and characters that resemble them. Photo by Molly Haley

She wanted books that didn’t treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer families as “issues” to be explained, but portrayed everyday representations of characters and families resembling her own. But by 2016, when the family relocated to from Maryland to Maine so that Monti, a cardiologist, could take a job directing The Innovation Cohort at Maine Medical Center, Harper was still frustrated by how hard it was to find these kinds of books. Harper, 40, decided to do something about it, putting her legal career on hold. She brainstormed, organized and did market research with help from readers of a website called M is for Movement, which advocates for social action and justice to be part of children’s literature (a post Harper wrote about the issue for that site in January 2018 reached 55,000 people on Facebook). In November, she launched OurShelves, a subscription service that features regular deliveries of boxes filled with curated collections of books like the ones she and Monti wanted for Anna.

Alli Harper puts a final touch on a package before boxing it up. Subscription rates range from about $80 to $300 annually for quarterly deliveries. Customers can also buy a one-time gift box. Photo by Molly Haley

Harper was “blown away” by the immediate response, with 80 percent of OurShelves’ early subscribers opting for a full year’s membership. “I think it goes to show how urgent the demand is for these books that people were willing to prepay for a year after basically one blog post,” Harper says. She anticipates that the more subscribers she gets, the more publishers will recognize the need to diversify the books they choose to publish. “Our belief is that a strong group of parents, teachers and librarians who are passionate about something can actually be very powerful and change the picture book industry,” Harper says. She found that small publishers often don’t have the sales and distribution power to focus on selling diverse books, or if they do, they’re not reaching their target market. The less LGBTQ topics are mentioned outright on a book’s cover and cover summaries, the less visible they become to search engines; OurShelves’ goal is to make those books easy to find. Harper hopes publishers will listen. “Our message is when you create stories that our members want, we’ll be here to support you with sales. We get the books to the target audience and give data back to publishers to help them make better, more responsive content.” Her ultimate goal is “a world in which children look at their bookshelves, feel affirmed, and see many different children and families around them.”

Alli Harper and her wife Jen Monti enjoy a picture book with their children. Photo by Molly Haley

OurShelves has a volunteer curation team of four, in addition to Harper, all looking for diverse books. The team has collective experience in academia, literacy, child development and parenting, as well as “a common experience of being underrepresented and knowing the importance of being able to see themselves and their families in books,” Harper says. The goal is for all the boxes OurShelves sends out to feature LGBTQ characters, characters of color, gender nonconforming and feminist characters, as well as characters with different religious beliefs and abilities. The more intersectional a book is in covering these topics, the better.

OurShelves’ books are boxed according to three age ranges: the Sunshine Box (0–2 years), the Rainbow Box (2–5 years) and the Treehouse Box (5–7 years). Customers choose by age range and one, three or five books per box (three is the most common). Subscription rates range from about $80 to $300 annually for quarterly deliveries. Customers can also buy a one-time gift box. Each box also includes a conversation starter activity, although often, the books spark dialogue on their own. When her daughter Anna read Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Tompkins-Bigelow, a story about a young Muslim girl who plays with her mother’s khimar and turns the covering garment into a superhero cape, Harper explains “Anna connected with this girl and the idea of becoming a female superhero, which is beautiful. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Some of the books offered by Cumberland-based OurShelves, which Alli Harper’s original customer, her daughter Anna (feet first here) gives her seal of approval to. Photo by Molly Haley

Since launching OurShelves, Harper’s biggest challenge has been keeping up with customer demand. She stopped marketing temporarily to focus on building the business’ technical capacity. Harper hired a full time employee to manage everyday operations, as well as two part-time employees to help with boxing and shipping orders. She’s also moving the business from inside her Cumberland home to their newly renovated barn, which will double as warehouse. In the midst of all this, the couple welcomed a new baby, Isaac, in December.

Shelves full of diverse children’s books at OurShelves in Cumberland. Photo by Molly Haley

Harper received support from Maine’s startup mentoring programs, including SCORE, CEI Women’s Business Center and the Maine Technology Institute’s startup assistance program. “Between MTI funding and some early investors and subscribers, we covered our costs for a year,” Harper says. As OurShelves grows and aims to triple its first year launch revenue in 2019, Harper says “the goal is to prove market demand as we grow. In order for us to make the change we want to make in the industry, our effort needs to be financially sustainable.”

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Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.

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