Monday, September 14, 2009

Are Books Windows or Mirrors?

Think of a novel you enjoyed recently. How did the protagonist remind you of yourself? On the other hand, what did you glean about living a different kind of life?

My guess is that you can answer both questions fairly well, because the best novels serve as windows and mirrors. Jhumpa Lahiri's books, for example, may be more of a mirror to me than you, but chances are you enjoy them as much as I do.

The publishing industry doesn't seem to expect adults to appreciate only those books that are mostly mirror-ish. Why, then, do we seem to hold that expectation for young readers? Here are a couple of phrases I overhear when people are talking about Kid/YA books:

"I just don't have that kind of population in my town. Nobody's going to want to read it."

"Hey, I'm going to need more multicultural books now. My community's changing."

But why should kids read differently than we do? Why should we expect white kids to want to see their own faces reflected when it comes to race and ethnicity? Wouldn't it be great if we promoted novels that serve as windows and mirrors for the kids, teens, and tweens in our communities? Because with the right slant of light, every window becomes a mirror.

16 comments:

Cate's Folly said...

What a fantastic issue to raise!

The line we hear often is that teens are particularly narcissistic, that it's a natural phase for them. I think true but not the whole truth. And I believe part of the human condition at any age that we love to be taken outside of ourselves, to imagine other lives (note my 5 year-old right now being Indiana Jones with the Lego set we just built and the popularity of fantasy/sci fi among teens).

An editor said in response to reading the first 30 pages of my YA manuscript about an 18 year-old girl and her 6 year-old ghost facing down their fear of their (her) father: "I can't imagine the audience for this story" and "I don't see young women identifying with the main character." While the story no doubt needed re-writing, seems to me the publishing world circles in narrower and narrower themes out of fear that teens are "only interested in X" where X is school social drama, getting a boyfriend, or meeting the vampire.

Some famous anthropologist said their work was all about understanding the Self through the detour of understanding the Other. (which of course presents all kinds of danger for exploitation in the practice of anthropology but maybe the larger point still has merit).

If we don't venture through the window we can't look back and see ourselves through fresh eyes, or indeed believe that life promises us all kinds of unimagined possibilities beyond the familiar face that stares back at us in the mirror.

Anyway, I agree with you. And lovely blog you have, thanks!

Teresa Kravtin said...

Definitely windows as far as I'm concerned. It's always about the writing . . . a wonderful writer can take us anywhere and tell us anything. There are too many examples out there to underscore this fact. The excuse may often be used that there is no audience for a particular book, but that must be due to some other reason. Books as mirrors are also useful, but it is the books as windows that open up our worlds.

booktoo said...

I agree with the books as window idea. Visionary writers launch readers. Through imagination writers advance their story, through imagination readers partake. You can always talk about the 'mirror idea' and reflecting how the experience from the book connects with the reader...but the window is the first exposure...perhaps you can't reflect if you haven't 'participated' by reading.
[kkosko]

Sharon Creech said...

Mitali: This is a v. perceptive line: ". . .with the right slant of light, every window becomes a mirror." The books I most want to read and the ones I most want to recommend to readers young and old are neither wholly one nor the other, but both.

Mary Brebner said...

With my 7th and 8th graders, we've read a ton of different genres. Right now, we're reading TEARS OF A TIGER by Sharon Draper. When I introduced it to them, they got all excited because, as one boy said, "Oh, that's just like me!"

While they appreciate introductions to other worlds, lands and peoples, I think that they really need the mirrors. I can't speak to high schoolers as well as middle schoolers but the MS kids really need the mirrors, to see that there are others out there, just like them, going through the same things they are.

Maybe it's because they're still pretty concrete in middle school, at the beginning of their teens, and can't put themselves in others' shoes as well as teens who are just a few years older. I'm not sure. Hopefully, by the second half of 8th grade, my students will enjoy looking through windows into other worlds, instead of just looking into mirrors and seeing themselves reflected back.

Cate's Folly said...

