Recently at a faculty meeting, the teachers and I did an inventory of the children’s books that presently live in each classroom. We began by looking at the books in our book boxes and asked ourselves questions like: “How many books are about people as opposed to animals or trucks?” “How many books have a main character that is a person of color?” “How many books represent non-traditional types of families?” “How many books challenge gender norms?”

This exercise is part of our ongoing inquiry into identity development and how our practices support young children’s understanding of identity as it pertains to themselves and others. We know that our young children are beginning to make sense of the differences in the world around them, including the things that make people different. They are forming their foundational understanding of their own identity, and the identities of others, in these early childhood years. Right now they are grappling with understanding areas of identity including race, gender and family composition. They are forming these ideas with or without our help or intentional instruction; they receive these messages about race, gender, and family through movies, cartoons, advertisements and society at large. Children learn about who they are, and who others are, by whom they see reflected in the society.  Through our thoughtful and intentional use of children’s literature we can help children learn about important markers of identity, like race, gender and family.

Grace Lin, a Newberry Award-winning author, said in her inspiring Ted Talk, “Children’s books can be a mirror through which we see ourselves; but they can also be a window through which we see others.”

Books can be a mirror for children; they can see themselves, their lives and their experiences reflected in the stories found in books. Reading these kinds of stories can help a child feel completely seen, understood and valued. Books can also be a window; children can see into other people’s lives, selves and experiences that often differ from their own lives or experiences. These books may help to broaden a child’s understanding of another person that has a different lived experience. Reading these stories can help us build a deeper, more authentic understanding of others. For children who hold identity markers that are outside the normative structures, it is imperative that they see themselves reflected in the books we read. It is equally imperative that those who hold identity markers that match society’s norm see rich and varied representations of others in the books they read.

We fill our book box with books like:

Kitchen Dance, a story about a young African American girl and her brother, who awake to hear mysterious sounds coming from the kitchen. When they investigate, they find their mama and papa singing and dancing in the kitchen! The story unfolds and invites you into the joyful warmth of an intimate family moment.

Annie’s Plaid Shirt, a story about a girl who loves to wear a plaid shirt. When her uncle gets married, her mother wants her to wear a fancy dress. What will she do? It is a heart-warming story about being true to yourself and demonstrates that there are many ways to be a girl.

A Family Is A Family Is A Family, a warm and fanciful look at a diverse range of people in many different types of families, including families with one parent, same-gender parents or blended families. Its resounding message is love makes a family!

It benefits all children when they have access to books that are both windows and mirrors. Children need books that reflect a wide, diverse range of race, culture books1and religion. They need books that will challenge their ideas of cultural relevance, gender biases and family structures. In looking critically at the books that we offer, we are working to ensure that all children see themselves, their families and their communities as complete, complex entities, as well as see that the same is true for those with a different experience. Ultimately, it is our wish that our children will see their full selves and the full selves of their peers in the books we read at school.

Greenhouse’s annual book fair is coming up on November 11. This year every title on our Class Wish Lists will be a book that is either a mirror or a window. We hope you will join us at the book fair (more details to follow), and thank you for your support of our work.