Diversifying book choice: the power of being seen!

    Published: 14 September 2021

    Seeing yourself reflected on the pages of a book can be a startling experience. Surprisingly perhaps, I only experienced this with full intensity fairly recently. Before I go on, I need to qualify this statement. In regards to my relationship with literature as a child, I now see that I was privileged. I could see myself, certainly on a superficial level, in most of the books that I read and that were read to me. Growing up in the 80s, my bookshelf was ample (a privilege in itself) and it was full of books that reflected back images pretty close to my own experience in many respects. Being white; living in the south-east of England; growing up in a semi-rural village; going to the local CofE village primary; having a nice house that we owned (with a garden); going to piano lessons; having a sibling; having good health; having my own bedroom – these were all things that I took for granted and most of the books that I encountered reflected these ‘norms’ right back at me. It went further than this. For the most part, the characters in the books I read ate the same things as me; they wore the same clothes as me; they spoke the same way as me; they styled their hair the same way as me; they celebrated the same events as me. I was privileged, for sure and I realise that for many children, just having one of these aspects of their existence reflected back on the pages of a book would have been significant, if not remarkable.

    On the plus side, this meant that books and reading sat very comfortably with me: books were part of my world and I was part of the world of books. On the downside - and this matters a great deal in relation to my future career as a primary school teacher - this left me desensitized and unable to appreciate the shock, the excitement and the significance of seeing myself on the page. But then, aged 30ish, it happened! I read ‘Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot’ by Horatio Clare. I was completely unprepared for the jolt this book gave me. It is a beautifully written book: Michael Morpurgo describes it as a ‘wondrous tale’; it is also very surprising, because ‘the terrible Yoot’ is a euphemism for depression, and the story focuses on a young boy trying to come to terms with his dad’s experience of this illness. This book spoke to me in a way that no children’s book had ever done before.  Having grown up with a parent suffering from deep and prolonged depression, the reality of reading a children’s book about a child experiencing many of the same emotions that I experienced growing up was utterly illuminating. It was also so many other things: exhilarating, energizing, exposing, enlightening, comforting – I could go on.  Overall, the effect was startling. I recall being compelled to share my revelation about this book that had so touched my heart: I posted on Twitter and I emailed colleagues, and a few friends thrown in. Now, having spoken to several people about this experience, I understand this is what happens when you find a book that really speaks to you – the result is that you want to (or perhaps need to) talk about it!

    My colleague, Michael Gray beautifully sums up his reaction to finding a deep connection with a book in his blog, The importance of LGBTQ+ literature in primary schools:

    ‘I picked up ‘The Binding’ by Bridget Collins … as I was reading, a slow realisation crept over me. Spoiler alert: the two main characters in this book just happen to be gay and fall in love. I had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen. It was as I was reading that I could begin to see the signs. Then, I was gripped! I wanted to know whether my assumption was right or not. … I was totally stunned that the two main characters were gay and had fallen in love. This might seem totally alien to some, but to me, it was a revelation. I am a gay man in my early thirties and this was the first time I had ever read a book where the two main characters were gay. Indeed, this was the first time I had read a book where any of the characters were openly gay. I spent the following days bereft that I had left this world and these characters and I went on to spend a lot of time reflecting.’

    I can completely relate to that feeling of being bereft. When you find a book that speaks to you (or ‘for you’, depending on your take), then you don’t want to move on from it; the comfort it brings means that you simply want to live within in for as long as possible.

    This same intense reaction can be seen when children find a book that reflects their lived experience and that speaks to them on a profound and personal level.

    Sophie Driver, Subject Leader at Highover Primary in Hertfordshire, shared the following outcomes and reflections after classes across the school engaged with Floella Benjamin's book, Coming to England: 

    'A child in Year 2 did some writing at home which was completely unprecedented for this child! He was absolutely overjoyed because, like Floella Benjamin, his family come from Trinidad. He called his Grandad in Trinidad to ask him to tell him some information; he wrote it down and shared it with the class the next day.’
    'Another child in Year 3 said excitedly, ‘'The same happened to me as Floella but I couldn’t speak English when I moved here from Pakistan.'’ I have never seen her so animated.’

    Clearly, being presented with a book that so perfectly chimed with their experience not only allowed them to feel valued and seen, it ignited them and spurred them to engage and respond. Without the need for prompting, the children initiated their own response – they felt compelled to do so, such is the power of a great book!

    Regrettably, having books about ‘issues’ (as they may have been described during my childhood) was not the done thing at a CofE school in the 80s! The chances of me finding a children’s book on the shelf about a character dealing with depression was as likely as Michael finding a book that depicted love, affection and family ties between anything other than heterosexual couples – highly unlikely! And, like Michael, I think that is a shame.

    ‘When I was in primary school there were very few or no books which overtly reflected LGBTQ+ lifestyles. At the time, I assume it wasn’t even thought of. But how much of a difference would it have made to my life if I had been exposed to those kinds of characters at a young age which reflected who I am back at me?’

