“She looks like me!” exclaimed 6 year old Anisha excitedly, on first seeing the character Rocket in Rocket Says Look Up. “This is my favourite book now!”

That is the power or representation in books.

Positive Representation

Every child should have the right and the opportunity to see themselves and their lives represented in the pages of a book. Those living in a single parent family, with black or brown skin, who identify as LGBTQ+, that have a disability, or experiencing food poverty – all should feel represented by both characters, storylines and information in the books they read.

Well written and illustrated books, break down stereotypes and provide powerful representation for children. They can also help the reader see the world from a different perspective and begin to understand lives that are different from their own, becoming empathetic citizens.

Reflecting Realities

The 2022 CLPE Reflecting Realities report showed that…

  • Children’s books featuring a minority ethnic character has increased from 4% in 2017 to 20% in 2021
  • However, 33.9% of Primary School age children in England are from a minority ethnic background but only 9% of books published featured a main character of a minority ethnic background. 

How do your shelves stack up against these statistics?

Books as Windows and Mirrors

In her 1990 paper “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Rudine Sims-Bishop outlines the importance of books representing and reflecting the world:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange… 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 a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

How can our home and school libraries offer these windows and mirrors opportunities for all children and through all genres?

Creating an inclusive school library

1. Complete a comprehensive audit of your shelves and remove any books that are offensive, inaccurate or offer racist or overtly ableist views of the world.

2. Pupil voice is powerful. Ask children to help choose new titles. Look through catalogues and publishers’ pages together. What appeals to them? What reflects their lives, families and experiences? Which books show characters and themes that broaden their understanding of the world?

3. Seek out information from ‘own voices’ authors, illustrators and reviewers who have lived experience and an authentic voice to help find publishers creating representative and inclusive books.

4. Take a critical look at the teaching curriculum and add diverse texts at its heart. Ensure history, science, art and wider curriculum subjects give a broad and representative view of the world and that literature and teaching in these areas reflects this.

5. Use the positive impact of online or in person author or poet visits to show all children that everyone can be a writer and a reader.

6. Use the library as a safe and inclusive space to celebrate differences and as a positive space for all to learn from and in.

Representation matters

Seeing yourself represented in a book can turn a child on to reading and make them feel seen and their life experiences validated. However, misrepresentation through stereotyping or feeling omitted from texts can have the opposite effect and turn them off books, as they seek authentic experiences in other ways.

We have a responsibility to follow the research and use reading for pleasure to develop wellbeing, confidence, pride and achievement so all children can ‘Look Up’ onto their school’s shelves and see themselves in their stories, just like Anisha.

Esther Brown is a Primary School teacher and book blogger in the UK – @mrsbrownsbookbox on Instagram. She is passionate about children’s literature, school libraries and giving as many children as possible the chance to become life-long readers.