Books and Beyond

Literature provides an avenue to explore our place in the world.

Author Grace Lin once said, “A book can show you the world, but it can also show you a reflection of yourself.”

This is especially true for children, who are actively exploring who they are. As librarians, educators and caregivers, we can help children do this effectively by providing stories that act as both mirrors and windows.

People in the education and library world have been using the phrase “mirrors and windows” for quite some time. It was coined by educator Emily Style in 1988. She explained that stories act as mirrors when they reflect a reader’s culture and identity, and windows when they offer a view into someone else’s experience.

Books as mirrors give us stories where we can find ourselves, our families and our cultures reflected and validated. Many of us have had the experience of reading a book and instantly relating to the character because of our shared experience. When children read books in which their own lives are reflected, they see characters like themselves who are valued in the world. This reflection fosters a sense of belonging, especially for children who are different from the majority of their peers, whether it be race, religion, ability, gender identity, family structure or any other circumstance. Seeing ourselves on the pages of a book shows us that we are not alone in our experiences.

Books as windows give us a view into the world of those who are different from us. Research, such as that conducted by Raymond Mar and colleagues (2006), has shown that reading fiction helps develop empathy. The research focused on preschool age children, but one could argue the connection between fiction and empathy extends into adulthood.

When you read a book, you are put directly into a character’s life. You are made to walk in their shoes. Through fiction, we can see life as a person of another race, a person with a disability, a person with life experiences vastly different from our own. Diverse books allow us to learn from other people’s experience and to practice empathy for someone different from ourselves. Authentic, diverse literature is at the heart of understanding the human experience.

Imagine a world where we could easily feel a connection with and empathy for people who are different from ourselves. Not only people who look different, but who have had a different upbringing, who think differently, who have different ideas and convictions. Reading diversely and introducing diverse characters and stories to our children is a step toward a more understanding and peaceful world. As Margarita Engle, award-winning author has said, “Children are the only possible peacemakers of the future.”

If you are looking for windows and mirrors, Norfolk Public Library has many resources to help you find your next book. With your library card, you can access NoveList Plus, a trusted source of expert read-alike recommendations, or for a more old fashioned approach, ask a librarian.

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