Katharine Uncaged

My blog is composed of highly subjective, opinionated think pieces on the subject of children’s literature and the issues that surround it. In addition, I include lists and reviews of books that I think are interesting and noteworthy.. 
Breaking Down Walls With Windows and Mirrors
Well, here it is—November 9th. My first thought is that there is no such thing as “just a story”. Our lives are built around the stories we hear and the stories we choose to tell ourselves. The more stories we are exposed to, the richer our lives and the greater our opportunities. Our stories come from our surroundings, from television, from Twitter, from our neighbors and relatives, from books. We then tinker with our stories —or not—using our imaginations, the things we learn, our new experiences. Some stories are very narrow and simplistic (please note—“simplistic" is not the same word as “simple”) and some are complex and far-reaching.
Our children are building their stories. If you believe, as I do, that it is important to be exposed to many stories, then you might agree that literature is one of the most effective ways to provide that exposure. While non-fiction has obvious importance as a source of knowledge, I hope that the value of reading fiction will never be underestimated. Reading fiction allows the reader to experience things perhaps he or she will never face personally—tsunamis, fighting dragons, being a dwarf, the threat of being killed for who you are, being orphaned, living in foreign countries, being part of unfamiliar cultures, being a different sex, being very rich or very poor. A reader can experience tragedy or how it feels to have to make hard decisions. A reader can be someone else for a while. It’s clear that reading can encourage empathy, wisdom, understanding.
I feel pessimistic sometimes about all of this, though, perhaps because of my experiences teaching children’s literature to college students. People interested in children’s literature talk about how it is a case of “windows and mirrors.” All children need both. Imagine reading books in which your own experience is never reflected. What would that suggest to you about yourself? But imagine reading books only about yourself. What would that suggest to you about yourself? In the world of children’s books, there is a long history of “mirrors" for white, mostly middle-class children. Many are fabulous books full of feeling and imagination and delight. And African American children have read and treasured Heidi. And girls have read about and identified with the character Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. But when I taught Esperanza Rising to college kids, white students balked, saying they “couldn’t relate” to the characters. Even more eye-opening, when I taught one of my favorites, The Planet of Junior Brown, not only did some students say that it “didn’t have anything to do with me,” they misread the book, telling me that one black character was “poverty-stricken” when he really was well-off! Perhaps years of hearing (or accepting) only one story about race had blinded them to other stories.
Asian children should be able to read stories about Asian characters and white students should be able to read stories about Asian characters. Girls should be able to read about girl pirates and boys should be able to read about girl pirates. Availability of “mirrors” for everyone and willingness to look through “windows” by everyone—imagine if we demanded diversity from publishers and broad ranging literary exploration from ourselves and our children!
That’s all for now, but let me toss out a few titles of books that deserve readership: I hope you and your kids will give some of them a try.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai. Oh, no! A California girl has to give up her summer to accompany her grandmother back to Vietnam to find out whatever happened to her grandfather during the war. She’s bemused by the local customs, negotiates elderly relatives and is charmed by her new friends. Vietnam comes to life while tweens cope in the ways of kids everywhere.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. (2005 Newbery Award Medal) This Japanese-American family in the 1950s lives in Georgia where the parents struggle to keep them all afloat. They work in a chicken processing plant, while the kids hang out in the car in the parking lot. Katie adores her big sister, but Lynn develops lymphoma, putting an extra strain on the family. In spite of the sadness, the story is full of family interaction and humor.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. (Newbery Honor, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Coretta Scott King Winner, National Book Award Finalist) Three vividly real sisters who live in NY with their father and grandmother are sent to spend the summer with the mother who essentially abandoned them (to go write poetry in Oakland with the Black Panthers -it’s 1968). They don’t receive conventional mothering there but with humor and enthusiasm they learn a lot about each other and the world.
Willful Machines by Tim Floreen (local author!) Set in a creepy boarding school when the line between artificial intelligence and human identity is breaking down, this YA thriller is also a love story between the closeted son of the conservative President of the US and a mysterious boy who… well, I won’t give anything away.
Esperanza Rising (Pura Belpre Award Winner) by Pam Munoz Ryan. In 1930 Mexico, the happy and wealthy Esperanza is about to turn 13 when her father is murdered and her family suffers a severe reversal in fortune. They join the family of their cook and gardener and flee to the US where they survive as farm laborers. Esperanza has many adjustments to make as she faces a completely new kind of life.