The term “representation” is found frequently in U.S. education curricula. Of course, it’s a cornerstone of history and social studies lessons. In literacy education, representation refers to the importance of children “seeing” themselves represented in the books they are given with which to learn how to read. This isn’t just about the illustrations. It is about how a children’s cultures and life experiences either resemble what is going on in their books….or don’t.
I’m an old white guy and I remember being given my first “reader.” The images and stories were about children who looked like me, but apparently depicted a “rich” family with many more resources than mine had. The wonder of engaging with print for the first time was in some ways skewed by me feeling like a “lesser” kid. It never occurred to me at the time that the black and brown children who sat near me in school felt even further removed from the world of Dick and Jane than I was.
There was no discussion of race, ethnicity or cultural differences at all back in my childhood, at least not with us kids. Neither was there a focus on helping us understand the potentials of books to help us engage with where we fit in those worlds…or where we didn’t.
While children’s books have changed for the better representationally over the past several decades, it’s still challenging for children of many ethnicities and socioeconomic classes to see themselves represented in them. This 2018 illustration shows how children’s books have changed to reflect children from various “backgrounds,” represented here by race and species(!) Note that animals are more likely to be represented as book characters than all of the non-white racial groups put together. That’s just plain wrong. It’s actually almost accurate, but it does diminish the liklihood that kids will connect importantly with the stories, their characters, and with their valuing of books.
For children to easily come to see literacy and reading as a natural means for joy and validation, a clear ingredient is that they “see” themselves and their cultures as important in books. That key ingredient allows children to learn that literacy and literature include them, recognize and understand them, and are truly for them. Books that represent faces and experiences that are much like children’s own invite reflection upon the lives of others who are enough like them to offer insight and warm connection.
Absent such relationship, children may struggle to learn to read from material that’s unrelatable to the lives they know. That’s just plain unacceptable.
So it’s up to us parents and teachers to help children sense a connection with book events and all characters on a deeper, more subtle and human level.