Thursday, February 18, 2021

Can We Talk About...Diversity in Books?

Some of the books I read as a child in the 1950s and 1960s.

When I was a child, I looked for myself in stories. I read books set in New York City. What? People live in apartments? I asked myself as I read. Some stories were set out on a farm. That, too, was outside my experience. Most stories were of big, jolly families with five or six or seven children. Where were families like mine? I wondered. Where were stories with a divorced dad and a half-brother living far away in another state? Where were stories of small-town life? It wasn't until I discovered the Beverly Cleary books that I felt like I was able to read stories about people like me. 

And I am from what has come to be seen as a privileged white childhood. I can't imagine what it must have been like for black children or Hispanic children or Asian children. I can't imagine the difficulty of poor children trying to find connections in stories. Those stories did not exist when I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s.

When I became a librarian, I was told of the idea of books as mirrors and windows. This idea was first shared by an educator named Emily Style in 1988. Style says that books that reflect the student's own life are mirrors and books that show the larger world are windows. We need both, Style tells us. 

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has spent her career expounding upon the idea of mirrors and windows. Her central idea is this: all young readers need books with a wide range of characters, characters of all ethnicities and backgrounds, characters who have had a wide array of experiences. Bishop goes on to say that not only do black children need to see black children in their stories and Ojibwe children need to see Ojibwe children in their stories, but also black children need to see Ojibwe children and vice versa. In addition, white children need to see all of these, too.

I remember a story from when I was training to be a librarian. A group of us were sent into an all-black school in a very poor, inner-city Houston neighborhood. The library in this school had been closed for ten years. (That's right. No librarian. No library. For ten years. In Houston ISD, the money allocated to each school is completely subject to the whims of the principal.) We library students were asked to help the newly hired black librarian discard old books for the reopening of the library that was to happen at the beginning of the next school year. We began to create a huge pile of books that easily met the criteria for needing to be discarded (obsolete; worn out; sexist content; racist content). The librarian ordered us to stop, and she drew us all together to speak to us. "If you find a book that has a black face in it, that book will stay in this library," she commanded us. "I don't care what the words say. I don't care what condition the book is in. I don't care if the book is out-of-date. I want my children in this school to see some black faces in books."  That's how badly this new librarian wanted some mirrors for her students.

I remember the first time I read Newbery-award winning book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. In the very first chapter of the story, we are introduced to a hardworking black mom and dad who have put together enough money to buy their own farm in the South in the 1930s. They have several children, including a little boy who is just starting school for the first time and who is extremely concerned with being clean and neat. The boy and his sister walk to their black school (it's miles to school from their home) and a driver on a school bus from the white school (note that these children have a bus to get to school) sees the group of children walking to the black school, and he purposefully hits a mud puddle and splashes the children with mud. The little boy is horrified. And when he gets to school and is able to get cleaned up a little, the boy is delighted to receive his very first textbooks. But then he opens the book to see all the accumulated grime and dirt of many years over the textbook's pages. Inside is a label put on by the state, noting the years of use and condition of each book. The early years show Excellent condition and White school. The middle years show Good condition and White school. The last years show Poor condition and Black school. At some point, as I was reading along, I realized that the characters in this story lived in a town thirty miles from where my dad grew up, and that this little boy in the story was born the same year as my dad, and that the family was, in its economic frugality and attention to high values, exactly like my dad's family. Except that the characters in the story were black and my dad was not. Windows for me. Big windows into a world that was so close but a world I'd never seen.

So, windows and mirrors for all children. And, maybe, just maybe, for adults, too.



20 comments:

  1. I'm amazed every day at the number of librarians just starting to try to diversify collections. I've been working on my library since at least 2006, and certainly 2014 was a bit year with #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's definitely easier now to find an array of characters. Don't know if you're interested, but the NY Public Library has an amazing digital collection of Black children's literature from the mid 1900s. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/4096a3f0-9a04-0134-265c-00505686a51c

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  2. What a lovely post, and I really love the idea of mirrors and windows.

