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Why Children Need to See Themselves in Books

By Valerie Bolling
 | Mar 10, 2021
Teacher reading to students

People will remember the U.S. presidential inauguration that occurred on January 20, 2021, for years to come. Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate who delivered the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” may have been the bright spot of the day for many of us, but she’s not the only one we’ll remember. We will recognize and remember this inauguration for its inclusiveness that encompassed the day like the smiling sun after a storm has passed.

Throughout the ceremony, we witnessed examples of overcoming adversity, of being seen and heard after being made to feel invisible or unworthy, of appreciating and celebrating the diversity of our nation, represented in the following:

  • A president who developed strategies to combat stuttering
  • The first female vice president who is also the first BIPOC vice president (African American and South Asian)
  • An African American poet who, like the president, learned to conquer a speech impediment
  • An African American firefighter reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in two languages (English and American Sign Language)
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by a woman who identifies as bisexual
  • “This Land Is Your Land” sung by a Latinx (Puerto Rican) woman
  • “Amazing Grace” sung by a man who grew up in a blended family

In each of these snapshots, we could see ourselves. Most of all, children could see themselves.

Seeing ourselves

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, says, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” Literature is art, art is life, and the inauguration reflected both, enabling each of us to see ourselves and our experiences as an integral part of the human experience.

Just as it was important for us to see ourselves reflected at the inauguration, children need to experience this sense of belonging every day, especially in our schools—whether they are attending in person, remotely, or in a hybrid format. One way teachers and librarians can ensure this connection is by providing books in which children can see themselves. Curating a diverse list of books that is representative of all students is the responsibility of librarians and teachers. Even in a school where students may appear to be predominantly the same, differences exist.

Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors

Students should not only see themselves in books, but also see and learn about those different from themselves. Bishop coined a phrase to describe this: “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. Bishop says

These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Educators can evaluate their classroom libraries with this Equity Audit checklist to ensure that children have the opportunity to read a variety of accurate and representative experiences.

When children see themselves in stories

I have witnessed the connection and the glee of children when they see themselves in a book.

The reactions to my book Let’s Dance!, have been diverse themselves.

  • “I have cerebral palsy,” a boy volunteered when I shared the inspiration for the illustration of a boy dancing in a wheelchair. I told the story of the young man I saw at a wedding in the middle of the dance floor, “zig-zag-zigging” in his wheelchair, and I mentioned that he had cerebral palsy. When the sixth grader chimed in with his personal connection, I wondered how often he’d read a book with a character who had cerebral palsy and who still zig-zag-zigged.
  • “I’m Pakistani, but we have a similar dance.” A girl excitedly shared this in reaction to the page with kathak dance from India. I wonder if she’d seen this dance or a Pakistani dance in a book before.
  • “I love the beautiful shades of brown. I’ve never seen a book like this before with so many children of color.” A mother made this comment and thanked me for writing the book. I didn’t have to wonder if she’d had this experience before. She made it clear that she hadn’t.
  • “My mom wears one.” A girl said this about the ballet dancer wearing hijab. Thankfully, there are other books such as Mommy’s Khimar, The Arabic Quilt, and The Proudest Blue that normalize wearing a hijab. But we need more.
  • “Why isn’t there a dance from Brazil?” a boy asked. To this I responded, “You can write the words for that page, or write your own story.”

Children need to see themselves in books. They need to know that their stories matter and that they can be authors as children and as adults. They need to know that they can be poets and singers—regardless of their race—even if they once struggled to speak clearly. They need to know that they can recite poetry or sing at a presidential inauguration. And, yes, they might even be inaugurated as president or vice president one day.

Let’s hope when they are, we won’t be surprised to witness the diversity on proud display as on January 20 but that we’ll be just as delighted, singing and reciting poetry in our souls.

Book Recommendations for an Inclusive Classroom Library
Speech and Hearing Challenges

El Deafo by Cece Bell
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott
Joey: The Story of Joe Biden by Jill Biden
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

African American

Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes
Let’s Dance! by Valerie Bolling
Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
Tiara’s Hat Parade by Kelly Starling Lyons

Asian

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala by Meenal Patel

Latinx

Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! by Alexandra Alessandri
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera
My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero
Octopus Stewby by Eric Velasquez
What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado

Native American

At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

LGBTQIA+

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
George by Alex Gino
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff

Different Families

Blended by Sharon M. Draper
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Real Sisters Pretend by Megan Dowd Lambert
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick


Valerie Bolling
has been an educator for 28 years and is currently an instructional coach for Greenwich Public Schools in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her debut picture book, Let’s Dance!, was published in March 2020, and she has two books scheduled for release in 2022 and two more slated for 2023. You can find out more about Valerie on her author website.

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