When is a book not just a book?
Most teachers know the answer to the above question: “When it’s a door to another world”. But how many consider the importance of providing not just doors for children to explore, but mirrors to reflect their own life experiences? The first time I realised that not all stories are universal was when I was working as a VSO teacher in the village of Nkambe, in Cameroon. One of my duties was helping to develop the small school library, stocked with donated books from the UK and the US. During a reading lesson with a 10-year-old who was struggling with literacy, I picked out The Ugly Duckling as a story with fairly easy language. After 20 minutes’ hard slog, we hadn’t got past the first paragraph. We had to keep stopping so I could explain what a duckling was. Then a pond. Then a swan... We gave up and tried other stories, but with no more success.
After months of encouraging children to borrow books from the library, only to see their initial enthusiasm give way to apathy, I finally discovered the problem. Those British and American reading books, despite their bright covers and illustrations, held no relevance for the children. Their stories of ice cream, snowmen, fireworks, and Santa Claus might as well have been written in the Martian language. They were not mirrors reflecting the children’s own experiences of growing up in a West African village with limited access to electricity and an unreliable water supply, and they couldn’t act as doors to new worlds either, as the children lacked the information keys to unlock those worlds.
It wasn’t until I sought out books written by West African writers, which featured children growing up in villages like Nkambe, that the library really took off. Children flocked to borrow stories by Chinua Achebe, Mabel Segun and Kola Onadipe, featuring characters just like themselves, and their reading abilities began to gradually improve.
That was my first lesson in the power of diverse books, but I had plenty still to learn. It was my later experiences of teaching in Scotland that made me understand the connection between children’s ideas of themselves and what they thought they could accomplish, and the characters in the books they were reading.
One year I was teaching a class of six-year-olds in an area of Glasgow with high numbers of families seeking asylum. That term, we’d been reading Harry Potter and had spent our art lessons turning the class into Hogwarts, complete with a Diagon Alley word wall, a number train, feather-quill pencils and house points for good behaviour. Late one Friday afternoon, the children were enjoying some free play time with the toy cloaks, broomsticks and cauldrons. There weren’t quite enough to go round and, before I could intervene, an argument over the last wizard cloak broke out between a girl from the local estate and a boy recently arrived from Sudan.
“You can’t be Harry Potter!” the little boy yelled, clinging onto the cloak, “you’re a girl!”
“You can’t be Harry Potter either!” the girl shot straight back, holding onto the cloak just as tightly, “you’re black!”
That was definitely an epiphany moment for me. Looking back I realised that the stories I’d loved as a child had been dominated by white, middle-class, able-bodied characters, which were not representative of the children from the many diverse backgrounds with various special needs that I was teaching as an adult. Over the next few years I began experimenting with the characters in my own novels, first with female protagonists, then with characters from different cultures.
…if the books in a classroom library act only as mirrors for one type of experience - often white, middle class, able-bodied and frequently male - then many children will not only find opaque glass where their mirrors should be, but the doors to the new worlds locked and the keys missing
The seeds of my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, were planted during this time; the story of 12-year-old Glasgow bully Caylin and Syrian refugee Reema, both of whom are struggling with difficult childhood experiences and are searching for a sense of belonging. The urban fox that cements their friendship came from the first novel I ever wrote as a teenager: a sprawling trilogy with dozens of animal characters, of which only a handful of minor ones, I later realised, were female. Hurriyah, the fox called “Freedom”, is my attempt to redress the balance.
No one is saying we shouldn’t read the classic children’s books in schools – my own imaginative landscape would be infinitely poorer without the wonderful Enid Blyton, Narnia and Harry Potter books. But if the books in a school library act only as mirrors for one type of experience – often white, middle-class, able-bodied and frequently male – then many children will not only find opaque glass where their mirrors should be, but the doors to new worlds locked and the keys missing.
As teachers we need to be aware that when selecting books to be read in our classrooms, we are choosing which children get to see reflections of themselves in heroic roles. We are also acting as the gatekeepers to exciting new worlds, and we need to ensure that some children are not denied access due to a lack of representation. Have a look right now at the books in your school library and the ones you plan to teach. Are there a wide range of experiences reflected in them? Do they invite all children to share the adventure? If they do then they’re not just books, but mirrors and doors for all of your children to explore literature together.
About the Author
Victoria Williamson is a teacher and children’s author who visits schools to talk to pupils about reading, writing and the issues her books raise. Twenty per cent of author royalties for The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle are donated to the Scottish Refugee Council.