Proof of the Importance of Mirrors

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 17, 2016

In the past 10 days, three small encounters offered unexpected moments that underscored how powerful is people’s need to see themselves represented, especially in mainstream culture.
Last week, our thoughtful, observant staffer, Sandy, pulled me aside and said, “You have to see this video! A little girl with a prosthetic leg gets an American Girl doll with a prosthetic leg, and her reaction is so amazing, it made me think of your diversity posts, how vital it is for children to see themselves in books and toys and media.” Sandy told me that the parents had contacted American Girl and explained what they were looking for. The company obligingly sent them a doll that looked like their daughter, down to her single leg. Then the parents sent the doll to a prosthetics lab, which outfitted it with a snazzy prosthetic accented in hot pink, their child’s favorite color. American Girl even sent a sweet letter to the child, explaining the doll’s happy, well-cared-for journey.
When the little girl opens the box with the doll, her reaction says everything you ever need to know about a child’s need to be represented in the world. It brings tears to our eyes not only in appreciation of her joy, but also, I think, in sudden, sorrowful recognition of far we have to go in creating a truly diverse, embracing world, in recognizing how many children don’t get this opportunity to encounter themselves as seen, valued, and treasured.

This little girl’s family was so wonderfully lucky to have the opportunity —and frankly, the resources and the sense of possibility, the access to the creativity afforded by privilege — to give their daughter this incredible gift. I want so much for children without these opportunities to get special dolls that look like them, to read books featuring children who look like them having grand, joyful adventures. How do we make that happen? Surely, there’s a foundation that might take on this project.
I think it’s hard for members of any dominant culture — white, Christian, straight, male, whatever the case in a particular milieu — to understand the soul-level thirst to be seen and valued.
Just a few days ago, I had a moment that gave me the teeniest hint of what it must feel like to be represented in a context in which you aren’t used to seeing yourself. (I repeat that it was the teeniest hint. As a person who grew up with opportunity and relatively reliable privilege, not to mention being a Caucasian person who has been incredibly frustrated with, but by birth always been part of, the dominant culture, I have felt outsiderness in only a handful of small, mostly unimportant ways — with the exception of sexism — over the years. Anyhow.) Last week, I began reading a YA fantasy ARC and very early on encountered a moment when one of the main characters, a princess betrothed to a prince in a neighboring country, meets the prince’s sister, and they seem to have a moment of connection that foreshadows romance. The absolute arrow of joy and surprise and hope that leapt into my heart at this departure from the usual fantasy script startled me. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I am to being invisible in fantasy stories, how unwritten is my own story, how vast the heaps of accumulated books in which princess finds happiness with prince. It’s so ubiquitous I didn’t even think to question it until I came across an outlier book. I had a visceral, emotional, deeply grateful response to encountering a fantasy script that for once included me. (And yes, I am now definitely going to read Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress.)
If that was my own reaction, from my vantage point decades past the kind of identity vulnerability kids and teens deal with, I can imagine the depth of a struggling young person’s response to encountering herself or himself as the hero — not the quirky sidekick, not the outcast, but the center of action and hope and importance — in the pages of a book.
Speaking of visceral responses, our final anecdote comes from my Turkish friend, Sara, who has a four-year-old biracial granddaughter. Little Corey has lots of books in her life, but when Sara gave Corey Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, she was astonished by the difference in Corey’s reaction to the book. “She was mesmerized,” Sarah said. “She pulled herself up straight, leaned in, couldn’t get enough of looking at the pictures of this little girl who looked like her. She loves picture books, but even her body language was different with this one.” Sara said that her sons, darker-skinned than their classmates, had been the same way. As young children, they couldn’t get enough of books by Ezra Jack Keats. “It was just a different experience for them,” said Sara.

Image from Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (25th anniversary edition)

It’s not earth-shattering news that children, unused to seeing themselves represented in the mainstream media, react in a strongly positive way to exceptions. But all it takes is one first-hand encounter with that fulfilled need to realize how responsible we all are for meeting it, how vital it is to show all children that their stories, their hearts and souls and bodies and minds, their flawed and perfect selves, matter in this world.
Do you have a story or anecdote to share about someone in your life encountering him- or herself in a book for the first time? We’d love to hear it.

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