Book Talk: How the characters in books matter to our kids

Are you trying to learn how to better support the child in your life as they explore who they are? Do you want your child to understand slivers of the world that are beyond their day to day? Welcome to Book Talk, our recurring series that goes behind-the-scenes into your child’s reading development journey!

There is no tool more powerful than a good story to build empathy and promote self-esteem. Stories have the ability to foster learning, acceptance, growth, and affirmation. Just as award-winning author Tananarive Due put it, “‘Diversity should just be called ‘reality.’ Your books, your TV shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula, need to reflect reality.” But according to data gathered by the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, as of 2019, only 3% of children’s books featured a primary character who identified as LGBTQ+ and only 3% of children’s books showcased main characters with disabilities. However, representative books are necessary for the full development of children, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Here’s why.

Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors

Educator Emily Style was the first to coin the term “windows and mirrors” in 1988 as a way of naming storytelling’s power. In 1990, well-known children’s literature researcher Rudine Sims Bishop expanded that term to include “sliding glass doors,” specifically when talking about children’s books. In using these terms, both Style and Sims Bishop meant that a powerful collection of children’s books should serve as:

1. Windows into the lived realities of other people

2. Mirrors for the reader, reflecting their own lives and experiences back to them

3. Sliding glass doors that help readers walk into a story and become a part of a world created by the author

Let’s take one of the books from our ColorPop Pride Book Bundle, Jessica Love’s  Julián Is A Mermaid, as an example. Julián Is A Mermaid can function as a mirror for LGBTQ+ children, or for reflecting back to the reader their own special relationship with their grandparent. For kids who live in rural or suburban settings, this book can be a window into the vibrancy of life in an urban neighborhood. For every reader, Julián Is A Mermaid offers an engaging, colorful, and immersive world, or a sliding glass door, that celebrates all the ways in which we are different. 

How to make sure your kid gets both windows and mirrors

The bottom line is that children need windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors present in their learning material to help them grow into the best versions of themselves… but, because so few books are published that feature people of color, people with disabilities, those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community, and members of other marginalized communities, many children only get to experience windows. This teacher from Arizona summarizes the value of diverse books best:

“When students can see themselves in books it is an amazing thing. It helps to give them a voice. It is empowering. When students see others represented in books it helps them to learn acceptance, empathy, and equity.” 

Home libraries that include a variety of stories and characters help children feel and understand the breadth of experiences and opportunities in this world.

Expanding diversity in your at home library: How to get started 

For an easy place to start, here’s a set of book recommendations you can check out, or you might consider purchasing one of our ColorPop Book Bundles made up of some of the best picture books on the market. Behind each book bundle is the feedback of thousands of parents and children, plus a panel of experts. We’re also constantly monitoring the children’s book landscape and working to lift the voices of underrepresented characters, authors, and illustrators in our movement to bring meaningful books to kids across the country.

At the end of the day, however you help your child see themselves in their reading material, know that you’re doing an incredible job by bringing your own curiosity and joy to the table as you explore the world together.