A librarian friend recently passed on a link to a landmark article by Rudine Sims Bishop. The article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” was first published in 1990. While I was well aware of the ideas in the article, I had never read the original source.
Bishop is credited with being the first to discuss children’s literature within the context of windows and doors. Most of the concepts are now familiar to anyone who has been paying attention. To quote the opening paragraph:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. 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.
Skipping down, she later writes:
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.
Those are profound and important points, widely recognized in the children’s literature community (finally), after decades of neglect. We are now witnessing a sometimes awkward but wholly necessary Diversity Movement in children’s literature.
There’s another concept from Bishop’s article that has been somewhat slower to be absorbed. Maybe it’s less obvious. Sure, many of us can easily accept the importance for nonwhites to see themselves reflected in books. But in the absence of those diverse books — an absence that has long haunted American culture — the damage is also felt by the dominant social groups who have always found their mirrors in books.
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.
Go ahead, read that last sentence again.
Here, I’ll help you out:
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.
I believe that we experience a perilous echo of that limited ethnocentrism in the “Great Replacement” theory espoused by Tucker Carlson on FOX News and the white supremacist movement. These fearful, narrow people probably didn’t read enough diverse books when they children.
Along these lines, I now teach an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.” I began our last session by sharing Bishop’s article and discussing it. The truth is, if I hope to assist less-experienced writers, it can’t only be about encouragement and the development of writing skills. They need to know this information, too.
Yesterday I sat down to read Flamer, a 2020 graphic novel by Mike Curato. Not strictly a memoir, the book is based on Curato’s experiences as a young gay male struggling with his own confusing feelings, an uncertain sense of identity and place in the world. The book is unflinching in its honesty and directness, including the portrayal of bullies and personal anguish, to the point of suicidal ideation.
Curato’s book is an act of courage and compassion. A triumph in every respect. He writes in the book’s afterward:
Although living is scary when we continue to suffer, I would do it all over again to be able to write this book for you. To hope. To dream. To want love. These are dangerous acts. Fear and hope are bound up together inside of us, alongside our flaws and our divinity. In this darkness, we can find an inner light to guide us. And there is light in you, even if you can’t see it.
Of course, in our often dark world, some folks will rouse themselves to challenge and ban such a book. We can’t have that in our schools. It is currently happening all around us. An act of erasure. The book-banners final solution? To make people like Mike Curato disappear from our bookshelves and our lives.
Returning to Rudine Sims Bishop, she rounds off her essay by recognizing the limits of literature. It cannot feed the hungry or wipe out the scourge of drugs. But, she concludes:
It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.
Here’s to that better world.
Here’s to books, and diversity, and mirrors and doors, and to librarians who fight the good fight, and the bright light that burns within each and every one of us.
Shine on, my good people. Shine on. Our world desperately needs your light.