Mirrors and Windows: Diversity in Children's and YA Books

This is part one in a multi-part series on diversity in children and young adult books.

As protests continue across the country and activists work hard for justice and equality, it is more important than ever that we take initiative to learn about and seek out diverse perspectives to better understand the world around us. Sometimes, explaining the way the world works to our children, however, can seem very daunting. How do you explain racism to a 3-year-old? Should you even try, or should you wait until it comes up?

These questions underlie the importance of diverse children’s book collections. Exposing children to diverse works of literature normalizes the equality that we hope to see in the world. Instead of showing a white child only books by and about other white people, it is beneficial that the books they read reflect the way the world really is: filled with all different types of people of different backgrounds, races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and more.

In her influential essay “Curriculum as Window and Mirror” (link is a downloadable pdf) for the Oak Knoll School monograph, Listening for all Voices, in 1988, Emily Style wrote, “In considering how the curriculum functions, it is essential to note the connection between eyesight and insight... No student acquires knowledge in the abstract; learning is always personal. Furthermore, learning never takes place in a vacuum; it is always contextual. This brief paper will explore the need for curriculum to function both as window and as mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself.” Some confusing stuff, but it makes sense when you start to think about it!

This “window and mirror” type of education requires educators to encourage their students to look not just at themselves and their own experiences while they are learning about the world, as if they are looking into a mirror, but also to look through a window to the rest of the world and all of its cultural contexts.

Style’s article is really interesting, and her writing is easy to understand, so I recommend reading it for yourself! But to summarize, I will use the same analogy that she uses, using this cute Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy writes that beauty is only skin deep, but after thinking for a moment changes the word “skin” to “fur.” Snoopy has looked into a mirror and felt that saying “skin deep” did not accurately reflect his own experiences. In a following cartoon, Woodstock gives feedback on Snoopy’s saying that beauty is only fur deep, and Snoopy, after looking through a window at Woodstock’s experiences, changes the phrase to “feather deep.”

Following this, Style writes that “For me, the beauty of the classroom gathering lies in its possibilities for seeing new varieties of Beauty. This multiplicity, in turn, enables both students and teachers to be engaged in conversation about an evolving definition of the beautiful. Such dialogue requires the practice of both/and thinking as participants acknowledge the varied experiences of reality which frame individual human perspective.”

More simply put, by looking through windows at what others have to say about what they see in the world – while also throwing in some of what you have learned by looking at a mirror at your own experiences - we can better learn and grow. We can learn to relate to the world better. Style writes that oftentimes, the window can become a mirror when we see ourselves reflected in the glass of the window – meaning, you might have more in common with others than you think! But you would never be able to tell if you are only staring in the mirror all the time.

As a librarian in a town that is almost 100% white, I am often asked what the purpose is of having a diverse collection. If everyone in town is white, why should we have books about Black and Brown kids? There are at least 3 reasons I can think of off the top of my head:

  1. To a white child, these books are windows! They are an opportunity to better understand contexts that are culturally different from their own. A straight child reading LGBTQ+ stories will have a better understanding of their LGBTQ+ peers. A hearing child reading about Deaf children will have a better understanding of that community. And so on and so forth.
  2. To the small population of non-white children, being able to find books that they can see themselves in is extremely crucial to self-esteem (as found in studies such as Multicultural Children’s Literature (2009) by D.E. Norton and Selecting literature for a multicultural curriculum (1997) by R.S. Bishop).
  3. They’re good books! Trust me!

For these same reasons, you should also read (and demand that your library has copies of!) books about people of races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and more that are different from yourself.

If you are interested in learning more about this subject, I highly recommend visiting the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s (CCBC) website. Housed in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, the CCBC “is a unique examination, study and research library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” There, you can find multicultural literature resources, as well as two lists that I recommend you check out:

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know

30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know

These lists are excellent starting spots to find great books reflecting all different worldviews to help your children grow into well-rounded and empathetic individuals with a great understanding of the world. In this scary time, books are a great place to find solace. We hope to see you at THL soon, checking out some of the books on these lists!

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