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  3. What an interesting post ! I grew up in the Paris suburbs, the worst (= working class). I had friends from Africa, Arabia, Portugal, Italy, Morocco, Guadalupe, it all seemed natural to me. I still work with coworkers from Poland, United Stated, Tunisia, we're all getting along just fine. However, my first bookish, everlasting bookish love was Jane Eyre, because I related so much to her, her independance, her strength. I saw myself in her, even if we didn't live in the same country or even the same era. As a librarian, I feel it natural, obvious, that there must be books for everyone. We're here to interest children into reading books and it's normal they should want to find themselves in them. We also offer books from different countries, on different subjects because we think people should make up their own mind. Years ago, there was a town south of France (Vitrolles) where the mayor tried to take over the library and choose the books himself (according to his political/racist convictions...) and there was a riot in all France. I'm so glad it happened. The library needs to reflect the world :)

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  4. What a really brilliant and thoughtful post, Deb. And spot on. I hadn't heard the mirror/windows concept but it makes perfect sense for all of us. My youth was as white-bread as it comes and it worried my parents enough that they moved our family to a neighborhood where the schools were more integrated and there was a real mix of kids -- black, white, divorced and widowed parents, high and low incomes. It was the best thing they ever did for me. But thinking back, I don't remember any books from those periods -- before or after-- that were diverse. Probably "To Kill a Mockingbird," "DIary of Anne Frank" -- all out of my experience. But also, slightly older. As a child, it was "Trixie Belden," "Pippi Longstocking" and "Misty of Chincoteague." I think things are much different now. I hope so.

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  5. Great post! Yes, adults definitely need window books too. I can’t afford to travel, so books are the main way I learn about the world. I hope the “windows and mirrors” thing helps librarians realize that children need books about tough subjects too. One of the reasons I hated reading when I was a kid is because the books I had access to were all fluffy, sweet, and nothing like my real life.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  6. Great post. I had a very strange childhood. I've been trying to write a book about it for a few years now. When I was young, and the library was my rescuer in more ways than one, I had a lovely librarian set books aside for me. Some were adult reads but she knew that my experiences and that of what was in most children's books were not in line with each other and dare I say it, they made even more aware of what I lacked. She was a gem and even turned a blind eye to my forged application for a library card.

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  7. Both mirrors and windows are certainly important for readers. I'm currently reading Faulkner, which is a mirror for me. But it is so important for children in particular to be able to see themselves in books. It is a validation for them and for their experiences. That is vitally important for children.

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  8. I was so in love with mysteries, Nancy Drew and the like, that I didn't mind not reading about real life stories.

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  9. When we talk about diversity, besides, the elements you highlight, I think it's also important to consider opening our horizons to books written in other languages

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  10. Windows and mirrors are so important and I am pleased that there is more and more YA literature that shows a wide variety of ethnicities, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, and more. Compared to what I had as a teen it is a huge improvement.

    I hope you have power and are doing alright through the Texas storms!

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  11. Great insights. I never really looked for myself in a book, I don't think.

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  12. Well written and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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  13. Fascinating topic. I rarely read fiction and when I do it's mostly regency romantic books, which is very far from my own upbringing (not born nor raised in UK). With non-fiction books I can't say I really care about someone's race, I'm more interested in the subject. This year I've started a Read the World challenge, by place of birth of the author, and that will push me out of my comfort zone. But, I couldn't care less if the author is white or black, for example.

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  14. A post which got me thinking. I was an only child for 16 years and read voraciously. I cant remember thinking like you did.

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  15. Wonderful post Deb. I am in my 60s and honestly have only started to actively seek out more diverse reading in the last 5 years or so. I can not imagine what all those groups of persons that were not white, privileged read to see themselves when they were kids.

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  16. Very insightful post. I’m amused by the commenter who insists that race doesn’t matter — I wonder if they’ve been reading all the recent books about how this can be perceived.

    The interesting thing about the mirrors and windows concept is that it applies to all children.

    be safe... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  17. Thanks for this post. I grew up in the 70s, and like you, I remember looking for books I identified with, especially strong female characters, and I never felt like there were enough of them. Then, much later, realizing that those female characters I cherished so much were all white, and that I never had to think about my race when I read. So if I felt the lack of books that reflected who I was, how much harder must it be to never see yourself reflected in a book, or to have that reflection be negative or stereotypical. My blog helped me realize how white my reading was, so now I try hard to read diversely, and it has brought so much to my reading life.

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  18. What a beautiful post Debbie and I do try to do that in my library at school. As much diversity as possible. I believe children should have windows and mirrors and then make up their own minds. Never force your own prejudice on them.

    On a different note, I also wanted to read more stories about families who were like mine when I was young. Never quite one similar. As I've grown older, I've experienced first hand some of the families I "wanted" to live in and in many, many instances I will still take my family without a doubt.

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