    I can see the benefits of my younger self having stumbled upon ‘Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot’ at around age 10 or 11. I know that for some that I have spoken to, they have found some scenes in the book shocking – too shocking in fact for that age group. But, in reality, shocking things do happen to young children and I would have been ok with that. The comfort and wisdom that it would have brought me would have far outweighed the shock.

    Equipped with a new-found appreciation of how it actually feels to see your lived experience in a book you are reading, and primed by reading insightful and powerful texts and articles over recent years (such as Reflecting Realities Research from CLPE, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and many of Darren Chetty’s articles including “You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people!”) I have developed a deeper understanding of the importance of diverse book choice in the primary setting. Selecting books that present different viewpoints and that ‘usualise’ different lived experiences isn’t simply about ensuring representation – it’s so much more than that. It’s about helping all children to experience that deep connection to literature; to appreciate that the world of books is not just for a select few (or rather a dominant majority), but that the ‘treasure-house of wonder and joy’ (to quote the national curriculum) is accessible to all. Moreover, it’s about showing children how books can not only provide them with light entertainment, a good yarn and some fascinating facts, but can help them to understand their own and others’ lives. For young children, experiencing how an author explains their feelings in a way that is currently beyond the child’s own capabilities can be incredibly empowering.

    Of course, it is simply not possible to go about systematically choosing books that cover the full range of lived experience and presenting these to children across the primary age range, nor would that be appropriate or sufficient. We cannot guarantee that simply because a book appears to mirror a lived experience of a pupil or pupils in our class, that a connection will be made. But, the enormity of the task should not stall our efforts; we must start somewhere. Let’s begin by accepting that some things are just a given. It seems nonsensical that children cannot see the very basics of their existence reflected back in a great deal of the literature that they meet. Having characters that eat congee for breakfast; that wear hijab; that plait their hair into cornrows; that share a bedroom with 3 or more siblings should be staples of our daily offerings, not rare examples that we use when planning ‘themed weeks’ or that we set aside for when we plan on addressing ‘issues’ – if these characters and lifestyles are not in the books that we are providing, then we have to ask ourselves how happy we are with our current offering. Beyond that, we must ensure that our bookshelves are packed full of texts that present diversity in its widest sense. Only then can we begin to hope that every child has the experience of truly seeing themselves in the books around them – and oh boy! What it is to be seen!

    Pause for reflection:

    Finding books that have the potential to make a connection with all the children in our class is hard, but it is a necessary endeavour and one that schools need to commit to through the adequate investment of time, energy and effort. In order to support teachers with this undertaking, I have formulated some thought-provoking questions that I hope will lead to some deep thinking and reflection on this topic:

    • think hard – when do you first recall really ‘seeing yourself’ on the pages of a book: this doesn’t need to be a physical reflection; it could be a family tradition, or a scenario that chimes very much with your lived experience? Did this occur as a child, or did you have to wait until later – maybe teenage years, or adulthood perhaps?
    • how did it feel when you had this experience? How did this experience effect your connection with reading? Did it change your attitude to books and reading in any way? Is this an experience that you feel is important for all children?
    • have you ever seen a child in your class react to ‘seeing themselves’ in a book that you are reading? How did they respond? How did they feel – did you ask them? What was the impact beyond that moment – did they take that experience into their writing, for example?

    It is only through this sort of deep reflection and self-questioning that we can begin to appreciate the significance of these kind of experiences with texts, which in turn may lead to an improved curriculum offer for our children, and ultimately better outcomes for all.

    'That's me'! Ensuring diverse representation across the primary English curriculum

    Tuesday 18th January 2022

    Diversity is the theme of the 2022 Herts for Learning national Primary English conference; specifically focusing on ensuring that all pupils are given adequate opportunities to make a deep connection with reading through enhancing teacher’s commitment to providing books that reflect a wide range of realities.

    The conference will feature input from experienced teachers, academics and political campaigners and will ensure that delegates leave with an understanding of how they can work to improve diverse representation through the English curriculum in their schools and classrooms, and why this work matters so much.

    The conference will end with a contribution from The Right Honourable Stuart Lawrence OBE, younger brother of Stephen Lawrence.  Stuart is a motivational public speaker with over 20 years’ experience as a youth engagement specialist. 

    Participants will also hear key notes from Farrah Serrouk, author of CLPE’s Reflecting Realities Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature, and Darren Chetty, writer, teacher and researcher who has published academic work on philosophy, education, racism, children’s literature and hip-hop culture.

    Sophie Driver, Deputy Headteacher at Highover School in Hertfordshire, will join us to explain how she is working alongside her colleagues to raise awareness of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping in children’s literature.

    Explore our conference microsite to find out more about the full programme and to book a place at this important event. Please note that this event will be delivered remotely with some of the sessions being recorded enabling participants to review them at a later date.

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