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The Importance of Representation in Children’s Books

by Dr. Rebekah Miller-Levy

I never really thought about representation in literature as I was growing up. That is probably because I always saw myself in books. I might not have seen the student with learning disabilities-dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, but I still saw a white child. Maybe not a white child who is the fattest kid in class, but there were always girls in the books I read. There were always loving families with a mother and father and brothers and sisters to provide support. Maybe I did not see a child exactly like me, but I saw characters that were close to me.

I never really understood the importance of representation in literature until I was a new 6th grade teacher, and I went to the closet in my portable building that held classroom sets of books. My district curriculum said it was time to read Charlotte’s Web. As I pulled it out, I remembered how much I loved reading about Fern, Wilbur, and Charlotte and I was excited to share their lives with my students. I was flabbergasted that the response from my students was not what I expected. “Awww, Miss,” Josh said, “another book about a white girl. Aren’t there any books about me? How come nobody never writes nothing about me?”

What? What did he mean books about him? This was the first time I seriously stopped and considered whose story was being told in my beloved children’s book. It was not Josh’s story. It was not the story of any student sitting in my portable building. My students were predominantly male, Hispanic, living in an impoverished neighborhood, and many lived with a single parent working two or three jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. There was nothing about them in Charlotte’s Web. I realized Charlotte’s Web and books like it is one of the reasons why my students adamantly hated to read.

As a reading teacher, I knew my students hating to read was dangerous. Hating to read meant they were not willing to attempt the hard work required to become a proficient reader. Hating to read meant they were not practicing the reading skills necessary to be a literate member of society. Hating to read was causing them to fall behind. But what I slowly came to realize through discussions with my students about books is that they did not hate to read it all. When they said, “Miss, I hate to read and there is nothing you can do about it!” that was code. What they were really saying was I hate to read what you are making me read and I do not know if I like to read because I have never seen a book that was about me. And that realization was the key to opening the whole world to my students through vicarious experiences, broadening their horizons and making them feel part of the world in which they reside. However, before we could attain those vicarious experiences and reach those broadening horizons, we had to find different books.

Fortunately, there were already people in the field working on helping us understand the importance of children seeing themselves, seeing their life experiences in the literature that they read. Rudine Sims Bishop published Shadow and Substance: African-American experience in contemporary children’s fiction in 1982. This book provided me with a framework to use to evaluate children’s literature for representation and helped me make more informed choices about the books I offered my students. Sims Bishop went on to write one of the most significant pieces dealing with representation in children’s literature in 1990. In an essay, she first used the phrase “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to describe how children see themselves and others in books. She wrote,

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

This quote brings us to the heart of why representation in children’s literature is so important. We all need mirror books. We need to see ourselves in the literature that society values enough to publish and purchase. We need to know that our schools think we are important enough to have our stories on the library shelves. We all need window books. We need to see that our lived experiences are not the experiences of everyone. We need to know that our little corner of the world is only one of many. And we all need sliding glass doors books so that we can walk out of our small world into a multitude of vast possibilities and encounter characters who represent people incredibly different from us and yet, in so many ways, similar.

As parents and educators, we need to embrace the idea of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors books as a way to provide a self-affirming experience for all of our children; however, we also must be ever vigilant to the danger that lurks near those mirrors and windows. Although mirror books have the power to be incredibly beneficial, they also have the power to be devastatingly dangerous. If we feed our children a constant diet of mirror books, those books in which they see their life story reflected, it is possible that, just like overeating chocolate, they will become unhealthy. It is deceptively easy, when you only read books about yourself, to become convinced that you and people like you are the only important ones. A steady diet of mirror books can lead to an overinflated idea of self-importance and a lack of empathy for the lived experiences of others. People who spend all of their time staring in the mirror are prone to believe that the world has a single story, and that single story is the only one of value. Just as detrimental, a lack of mirror books can lead to an undervalued sense of self and one’s place in the world. A steady diet of window books can lead those on the inside looking out to view others’ lived experiences as entertaining vistas to peer at with wonder but ultimately leave behind as unimportant. Sadly, a steady diet of windows books for those on the outside looking in can lead to a lifetime of wondering why am I not important enough, just like my student Josh.

All our children should, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other issue of representation, feel as though they are a valued part of our society. One thing that we can all do to help is to dedicate ourselves to providing children with quality literature that embraces and values their unique individuality and diversity. In other words, we need to feed our children a balanced diet of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors books.

Bishop, R. (1990). “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Ohio State University. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).

Dr. Rebekah Miller-Levy
PhD, Curriculum and Instruction

I joined HOOT! because I see it as an opportunity to participate with a talented group of people who are providing a platform for the next step in literacy instruction. The books available on the HOOT! app and the wide variety of literacy supports have the potential to affect the lives of any child who uses it. I am genuinely excited to be involved with a group of people that recognize the importance of representation in literature and are dedicated to providing books that allow every young reader to see themselves as they read.

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