More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

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In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

This month’s portrait series focuses on Pamela Aculey, Starling customer, diversity advocate, and founder of Just Like Me Books, the multimedia production and development company that stresses the importance of literacy, culturally relevant reading material, and active learning experiences.

The lack of representation in kids’ books is an often-overlooked barrier when attempting to try and help kids get reading, and Just Like Me is breaking down these barriers and speaking out about the importance of diversity and representation in children’s books.

“Our mission is to promote a love of reading and increase literacy rates among high-risk readers through an interactive platform that prominently features characters of colour.”

Research has shown that the more a child can relate to a particular topic or subject the more engaged in the activity they are likely to be. It promotes a stronger connection and creates a level of excitement to the content that might not otherwise exist. Just Like Me puts a diverse and engaging array of fiction books in the hands of children. They encourage them to discover and reflect on literature through book clubs and use technology to create and share material on their own terms.

To do this, Just Like Me recently released the UK’s first Augmented Reality storybook with diversity and inclusiveness at its heart – a feel-good story about an autistic boy that will capture your imagination and fill you with joy.

We recently caught up with founder Pamela to discuss her business, how it fared through the pandemic, and what her hopes are for the future of Just Like Me.

Pamela’s fight for representation with Just Like Me 

Growing up Pamela was the only black child in her school and faced bullying for many years because of this – which was very traumatic to deal with at an early age. However, her passion for driving diversity and representation shined through as she decided not to be a ‘victim of her circumstances’ and tried to better the world by being a better person.

“This attitude has very much shaped my life, and allowed me to find my passions and strive for equal opportunities for those who are underrepresented- in particular the Black and minority ethnic and disabled community.”

“Representation, equality and kindness are at the core of all my work and values. We all have a responsibility to be the change we want to see. I am someone who inhales life and is energised by helping people and making a difference.”

So, how did this passion lead to Just Like Me Books?

In 2017 her eldest son Walter was diagnosed with Autism at just four years old – which led her on a mission to find more books and resources where Walter was represented. Unfortunately, she struggled to find books where children like Walter could see themselves in the pages of books…. Which led her to create ‘Just Like Me’ – a book series that champions diversity, inclusiveness, acceptance and kindness.

“As a black mother raising three boys of mixed heritage – I am fully aware of the lack of diversity in children’s literature and the work that still needs to be done in relation to better representation. There are very limited resources when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness.”

There are currently more children’s books being sold in the UK than ever before – but how accurately are they representing the society we live in?

Statistics show that in 2019 only 4% of the books for the youngest readers featured a minority ethnic hero, fewer than 2 % of children’s book creators are British people of colour and less than 1% featured a character with a disability!

There is so much more that needs to be done when it comes to disability representation in Children’s Books and Pamela is working to represent the marginalized disabled communities who hardly ever see themselves represented in books – but she can’t do it alone. Disabled characters of colour, disabled LGBTQ+ characters, and disabled religious and cultural minorities need more representation, and it is people like Pamela who are helping make waves to do so.

Discussing the discrimination and underrepresentation in the industry Pamela says, “Before I self-published my first book ‘Buster Finds His Beat’ which is about a mixed-race autistic boy, I was often told by agents and editors that it was too much of a ‘niche’ market or that they “didn’t connect with the voice”. It was even suggested to me once to change the ethnicity and disability of the character to make it more “relatable”.

“We don’t offer young readers the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read or to empathise with disabled people. Disability should not be painted as a tragedy nor should disabled people be ignored. Disability should be presented as part of life.”

Books can serve as a first introduction to the outside world, and they should be as diverse as the people who read them. We cannot build an inclusive society when certain ethnicities, genders and disabilities are still represented as second class.

Making big changes

Just Like Me books launched in September 2019 with the purpose to celebrate the uniqueness of all children, where a child is not defined by their disability, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or background – but rather by their ability to be a kind and compassionate person.

Books are an excellent way to encourage a child to be more inclusive, empathetic, understanding and welcoming when they meet other children who are different to them, which is why it’s important to have diverse and underrepresented people as main characters. “We want nothing more for our children than to be happy and feel comfortable in their own skin while appreciating that not everyone looks, talks or thinks like them.” – and Just Like Me books are opening the doors to these conversations at home and in schools.  

Pamela is making sure her books are accessible and readable for all children, by integrating augmented reality – creating the UK’s first AR storybook with diversity and inclusiveness at its heart.

“We know that reading to children is good for their learning and development, but what about the children who can’t read, have speech and language delays, have learning disabilities, and are non-verbal? Surely, we should be creating books that also cater for their needs too? Absolutely! This is why we are currently the only UK business to use Augmented Reality technology to promote diversity and inclusion in picture books.

“ Our Augmented Reality app works in conjunction with our books, the app is free and brings the book to life by allowing the user to immerse themselves in the story. By combining the real and virtual worlds our AR books make it a fun, interactive and inclusive learning experience as well as being a great support for those with learning disabilities.”

Growth and the future

Pamela has started this business from scratch and with the help of her husband Alex, their tiny team is doing big things. Just Like Me is built up with a team of three, with Pamela writing the books and managing the social media presence, marketing and PR opportunities. Her husband Alex is the graphic designer/project manager and Ray is their main illustrator.

“We launched just before the pandemic which wasn’t ideal. However, due to the nature of our work and the fact that everyone was indoors it was a great opportunity for us to do lots of digital content including virtual book readings and discussions about the importance of diversity and inclusion which is what our books champion.”

2020 was a big year in growth for us (despite the global pandemic) as they were able to widen their audience and spread their message.

“We are not just about writing children’s books but are also about diversifying the UK curriculum and educating the world when it comes to disability rights, stamping out racism and discrimination. My book “Buster Finds His Beat” was featured in the Independents ‘ 10 best kids’ books that celebrate diversity”

“Buster Finds His Beat’ has seen huge success so far, winning the Faber Children’s Publishing Prize in October 2020 and winning the Great British Entrepreneur Awards Regional Finals.

“This was nothing short of amazing and something I will forever be exceptionally proud of. At a time when the world seems so divided, it was so humbling to win “entrepreneur for good” as this is what our business is all about. Striving for change, making a positive impact, and encouraging and supporting each other so that collectively we make that change and leave this world a slightly better place than when we entered. Just Like Me books now provide books to both local and national education establishments as well as working with charities such as ‘Nottingham’s Citizen’s Better Books Campaign and Open Minds charity.”

So, what’s next for Pamela and the business?

Discussing the future Pamela said, “Immediate plans are to produce more Just Like Me Augmented Reality books as well converting other authors/publishers’ books into AR experiences. We are currently working on a really exciting project that focuses on children’s Mental Health and using technology to help children to convey their feelings and emotions in a safe space. Long-term plans are to diversify the Ed-Tech industry as we believe education should be extraordinary, inclusive and interactive. Where any individual regardless of their ethnicity, gender, background or ability feels seen and supported through immersive learning.”

The business is also 100% self-funded and all profits are currently going back into the business. In order to continue their growth, and reach new levels, Pamela and the team are looking for investment to help with the Augmented Reality technology of future books and production.

We’re so excited to see Just Like Me grow and look forward to more and more businesses taking on Pamela’s passion. Find out more about Just Like Me Books here.