Even in this divided and polarized time, most likely everyone could agree that education is in crisis, but undoubtedly not everyone would agree on the cause of, or cure for, the educational malaise. The thing about a crisis is that it does have an upside; the tunnel vision that occurs when the human body goes into a state of crisis can focus us on what really matters and what needs to be done to end the crisis.
“In times of crisis or unrest,” Scott Bonner, director of the Ferguson, Missouri municipal public library wrote in an email conversation, “everyone, but especially kids will have questions that tie to identity, empathy, sense of belonging vs exclusion, seeking a role to play, and so forth.” A hard look at 2020 might reveal an opportunity to ensure that all children have an equitable chance at a meaningful education that validates their identity and sense of self.
Research is clear on the importance of literature to build a strong sense of self, especially in young people. A recent Florida State University study called children’s literary education “a dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings and expectations.” Exclusion from this world, the study says, constitutes a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Since the 1990s, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has written about the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom. She reminds us that children need to see themselves reflected in positive ways in the texts that they read in order to thrive academically.
In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, an education professor at The Ohio State University, put forth a metaphor that books can be “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Mirrors occur when the character in a book looks like the child reading the book; mirrors affirm their selves, their worth, and their experience. Mirrors help us learn new things about ourselves and how to survive and thrive in this oftentimes scary world. In short, we felt seen. Windows build our empathy, give us a glimpse into the lives of others, and expand our capacity to be human. To be kind. To be humane. To walk in another’s footsteps and feel what they feel. But a window is just that. It’s not a reflection.
It’s a glimpse into a life that is not ours but is someone else’s. Sliding glass doors are when you take your new learning, step through the sliding glass door into the real world, and take your learning with you. Sliding glass doors affirm the thinking that literature changes you. Recently, a child who had read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, a story about a young boy with a disfigured face, saw a young man in the grocery store with a disfigured face. After initially turning away, he remembered Auggie, the main character from the book, turned back to the young man in the grocery store, and smiled; the young man smiled back. In this instance, the child saw Auggle through a window and began to understand and empathize with how being a young boy who looked different from all the other kids in class and then stepped through a sliding glass door and applied that knowledge to his real world.
But imagine if you never read a book that validated who you are. Imagine if all you ever saw in the mirror was a cracked reflection. Tiffany Jackson, also an award winning young adult author, became a writer because the only mirror she saw in the books she read were To Kill a Mockingbird’s Tom, a black man accused of raping a white woman and Calpurnia a black maid, and Huckelberry Finn’s runaway slave Jim. Jason Reynolds, an award winning young adult author who has sold over 2.9 million copies, began writing young adult books because he never saw himself in books. Books were only windows for these writers. They never felt themselves validated, they only saw others’ lives and identities being validated.
In 2018, University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted an audit of children’s literature and found a wide variance in the size of mirrors that children’s books provided for children:
According to www.census.gov, the population of American Indian/First nation people in 2018 was 6.9 million. According to the infographic, if you were an American Indian/First Nation child in 2018, only 1% of all the children’s books published that year was a mirror for you and validated your sense of self and identity. In contrast, if you were an animal in the year 2018, 27% of all children’s books published were an identify-confirming mirror for you. A bear…a stuffed pig…a doll..were more validated in the new children’s books published in 2018 than ALL American Indians/First Nations, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, and African/African American children combined.
So how did we get here, and what do we do? After publishing predominately white texts, the publishing industry is changing. Centuries of teaching the white canon in English classes across the country is being challenged and re-evaluated. Teacher demographics are also shifting. According to federal data, in 1988, 87 percent of public school teachers were white, and in 2016 that percentage has dropped to 80 percent. Teachers are starting to use checklists, such as the one from Lee and Low Multicultural Book Publisher, to audit their classroom bookshelves for inclusiveness, and school districts are writing and revising their curriculum to emphasize choice and voice in reading rather than assigning specific, often out-dated and not relevant to the lives kids are living now novels.
We Need Diverse Books envisions a “world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” The world we live in today is diverse. It’s changing. That’s a good thing. Our children deserve the right to read books that tell the truth about themselves and help them feel seen, and they are depending on us to make that happen.