Diverse books are bridges to embracing our differences
Diverse collections of books help us understand ourselves and others better at a time of unprecedented human displacement and divisiveness.
July 31, 2018 by Christabel Pinto, Room to Read
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4 minutes read
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From The Little Friend of Putri Pandan Berduri, an Indonesian folktale adaptation written and illustrated by Fanny Santoso and awarded Best Illustration by the 2018 Islamic Book Award in Indonesia. © 2017 Penerbit Bestari (Room to Read publishing partner)
From The Little Friend of Putri Pandan Berduri, an Indonesian folktale adaptation written and illustrated by Fanny Santoso and awarded Best Illustration by the 2018 Islamic Book Award in Indonesia.
2017 Penerbit Bestari (Room to Read publishing partner)

Books have the power to expand the boundaries of one’s world. Good stories allow us to take a few steps in somebody else’s shoes and, in doing so, to recognize our shared humanity and experience a world beyond our own. 

International education efforts to get books into the hands of children have been spurred by improving literacy for children in the early grades of school. It is difficult to learn to read without books, and this is the plight of millions of children in the world. 

But books are so much more than a source of decoding practice!  They delight, teach, engage, and challenge us.  When living in difficult circumstances, books can provide a respite from struggle and a window into possibilities beyond the here and now. In a world where differences are exploited to pit people against each other, books can be a means to understanding both ourselves and others better. 

The role of books in my childhood

During the first decade of my life, my family of five lived comfortably in a single room home in a bus factory in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A wailing siren began and ended the day, and afternoons after school were punctuated by the screech of welding and pound of hammering, all of which I relegated to background noise, like the hum of the ceiling fan circulating the humid air. Years later, I have multiple rooms to call my own in a peaceful American neighborhood where flowers thrive and birds chirp. Amongst the many privileges that shaped this journey was access to two sticky drawers of second-hand books crammed in like an intricate puzzle, with any book out of place turning the entire drawer into disarray.

Dar es Salaam in the 1980s did not offer much by way of children’s books but, as a teacher in an international school, my mother had access to a revolving door of expatriate colleagues who invariably sold some of their belongings before leaving Tanzania. From these sales, we got our unusual collection of books, from The Adventures of Sam Pig by Alison Uttley, to an illustrated book on human evolution, to the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton.  

Notwithstanding the clanging of the bus factory, I often got lost in the English countryside where unfamiliar things like treacle and badgers piqued my imagination. Or I became engrossed in details about human evolution much before I learned about evolution at school.  The books I read broadened my world view, added joy to my life, and played a role in shaping my aspirations.  However, I did not--until later in life--see any books in which I saw myself reflected in the pages, as a child of immigrants growing up in Tanzania. 

The danger of the single story

While I was lucky for the ways in which books contributed to shaping my privileged life, they all told a single story of children who looked nothing like me living in exotic circumstances in faraway lands.  Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, described the dangers of a single story in a TED talk: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

This is true of single stories about the exotic other, but the danger of a single story extends to when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction: the single story that only reflects children’s own lives back at them does not provide children with exposure to the world beyond their direct experience.  We prevent the single story by ensuring diverse book collections for all the world’s children.

Children need diverse books: mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors

Global initiatives to bring books to every child are focused on improving the book chain from book development all the way to the end user: children and their communities.  Having to start from scratch in places without established children’s book publishing industries presents us with an opportunity to be thoughtful--from the beginning--about the kinds of books that reach children.  In the US, there is a movement to have “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” 

Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, generated a metaphor for the main reasons to share diverse literature with children:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, 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 the larger human experience.” (1990, p. ix)

Books are so much more than a tool to becoming literate.

In addition to prioritizing book development in local languages at appropriate levels, let us ensure that all children have book collections in which they can find both windows and mirrors. 

At a time of unprecedented human displacement, with 28 million children who have been forcibly displaced (UNICEF, 2018), using diverse books to encourage reflection, build mutual understanding, and foster a feeling of shared humanity seems more important than ever.

References:

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

UNICEF (2018). Children on the move: Key facts and figures. Retrieved from https://data.unicef.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Data-brief-children-on-the-move-key-facts-and-figures-1.pdf

 

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The world of diverse books in Pacific languages tends to fly under the radar, because most of them are published by ministries of education for free distribution to schools - so they tend not to be in bookshops. But they exist and some are truly wonderful.

So wonderfully written and very apt.

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