“It broke my heart to hear my son ask whether black boys can also be heroes.” This is what a friend told me when asked about his eight-year old’s reaction to the characters that he sees in his books. If none of the heroes looked like him, the young, avid reader reasoned, then perhaps he could not be a hero. This all-too-common example demonstrates the power of children seeing themselves (or not) in children’s books.
A reasonable response to the problem of children not reading enough, especially in our under-resourced communities, is to channel as many books and reading materials to them as we can. But in doing so we need to carefully consider what lessons and messages we are feeding our children in these books. Sadly, so many children’s books foster the very same social ills we seek to eliminate in South Africa, such as violence and stereotypes around gender and race. It does not serve our society to be addressing one social ill, that of inadequate reading, while simultaneously propagating another, that of these negative stereotypes. The lack of representation in children’s books is another such factor to consider in the books that our children read.
There are at least three important social and pedagogical reasons to ensure that children see themselves in the books that they read. Firstly, it encourages a positive self-perception. When a child sees characters that look like them or speak like them or live in environments like them, they begin to place themselves in those stories. This forms positive perceptions of themselves as relates to the message in the story, whether depicting beauty, strength, intelligence or indeed, the racial identity of heroes, as in the example I described above. Seeing how characters are portrayed, and seeing herself in those characters, contributes to a girl’s perception of herself as beautiful, strong, intelligent or whatever the portrayal is. It is validating to see the characters that look like her have her thoughts and experiences. Importantly, the converse can also be true, not seeing herself represented in her books, may make her believe that only others, not her, can possess these traits or have these thoughts and experiences.
Secondly, representation in books contributes to how children see the world around them. Books are a window to the world – what a child sees through that window has a profound impact on how he or she perceives the world – it tells them what’s important, and what matters. Seeing themselves in that world establishes them as people who matter and establishes their sense of place in society.
The first two reasons lead to a third, which relates to literacy and the child’s development as a reader. Seeing themselves in books helps children with the vital skill of reading with comprehension and establishes an affinity with reading – the more children enjoy reading, and find meaning there, the more they will come back to books.
Sadly, in South Africa today, despite recent improvements, many children do not see themselves in the books that they read. Addressing this urgent problem requires that books representing our rich mix of languages and cultures be written, published and distributed. Parents, teachers, publishers and librarians should work towards making a healthy range of books available to children. This will, no doubt, have a significantly positive impact on our society as it encourages children to read, advances their comprehension abilities, and contributes to our children developing healthy perceptions of themselves and their place in society.
For more information about the Nal'ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, free children's stories in a range of SA languages, tips on reading and writing with children, details on how to set up a reading club or to request training, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibali.mobi, or find them on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA.