Let’s be clear: Representation matters.
In a 1990 essay on the paucity of representation of children of color in children’s literature, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote of books as windows into others’ worlds and doors into new experiences. Anyone who grew up a lover of stories can attest to this joy, the sparking of wonder in a book.
Sims points out that books are also mirrors. Children can see themselves in positive, empowering light, reflecting their possibilities. But what happens when we consider children of color, who comprise 50% of public school students but who only populate roughly 13% of children’s stories? Where are their mirrors, and what possibilities do they see?
“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,” Sims writes. So also it goes for young readers who are nonwhite, LGBTQ+, and/0r have a disability.
Furthermore, readers from the cultural majority only receive warped, misinformed shreds of what the human story is like for people who are marginalized in literature. Which leads me to ask: How can we promote appreciation and understanding, if not through the stories we share?
The data is bleak. More than twenty-five years later, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the numbers are still dismal. This infographic from LEE & LOW BOOKS illustrates the continued stagnation of published books with multicultural themes.
In a country as diverse as United States, whose origins are so firmly planted in the bringing together of people from around the world, this should be unacceptable.
What does this mean for YA?
So diversity (by which we really mean inclusivity) in stories is important for children. How does this matter for young adult readers?
Namely, the power of the mirrors becomes paramount. In her research on transitions from late childhood into early adolescence, Jacqueline Eccles writes that middle childhood marks the beginning of an age of identity development, as a child’s increasing cognitive sophistication and broadening social world influence awareness of one’s self, interests, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. At the same time, adolescence is a time of defining oneself in relation to others (1999).
Adolescents, increasingly complex, are aware that social comparison is a natural part of self-identification. I have the best free throw on the team. My best friend is way more patient than I am. Every day, young adults encounter and negotiate experiences that inform them about themselves.
As we know, children of immigrants are all too observant of the destructive stereotypes that not only surround them, but that work to harm their self-concept. Distorted narratives erode an adolescent reader’s sense of individuality and pride.
So when we talk about representation and the positive mirrors, we’re really talking about authenticity. A story that doesn’t impose a misinformed perception. A story that recognizes challenges, strengths, nuances. Moreover, authentic representations don’t even have to be “about” immigration, or “about” race. We can’t reduce children of immigrants to stories about hardships because – believe it or not – they experience joy and those fun, melodramatic teenager problems too. That involves work on our part as readers. We need to actively deconstruct the norms about cultures, lives, and stories we’ve assumed simply by being a part of American society.
As we move forward, I’d like to invite interrogation of what our norms are for young adult storytelling, particularly for children of immigrants. What are the norms for American adolescents, and how can highlighting stories from diverse perspectives grow our understanding?
Representation matters not only for children of color, but for the people who work with them. Educators and librarians, and all of us who care about young people, are in positions to help readers of color succeed, but only if we challenge ourselves to consider problems in representation and continue seeking the authentic story.