I'd love to know what Nancie Atwell says about that question of the maybe differences between mid-graders and highschoolers on the mirror/window question. She runs that school in Maine I am obsessed about (Center for Teaching and Learning: http://www.c-t-l.org/). She runs their Language Arts stuff as a reading workshop and seems to have a huge amount of insight on what kids look for and need out of their fiction. I'll go try and rope her into the discussion.

I like to believe it's not an either/or thing at any age, but that we need mirrors and windows from the very beginning and all the way up.

Oh I remember now: Atwell's book (The Reading Zone) has a chapter on middle school boys and examples of how they can identify with characters who are both just like them and totally NOT like them or within their experience, despite the conventional wisdom about that.

Mitali Perkins said...

Now I'm wondering if middle school vs. high school is the unique developmental period where kids especially need "mirror" books. But can't an expert educator or a parent take a "window" book, slant the light, and show kids how it's also a mirror?

stacy said...

Thanks for this terminology, Mitali. It was just what I needed to finish off a project I've been working on, which I'll give you a link to when I'm done--hopefully in a few hours. When I'm done frantically working on this (trying to hit a deadline), I'll have more coherent thoughts. :)

Katia said...

I also think they should be both. Love your line : "with the right slant of light..." Exactly. I get so annoyed when I read or hear an editor say in answer to the question : are you interested in multicultural stories set in other countries? "Well, if the main character is not American, and dragged to the other place kicking and screaming, then, no, I'm not. American children are not interested in kids from other countries, or what happens elsewhere." I quote from memory, but that's the answer I received, once. I know not all editors would say that, thank Goodness. If a book manages to mirror the reader's experience or feelings as well as open windows onto life and the world, then, it helps us deepen our understanding of ourselves as members of the human race, as well as broaden our horizons. Chiming in wearing my PJs :)

Doret said...

Great post. I've wondered the same thing, adults are encouraged to travel the world through literature. Yet with MG/YA diversity is so limited and I am don't understand why.

Windows and mirrors. Young readers should have the same opportunity as adults to find themselves and others through the books they read.

Diane Dawson Hearn said...

I would hope that compelling characters and stories could lure a child into almost any world. In picture books children often are taken to unfamiliar places with characters that sometimes aren't even human. Why can't this be the same for stories for older kids?

I do think it helps if there is something about the character that the child can relate to, be it a human, animal or fantasy creature, but I think kids are more able to do that than maybe we give them credit for. I think, since authors are human, it would be hard to write about characters without giving them some common human traits and concerns, even if the character isn't human. And one can write about those common human traits that mirror a child's experience while introducing them to cultures and conditions that are outside of the reader's experience.

Diane

Mitali Perkins said...

Here's a great 1990 essay by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop on Books as "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors." (Sent via twitter from Carol Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental).

Thanks for all the comments; they are very helpful, especially as I prepare a talk for librarians and educators in Wyoming and in Massachusetts.

Melissa Stewart said...

I think it's worth bringing nonfiction books into this discussion. Between the ages of 7 and 10, many students--especially boys--gravitate heavily toward NF. In fact, research shows that if these readers are exposed to a broad, rich array of NF titles, they are far more likely to become lifelong readers.

Reading NF is a quest for facts about topics of interest, a quest for knowledge beyond a child's realm of experience--and therefore, a window rather than a mirror. NF is a means of exploring and gaining an understanding of new things.

There is very little NF available for teens because at that age, test prep for SATs and achievement tests, etc. makes it necessary to use textbooks. So it's hard to say how enthusiastically it would be received by teens if it did exist.

Interesting question, Mitali. Thanks for raising it.

Tockla said...

Right on - books should and can be both mirrors and windows. Becoming a Reader by by J. Appleyard offers an excellent exploration of how people read at different ages, drawing on loads of different research and methodologies. It taught me a lot, and is great for writers to consider different audiences. That said, the popularity of a book like Harry Potter is about entering a different world, albeit with some familiar aspects. There is much more room for those sorts of journeys featuring a really diverse range of characters and experiences.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I think a really good, clear window is also a mirror. And I love the 12 second TV, Mitali! Now I have heard your voice.

Anonymous said...

Books are windows and mirrors. The windows to knowledge and mirrors of what they're about.

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