In the Blog
Books for Every Child
Illustration by Erin McPhee
Books are more than just bundles of paper with words and pictures in them. For many, they serve as a way to visit far off places, meet new people, and partake in adventures never thought possible, all as low as the cost of a library card. Reading is not just a personal experience, but a universal one as well. Although adults can find solace in a good story, they provide an even greater service to children. Books are some of children’s first teachers in how the world works and how to treat others. Stories can help them see things from new perspectives and learn about places and people they may not have access to in their everyday life. Literature also has a way of showing young people future possibilities and what they can be capable of if they put their mind to it.
However, if a character doesn’t look, sound, or act like you, can you really put yourself in their shoes? There are two terms in the children’s publishing industry that refer to this question: ‘mirror books’ and ‘window books’. Mirror books are when characters and settings reflect the reader’s life. The characters look like the reader, they like similar activities, and they live in similar settings. On the other hand, window books give readers a peek into the lives of people who are different than them. Characters do not look like them, they play different games, and they may even live in unfamiliar environments. The story may also focus on issues that are foreign to the reader.
Mirror and window stories are integral for a more well rounded upbringing. Ideally, bookshelves would be lined with equal amounts of both books. However, this isn’t the case. There are some books that do a great job at celebrating diversity, but most children’s books feature a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied male protagonist from a middle class family. According to NPR, only 22 percent of books feature minority characters. What we see today is a plethora of mirror books for the Western majority, equalling the same amount of window books for the minority. Mirror books are great in that kids can relate to the story and see how problems and solutions apply to their own lives. Window books, on the other hand, are effective in helping children understand others, not necessarily themselves. This disproportion in books ultimately disrupts the development of all children. How can a child empathize with someone who is different from them if all they’ve seen growing up are people just like them? Conversely, how can children find validation of their experiences when they are only exposed to books containing perspectives that are always different from theirs?
We live in a culturally and ethnically diverse world, and our books should reflect that reality. Not only that, we differ in gender identity, religion, sexuality, family makeup, and abilities. When authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo realized how homogeneous children’s books were, they decided to form the organization We Need Diverse Books. We Need Diverse Books focuses on the publication of more manuscripts starring characters of various backgrounds. They realized how the lack of diversity in children’s books was not helping in the fight against prejudice and discrimination. In their own words, their vision is, “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
This organization also encourages minority authors and illustrators to tell and draw details from their lives. To use an analogy, nobody can describe what it’s like being a chef better than someone who actually is one. This is not meant to deter others to only write and draw from their own experiences — as stated before, we can use more diversity in books. However, much controversy surrounds this issue. Although a creator’s work is always more credible when drawing inspiration from their own life, does that mean they can only write about the communities they identify with?
Many artists struggle with this idea and may refrain from writing about different people and cultures altogether. This is definitely not the answer to our diversity shortage. In this debate, people are trying to discourage authors from furthering stereotypes and creating unrealistic characters. There are some who will adamantly argue that writers cannot write authentic characters who are different from them, but this is not the belief of everyone. Stories aren’t just a learning experience for readers, but for authors as well. You may not get every detail correct, but by thoroughly researching and talking with the people you want to write about, you’ll be able to write believable characters that reflect the lives of the people who they’re about.
Not many of us are able to afford the opportunity to visit new places and meet a myriad of people; especially if you live in an area that isn’t very diverse. However, books can bridge that gap and help kids to realize that it’s okay to not only be different, but to be themselves as well. So grab some books and read to the children in your family today. When children can equally see characters like and unlike them, they’ll begin to realize that they live in a world with differing opinions, beliefs, and livelihoods — and how wonderful life is because of it.
Here are some resources to get you started:
Amethyst Tagney is freelance writer and illustrator. She spends her time writing on a variety of topics and is an avid learner. When Amethyst’s not drawing, she loves to share what she discovers. You can find her on Twitter @AmTagWrites.