Bringing Home the Windows

By Ashley Smolinski, Branch Outreach and Programming Specialist

“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 or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also 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 a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
― Rudine Sims Bishop

I remember when I first heard the idea of books acting as both “mirrors and windows” used in relation to children’s books at a conference. I was in a session learning about how young readers can develop empathy through stories, and the speaker talked about the necessity of seeing oneself reflected in a story (“mirrors”) and of seeing other people’s experiences (“windows”).

At the time, my son was probably two, and although I wasn’t really mindful about the books I was reading to him, I wrote the information down next to my notebook doodles as something worth thinking about.

And then I kept thinking about it.

Growing up in a rural Michigan neighborhood, my friends looked like me, my neighbors looked like me and the books on my shelves looked like me. I want my children to experience more than this. They are now two and five, and when we visit the library, I purposefully choose titles that can act as mirrors and windows. “Mirror” books for my son include kids with red hair, boys that are wild and energetic and stories with strong feels and great big hearts. For my daughter, it means finding little girls that cuddle dolls, or books with princesses and kitties, mommies that hold them close and lots of pictures of the outdoors.

But the “windows” are what really matters to me now. We’ve loved The Proudest Blue, In My Heart, I Got the Rhythm and Fry Bread. We’ve read about mommies who wear beautiful hijabs, and daddies who have beautiful tattoos, and little girls who attend dance class in their wheelchairs and little boys who go to the barbershop for their first haircut. And reading those stories prompts questions from my kids that they don’t ask when we read “mirror” books. I’m not sure I was ready for questions at first, but now I welcome them (usually with more questions, like "what do you think?"). When we read a book starring a child with a different family structure or culture than ours, it’s the one that we talk the most about that night and one we talk more about later.

Through these window books, my kids have learned that not everyone lives in our country, that there are holidays we’ve never celebrated and that our neighbors speak a variety of amazing languages. My son’s room now features a map, after he asked to learn about “all the world,” and we talk about going to China, Africa and Iceland. We look forward to eating sushi in Japan, picking out Asian vegetables we’ve never grown from our seed catalog and we’re hoping to go to a few more cultural festivals in Grand Rapids when we can!

While we didn’t expect such a journey so young with our little ones, we’ve both enjoyed and been challenged by the experience. I’m dedicated to always looking for new windows for my kids to peer out of, as their world gets just a little bit bigger page by page.