Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Diversity in Children's books: Books as Mirrors

"the books I offer must be both mirrors that reflect children’s lives and windows that open up new worlds. This is a challenge when the small percentage of children’s books in English showing people of color is largely restricted to stories of oppression far removed from my students’ daily lives of homework, soccer, and wishing for a puppy. Of course it’s important to be aware of injustice, but it sends a powerful message if we only show racial diversity in settings of suffering and conflict."

This is exactly what I run into when trying to select resources for my elementary school libraries!  Our populations are diverse in ethnicity, language, religion, socio-economics, and family structures.  Why is it so difficult to locate books that reflect this as a matter of fact and not as only a focus of social justice.  Where are the illustrations of kids with different skin tones in the average picture book? Must there be a lesson specifically related to diversity in the story for the visuals to reflect the beautiful variations I see in my students?  I covet books where " if you were to read the text alone, you would never know that the illustrations in their books showed characters of many races"

Check out this article about Sweden's "effort to publish works of artistic and literary merit, free from heavy moralizing, that express a child’s perspective and tear down the walls that segregate people of color into a few categories: civil rights hero, the downtrodden, and token exotic friend."

The following are excerpts from Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors by Rudine Sims Bishop, The Ohio State University. 

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 the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. 

For many years, nonwhite readers have too frequently found the search futile. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication, in the Saturday Review, of Nancy Larrick's landmark article, "The All-White World of Children's Books." "Across the country," she stated in that piece, "6,340,000 nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them." A quarter of a century later, census data indicate that about 30% of the school population are members of so-called minority groups-Latinos, Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans-and where will they find their mirrors? 

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors. 

Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world-a dangerous ethnocentrism. 

Both those voices are authentic, and their authenticity makes the characters believable and identifies them as members of a particular social group. Changing their voices to Standard English would take away a large part of their distinctiveness. 

Those of us who are children's literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child's life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. 

Why is it so important to have books that reflect the reader, all readers? 
 On the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won't take the homeless off our streets; it won't feed the starving of the world; it won't stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won't stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human. 

Source:  By Rudine Sims Bishop, The Ohio State University.  "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors" originally appeared in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vo. 6, no. 3. Summer 1990.

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