Working on December’s YA display, Walk A While in Their Shoes, helped to revive one of my favorite discussions in library school (besides censorship and intellectual freedom chats) which centered on the notion of literature as providing the means of being mirrors and/or windows. What does that mean?
To me, it means that children, tweens, and teens should be able to readily see themselves reflected by the “mirrors” of contemporary literature. Further, literature can serve as “windows” into other cultures by way of allowing youth to learn and even possibly, depending upon how well-written, vicariously walk awhile in the shoes of someone else.
In the 1990 essay titled Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors by Rudine Sims Bishop (which was shared with me during library school and more recently cited in a Bitchmedia article), Bishop expounds:
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.
In the article, Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens, authors Zetta Elliott and Ibi Zoboi discuss their experiences and thoughts about literature — I’ll share a few excerpts that resonated with me:
ELLIOTT: Do you remember reading books as a child that served as a mirror for you?
ZOBOI: Not at all. I remember having to read the Chronicles of Narnia. I went to a Catholic school in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Sister Ann was reading it to us and we were bored to death. It was all Black and Latino kids in the class. The nuns for the most part were Irish. I remember Sister Ann loved the book and we were like, “YAWN.” I was that kid who did not read because I just didn’t care about the characters.
ELLIOTT: I recently met a Black teenager who told me she didn’t like to read. And I said, “But there are so many great books out there and many of them are being made into movies. Did you see The Hunger Games?” And she had. After we parted ways I thought to myself, “What do Black girls do when they’re watching The Hunger Games? Do they identify with Katniss more than Rue?” I thought of Jacqueline Bobo and her work on Black women as cultural readers. So many of us walk into the theater knowing that Hollywood is going to screw us over. And so we’re already prepared to navigate around stereotypes and extract meaning from the film. I was listening to the lively commentary during the film and it was clear the Black women and girls were engaged with the movie. I thought, “They’re finding a way to enjoy this experience even if there are no Black girls on the screen.”
ELLIOTT: I noticed in the previews that came on before Catching Fire that there are so many YA novels being turned into films—including Divergent. And so you have predominantly young white women being featured in these books that are then being adapted into films—
ZOBOI: And garnering a much larger audience. That’s the subject of my MFA thesis. If you’re going to create an atypical hero—she’s a girl, she’s not as pretty, or maybe she’s clumsy—you’re going to raise her to the rank of hero and let her save the day. Why not go deeper and get that girl who’s really at the bottom of the pile? Around the world, girls of color are the most marginalized group. So if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?
ELLIOTT: That brings me back to Rudine Sims Bishop and how she said the lack of diversity in children’s literature is also harmful to white children because they grow up thinking they’re the center of the universe. And that then makes it very hard for them to communicate cross-culturally because they haven’t had to learn how. So what are your fears and your hopes for your daughters specifically in terms of finding heroes in literature and film?
ZOBOI: I have more hope than fear at this point. I’m teaching my daughters in an indirect way to think critically about everything they’re consuming. If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?” To them it seems like there’s more diversity because of what I intentionally put in place around them. They don’t see a dearth because on our bookshelf there is abundance of books that feature girls and boys of color. In terms of what we can do, I think it has to start at the ground level. I see it in the classroom. The teachers don’t know what books are out there. And if the teachers don’t know, the kids don’t know, and their parents don’t know. It’s choice fatigue if they walk into a bookstore.
I wholeheartedly concur with Zoboi: it needs to start at the ground level. As a librarian, it starts with YOU and your library’s collection. Not only teachers, but the entire community looks to librarians to provide them with recommendations for materials. Aligning with S.R. Ranganathan’s fourth law of library science, “save the time of the reader,” librarians can develop annotated bibliographies to recommend and call attention to a specific works.
Throughout the course of my tenure at CADL, I’ve created a number of bibliographies for teachers and patrons alike; however, my most recent bib project focused on contemporary fiction featuring African American characters — not as supporting characters or in the background of the story, but as main characters. Originally, the list focused on materials for the YA demographic (ages 13 – 18), but was later expanded to include works for children and tweens with the last phase of the project will include works of historical fiction. While working on the project, I flagged works of historical fiction (because I wanted the primary list to focus on contemporary pieces) and plan on building a supplemental list which will exclusively focus on African American protagonists in historical contexts. In the near future, I will sharing my lists here. Stay tuned.
So…my fellow Bibliothekare, what say you?
Do you have lists/bibliographies to assist readers or even perhaps a special collection like several libraries do — YA African Heritage. My library has a Coretta Scott King Award collection which primarily focuses on books for children and tweens.