For years, RIF has developed multicultural booklists and materials that feature authors and illustrators whose works highlight diverse cultures as well as the similarities among all people. In this guest blog, Tamara McNeil, the creator of Just Like Me! Box, a monthly subscription which delivers 2-3 children’s books featuring African-American characters directly to your door, explains the importance of her project and including diversity in your child’s library.
Can you start by telling us a little about your inspiration to start Just Like Me and what drives you to find the time to put these boxes together in your spare time?
My son, MJ, is the inspiration. Reading is one of our favorite things to do together. A few months after his birth, we were in a bookstore and there were no children’s books with African-American protagonists on the shelves. I searched online and the books are there, but they are really hard to find. From there I started to research subscription services because I knew there had to be an easier way. During my research, I found multiple children-focused subscription services that were really cool but none featured African-American children’s books. One in particular that caught my eye was travel focused but the countries they featured were mostly European. I think the only country featured from the African diaspora was South Africa. I came across a comment from a woman asking why their choices were limited to primarily European countries. Someone replied to her comment and said something like ‘this is a great company and they already feature South Africa. Instead of complaining you should create your own and you can feature every country in Africa if you want.’ That comment resonated with me so I decided I would create my own subscription box totally dedicated to children’s books with black protagonists. I knew there had to be other frustrated parents just like me and instead of waiting to be included, I decided to create.
What drives me even more now are all of our subscribers who are now able to see themselves in the books they love. Nothing makes me happier than a parent sending me a photo and note about how much their child loves a book they received in a Just Like Me! Box.
RIF had a chance to look through some of the titles you include in your boxes. How do you decide which books will be included?
Each month has a different theme. For example, July’s theme is “The Black Excellence Box.” I try to find books that are related to the theme in some way.
As far as book selection, in the beginning, I was reaching out to authors of books from MJ’s libraries, but now a lot of authors reach out to me! I have a small team who helps me read the books and we decide which books fit. We want to deliver the best stories possible to our subscribers.
All parents (and kids!) can benefit from including diversity in their library. Are there any tips or reminders you can offer for parents who may not know where to start?
They can start with Just Like Me! The books that are in the box are carefully selected and researched to expand a child's horizons. We’d love to have them as a part of our community.
I would also suggest that we always be mindful. If you go into a big store and you see that diverse stories are not represented, give the store manager a few suggestions. Or send an email with book suggestions to the corporate office.
Reading and literacy seem to be important factors in your life. What was your favorite book growing up, or what is your favorite book to share with MJ?
One of my favorite books was Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. Another was (and still is) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Lately, MJ has been obsessed with Real Imagination by Areia Cobb. Whenever I grab a few books and ask him to choose one, he goes straight to it. I was thrilled to have that book featured in our inaugural box.