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Books are one of the best teaching tools we can access.
Through shared reading experiences, children can access new ideas and words and reinforce familiar concepts. It’s the interweaving of the new and the familiar that makes books so powerful.
In selecting the books in our libraries at home or in school, it’s important that we consider the idea of windows and mirrors. This concept, that books and curricula help children to see through to other experiences as well as to see themselves reflected back, was originated by Emily Style in 1988 and has been added on to including metaphors for sliding doors, overcoats, anchors, and on and on. Truly, books can be many things for us and for the children we love and teach.
But to focus for a moment primarily on the concept of windows and mirrors reminds us that the collection of books we include in our libraries should allow the children in our classrooms and homes to see themselves as well as to see the stories and perspectives of others.
Of course, not all books fall cleanly into one category or the other. That’s the beauty of it. As Emily Style pointed out, even when looking through a window, we often see faint reflections of ourselves. The character’s skin or dialect or neighborhood may be a window to a new perspective, while the experience of loving a pet or feeling nervous about a new teacher may be a mirror reflecting back a child’s familiar emotions.
While we should actively work to include both windows and mirrors, it’s also important that we don’t make too many assumptions about them. Not all children with Mexican heritage celebrate the Day of the Dead. Not all children of Japanese descent use chopsticks at home. Some children are eager to talk about their cultures, others are not.
Please don’t put children on the spot as ambassadors or poster children as you read diverse books, particularly in group settings. Consider the difference between the inclusive invitation, “Has anyone ever had this kind of bread?” followed by an affirming, “I haven’t, but it looks delicious!”/ “I have too, and I love it!” versus the uncomfortable, “Lucy, your family is Native American. Don’t you have bread like this at home?”
Share diverse books and know that the children you share them with will find a variety of unexpected windows and mirrors.
I shared the book The Girl with a Mind for Math with my own son. In my mind, this book was a window into the life of a notable Black woman. And surely it served that purpose. But my son immediately saw a mirror as well. “She’s like me!” he said, before I could even read the first page. “I have a mind for math too!”
That’s the magic in it. In looking through windows and also seeing ourselves, we build connection, empathy, and unity. Seeing our own reflection through a variety of diverse books awakens the interconnectedness of humanity.
Every child should have access to books that provide both windows and mirrors, the ability to see themselves, to see their friends, and to see people, places, and stories they’ve yet to experience.
In diversifying your library, you may have heard the term “Own Voices”. This term is a reminder that stories told from someone’s own experience will carry a different perspective than someone from outside looking in. Particularly if the story tackles topics related to identity, there is great value in that story coming from someone who has lived it. Very similar to mirrors and windows for the reader, authors can also write from the vantage point of a mirror or a window, and that vantage point has an impact on the story.
Once again, the designation is not something that is always clean-cut. Unless someone’s writing is purely autobiographical, there will be aspects of both windows and mirrors as they write. Authors may write about cultural experiences that are familiar and collaborate with others to include characters and perspectives and experiences that go beyond their own, all in the same book.
But it is important to be aware of the need for Own Voices books — to know that the glass on the mirrors and the windows should be as free from distortion as possible, particularly when we’re trying to make space for historically underrepresented people.
This isn’t to say that only Asian authors can write books with Asian characters or that Black authors can only write about Black characters. That would simply lead to literary segregation and would be counterproductive.
This is about wrapping our arms around more. We need more diverse books, and more Own Voice authors, and more inclusive, cross-cultural work.
In the 1960s, Ezra Jack Keats broke through barriers by working cross-culturally and centering Black children and families in his picture books, most notably, perhaps, being The Snowy Day. His books not only proved to publishing companies that there was a market for diverse characters, but they also provided mirrors to children who had not been able to see themselves in the books they read. Children like Vanessa Brantley Newton, who says finding a mirror in Keats’ book awakened something in her and inspired her to become the artist she is today. Now, she creates books both cross-culturally and as an Own Voices author/illustrator.
This is what happens when we embrace more. More windows. More mirrors. More voices. More of us coming together.
Access to Own Voices and to windows and mirrors for our libraries is improving. In addition to old classics, there are many beautiful new books to check out. Here are just a few that have caught my attention recently.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
This book releases in January 2021, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but the previews I’ve seen look absolutely beautiful. I love the poetic description of a young Asian girl who finds that her eyes look different than her friends, observing that her own eyes are like her sister’s, mother’s and grandmother’s. “They have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons, and are filled with stories of the past and hope for the future.”
Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Luisa Uribe
Jamilah Thopmkins-Bigelow centers Black, Muslim children in many of her stories. In this book with beautiful illustrations, she addresses the musical quality of every name and the experience of a young child, frustrated by the constant mispronunciation and strange responses to her own. This book encourages everyone to embrace the beauty, identity, story, and music found in every name. This is a wonderfully inclusive book, incorporating a variety of names (and pronunciations) like Ahlam, Juana, Jalonte, Ngozi, Olivia, and even Bob.
Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away by Meg Medina and Sonia Sánchez
This is another new release that is just around the corner, so I’ve only seen previews, but I love the illustrations and the sweet story of two Latinas, best friends who “will always be each other’s número uno, even though one is moving away.” This book dances around similarities and differences all wrapped in a universal story of friendship.
A Squiggly Story by Andrew Larsen and Mike Lowrey
This one isn’t new to the publishing world, but it’s relatively new to my own library. I include this one here for two reasons. One: It’s a fantastic story about the writing process. Two: As a reminder that while books with affirming messages about the differences in our hair and eyes and skin and languages are all important, it’s also important to include books that feature diverse children simply being children. Without always calling out the differences or making the story about identity or culture, our children need to see themselves and see their friends in the variety of characters we include in everyday stories. Our need for diverse books extends beyond the books about diversity.
What’s a favorite recent addition to your library?