Reflecting Reader Realities in Children’s Literature
The act of reading at the deepest level fortifies the soul. Books invite us to identify and empathise with characters and to grapple with dilemmas and perspectives that exist outside our own frame of reference. Reading provides us with the opportunity to explore our humanity.
The reader brings their life experience to the page and necessarily draws on this to construct meaning from the words. To find a fragment of yourself in the pages of a book is a profound and powerful experience. It holds a mirror up to your existence and reassuringly suggests that you are not alone. Conversely, when the page offers insights that are beyond the reader’s personal experience it expands the membrane that is the bubble of your world and provides the opportunity to reflect on differences as well as the common threads of humanity that connect us.
As gate keepers to the world of books teachers have a responsibility to ensure that children experience books that reflect, value and validate their own realities as well as books that offer an insight into realities beyond their own to broaden and enrich their world perspective.
Think about the books that occupy the shelves of your class book corner or school library. Are there:
A range of books that explore themes that are commonly at the forefront of primary aged children’s minds?
- Characters like Ed Vere’s misunderstood green beast in Bedtime for Monsters, where we come to appreciate that, just like any child, a goodnight kiss and a bedtime snack is all the Monster really interested in.
- Overcoming classic childhood anxieties such as a fear of the dark alongside Lemony Snicket’s young protagonist Laszlo in The Dark makes the challenge less daunting.
- The desire to belong and feel part of a community is central to children’s lives. The journey of discovery undertaken by Chris Judge’s Lonely Beast provides a stimulus for discussing our deep seated concerns about being isolated and to consider our collective responsibility to counter this.
- A breadth of books that encourage children to reflect and relate?
Jeanne Willis’s The Bog Baby invites children to reflect on what it truly means to care for someone other than ourselves. The selflessness exemplified in the story is both a touching and profound concept to grasp for young often egocentric minds.
Alexis Deacon and Viv Schwarz’s existential collaboration, I Am Henry Finch invites the reader to grapple with the existentialist notion of existence. Henry’s emerging self-consciousness and subsequent empowerment is a call to all readers to channel their own inner voice and power.
Francesca Sanna’s The Journey is a timely, important and powerful book that captures the heart breaking challenges common to many fleeing war torn countries. Books like this are necessary to help redress all too common xenophobic rhetoric and allow the space for readers to reflect on the resilience and strength of those who have had the misfortune to suffer similar plights.
A selection of books that mirror identities but in which ‘otherness’ is not the underpinning feature?
In our efforts to increase visibility, we have a responsibility to ensure we do not limit ourselves to a narrow set of representations. The representation of any community must be as diverse as the community itself. If for example, the only books that feature ethnic minority characters in our classrooms are books in which overcoming struggle or celebrating difference are at the heart of the narrative, this can undermine the normalisation of reader realities and potentially problematize self-perception. Children must never feel that they are excluded from the literary space or only entitled to restricted access.
Books that illustrate:
- the babies playfully tottering across the pages of Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,
- the family and friends featured in Trish Cooke’s classic So Much,
- Nita’s hospital visit in Henriette Barkow and Chris Petty’s Nita Goes to Hospital,
- The pending arrival of a new sibling in Sarah Garland’s Billy and Belle and
- The lyricism of Carolyn Robertson and Patricia de Villiers’ Two Mums and a Menagerie
all seek to hold up a mirror to the lived realities of young readers and in doing so unquestioningly normalise and ultimately validate those realities.
We need to expose the children in our care to a rich, varied and balanced diet of books that nourish their sense of self, books that allow them to experience positive reflections of their own realities as well as broadening their world view by offering insights into realities beyond their own.
This blog previously appeared in Collaboroo