Children Must See Themselves Reflected in Books

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Emily Style coined the phrase “mirror books” and “window books” in children’s literature. She described mirror books as books where children can see characters who reflected them. Characters who not only looked like them but also had similar cultures and values. On the other hand, she described window books as books where children can see other lives and the world at large. A children’s library should have a healthy balance of both types of books for them to build a stronger sense of who they are as well as understand others who might be different than them.

In the UAE, we take pride in being a tolerant nation. We boast a country that has more than 200 nationalities within its society all of whom share a sense of inclusion and feelings of acceptance towards the other. There are many initiatives that the UAE has taken in its efforts to serve as a bridge of tolerance between different cultures. In my opinion, this starts with teaching our children, both citizens and residents, not only to learn about the ‘other” but to befriend them to help them experience firsthand that there is power in diversity. Window books help us achieve that as they introduce children to others who might differ from them in race, religion, and lifestyle. Indeed, libraries in the UAE resources are stacked with books from every corner of the earth, bringing a global outlook to our young readers.

At Al Rawy Publishing, we have focused our efforts to close the gap on mirror books in the UAE. Our books bring to life relatable characters who speak to the children living in the region, teaching and reminding them of both our proud history and cultural identity. Since I published my first book collection, I have had many enlightening experiences as I interacted with children, parents, and teachers across the UAE. There are too many stories to tell, but for this blog, I will focus on three encounters that still resonate with me to this day.

  1. The excited girl who finally saw her brother in a book…

I will never forget the time an excited 6-year old girl asked me to autograph a book for her and when I asked why selected that book in particular, her eyes lit up and her smiled widened as she exclaimed “I like it because Saif looks like my brother”. More than three years later and I still remember how powerful that girl’s response was and how much of an impact it had on me. As a strong believer in the power of representation, I am glad that this girl was able to relate with one of my characters.

  1. When all Superheroes look different than you, can you become your own superhero?

I also remember an exercise I did in a school visit with a group of third graders. I had asked them to create superheroes from their imagination who could have any superpower they wished. None of the characters they came up with looked anything like them. When I asked them why none of the superheroes looked similar to anyone they knew in their class or their families; they looked at me and said as a matter of fact “because the heroes always look different than us”. I asked why the hero couldn’t simply be one of them and nervous laughter followed. My heart ached but the discussion led us to other constructive topics about confidence and self-esteem. Nonetheless, I like to think that our discussion made them think harder about the possibility of being their own hero, the protagonist in their story.

  1. The Full Circle Moment when “Mirrors” Become “Windows”

Last but not least, I remember a lady asking me to autograph more than a dozen copies of “The Camel and the Drone”. We chatted as I was signing and I asked her who the books were intended for. I expected that she was a teacher or a school librarian. She told me that she was neither, she was an expatriate living in the UAE who was planning to go back to her home country for Christmas, and she wanted to give the books as presents to children in her family who have never visited the UAE. I remember how humbled I felt that she picked my books to give to her family back home. More importantly, I remember how proud I felt to know that I played a part, no matter how small, in helping export the rich UAE culture to families abroad. It was at that moment that I realized I had come full circle, my books will serve as window books for children in other countries, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Share with us your favorite window and mirror books.

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