Matching Dolls, Mirrors, and Diversity in Kids’ Books

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of hearing Linda Sue Park speak via Zoom. Park won the 2002 Newbery Award—aka the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children—for her book A Single Shard. You may also be familiar with her book A Long Walk to Water, which is based on the true story of a boy in Sudan.

Park spoke about diversity in children’s books. As a Korean American born in Illinois, she was taunted as a child by people unfamiliar with her heritage. Using tangible symbols, she spoke about why having books about many cultures and depicting kids of all backgrounds is important.

Matching dolls
Park showed a video of a girl receiving a doll with a prosthetic leg—a leg that matched the child’s. The girl wept with joy and engulfed her new doll in an embrace. Through tears, she exclaimed, “It’s got a leg like me!” Her connection to that doll was intense and immediate.

Have you ever bought something because it reminded you of someone you love? Once I bought a handmade coaster that showed a little dark-haired girl holding hands with a little blond-haired girl at a beach. It looked so much like my daughter holding hands with her cousin. I had to get it for them!

It seems natural to want to see ourselves in toys and gifts. People delight in feeling affirmed and connected. It’s the same with books. A whole myriad of kids want to see people who resemble them on the pages of a book—people with the same hair, skin, abilities, or interests.

Mirrors and windows
Park also referenced Rudine Sims Bishop, Faculty Emeritus at The Ohio State University, author of the now-famous statement that books are “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”* As mirrors, books can reflect a person’s life back to them. As windows, books allow readers to see into worlds unfamiliar to them. As sliding glass doors, books allow readers to enter those worlds using their imaginations. The problem comes when insufficient windows and mirrors are available. As Bishop wrote:

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.

Bishop, however, is an optimist. She and Park recognize that children’s publishing can be part of a solution. Literature helps us see how we are similar to others. As we peer through printed windows and step through sliding doors, books can lead us across a bridge to understanding.

All my best,

*NOTE: The article quoted was first published in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1990, under the title “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” by Rudine Sims Bishop.