Mirrors and Windows Project Celebrates Diversity in Children’s Books

By Daniele Berman, Community Partnerships Manager

This article was originally posted in the Durham Herald-Sun.

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange . . . 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.”

So begins Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” about the significant lack of diversity in children’s book publishing and the problem it poses for non-white children looking to see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they’re reading.mirrorsandwindowsbooks

Durham-based nonprofit organization Book Harvest, whose mission is to make sure all children are growing up in book-rich homes, sees this challenge firsthand every day. Book Harvest provides books free of charge to local children who need them, enabling children from birth through high school to build home libraries of books that they own. Often, however, participating children are unable to find books featuring characters who look like them.

“All children need to know that their experiences and history matter,” says local children’s book author Kelly Starling Lyons, a member of Book Harvest’s Authors’ Circle. That’s why Lyons teamed up with Book Harvest to create a list of books—for children in pre-K through middle school—which offer readers mirrors to their own lives and windows into the lives of others.

The need is real. In 2014, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center surveyed 3500 children’s books and found, among other things, that only 5.1% of the books were about African-Americans and 1.9% were about Latinos. Why this matters was demonstrated powerfully by results from a survey of educators conducted by the nonprofit social enterprise First Book: 90% of respondents felt that their students would be more engaged readers if the books they had access to reflected their lives and their neighborhoods.

Local independent bookstores are partnering with Book Harvest by sharing the Mirrors and Windows 2016 Book List with their customers and featuring selected books from the list in their stores. Local residents interested in buying diverse books for their holiday gift giving and/or to donate to Book Harvest are encouraged to visit Letters Bookshop at 313 West Main Street in Durham; The Regulator Bookshop at 720 Ninth Street in Durham; or Flyleaf Books at 752 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Cmandwpicreghapel Hill.

Land Arnold, owner of Letters Bookshop, says he is pleased to be part of this initiative because “studies have shown that people who read books about other cultures have greater empathy while those who read books about their own culture have more confidence.”

“It is vital for children to see their lives reflected in the pages of the books that they read,” observes Ginger Young, Founder and Executive Director of Book Harvest. “Books can also provide insights into the lives of others, creating bridges and building connections. We hope that members of our local community will give the gift of books from this list to children in their lives and also purchase some to donate to Book Harvest and the children we serve.”

As Dr. Sims imagines, increasing the diversity in children’s books could “help us to understand each other better by helping change our attitudes toward 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 similarities, because together they are what make us all human.”

The Book Harvest Mirrors and Windows Project’s 2016 Book List is available at Book Harvest, Letters Bookshop, The Regulator Bookshop, and Flyleaf Books; it is also available online at http://bookharvestnc.org/why-books/mirrors-and-windows/.