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.