What happens when we do not see themselves in books or other media, or only see distorted images of ourselves and our culture? In 1990 literacy scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote:
“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 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. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
“For many years, nonwhite readers have too frequently found this search futile. . . When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part.”
Dr. Bishop wrote the above words in 1990 and while the world of children’s literature has improved slightly, there is still a long way to go. Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen conducted a study on the racial representation in picture books and the findings were bleak.
According to these statistics, a child of color is more likely to see personified animals or vehicles in picture books than they are to see characters like themselves. How does this shape our perceptions of ourselves and ability to connect with people of different backgrounds? Below are some comics in which the main characters grapple with these issues.
Glare of Disdain by Gene Luen Yang (Adults)
In this autobiographical short, author Gene Luen Yang reflects on his inability to connect with a teen of a different ethnic background, and how things might have been different if there had been books about people of their backgrounds for each other to read.
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Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (Grades 4-8)
Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions—the topic of India is permanently closed. For Pri, her mother’s homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she finds a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background?
The New Kid by Jerry Craft (Grades 4-8)
In this 2019 Newbery Award winning graphic novel, seventh grader Jordan Banks loves art but his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment to the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds—and not really fitting into either one. Can Jordan learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Grades 7-12)
Winner of the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album, this graphic novel tells the story of three characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable.
-Anna, Head of Youth Services