The term representation is most often used in early literacy circles in referring to the cultural, disability and racial makeup of a story’s cast of characters. In truth, representation is much deeper and wider than those commonly indexed and obvious qualities. Children who don’t see themselves, their values and experiences represented in books can naturally develop the impression that books and reading may be for others, but maybe not for themselves. Along a new reader’s road to a fully literate life, that can cause a flat tire or worse! On the other hand, growing to connect with and love books and reading can lead to predictable success in school and ultimately to a life of personal enrichment.
Children and even adults who are new to literacy and books won’t automatically expect to relate to or even encounter familiar aspects of their own lives in books. This representation of things familiar to them paves the way to developing an affection for books and reading. It doesn’t really matter what the particular reason is. New or reluctant readers must encounter something or other that makes them increasingly connected and comfortable with the books they take into their hands.
Good authors know this and build their understandings of their audiences into their writing. A short list of how authors reach out from the page to connect with and represent their selected audiences includes:
- physical appearance/abilities
- personality types
- regional culture
- prior experiences and learning
- background knowledge
- unique personal interests
- their unique talents
- favorite pastimes or toys
Parents and teachers can use this kind of list to assist literacy learners in seeing themselves, their lives, their friends and families in books. Teaching new readers to look for familiarity in the stories they read and to see what touches their imaginations and interests in factual material, also adds to their sense of books and reading as personally important and worth consideration.
We might all consider the above connections when giving books as gifts to children. These ideas can also be included in discussions, about whole books or recently completed chapters. By observing and encouraging personal connections between each reader and their books, caregivers and teachers demonstrate for children that individual interests truly should be a growing source of pride and fulfillment that can be expressed through their book choices.
Developing the expectation that each of their book choices should have something perfectly suited to them fuels new reader’s engines to seek out and select the next book and the next, and the next. That above all creates the impetus for them to become lifelong readers and learners. Parents, friends, and teachers are the perfect guides and cheerleaders, uniquely positioned to teach new readers the personal WHY that will power them through learning HOW to read.