The Power of Children’s Literature

Any­one who has ever read to or with a child—parent, fam­ily mem­ber, teacher or friend—knows books leave last­ing impres­sions. Beyond the edu­ca­tional ben­e­fits, books have the power to instill empa­thy, affirm, teach, trans­port and inspire action. Books matter.

Empa­thy
In expos­ing chil­dren to other people’s sto­ries and the moti­va­tions and feel­ings behind those nar­ra­tives, chil­dren begin to con­nect with oth­ers on an emo­tional level, which is the foun­da­tion for bridg­ing dif­fer­ences between worlds. Books have the power to fos­ter empa­thy and under­stand­ing of other peo­ple and cul­tures–their hopes and dreams, their joys and sor­rows, their sto­ries and reflec­tions. Empa­thy is the ground­work for under­stand­ing peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from one­self. Books open those doors for chil­dren to other places and experiences.

Self-Reflection
Par­ents and edu­ca­tors know that one of the most impor­tant things books do for chil­dren is affirm who they are. Com­monly referred to as “mir­ror” books, they con­tain reflec­tions of the children—their cul­ture, fam­ily, race, reli­gion, etc.—and enable them to see them­selves por­trayed with accu­racy, depth and com­plex­ity. As Charles Blow, a writer and op-ed colum­nist for the New York Times shared about books, “They helped me to see myself and love myself when I felt least seen and least loved. They saved me.”  Through books, chil­dren should be able to see them­selves take on endeavors–both ordi­nary and extra­or­di­nary.  Pos­i­tive iden­tity devel­op­ment is cru­cial dur­ing child­hood and when chil­dren don’t see them­selves in books and else­where, they feel deval­ued and less optimistic.

Unfor­tu­nately, there is often a lack of diver­sity in children’s books.  Although chil­dren of color make up about 40% of the pop­u­la­tion, recent sta­tis­tics show that the num­ber of children’s books fea­tur­ing peo­ple of color has been hov­er­ing around 10% for the past sev­eral years. Other types of diversity—including abil­ity, socioe­co­nomic sta­tus and LGBT peo­ple and families—are also lack­ing. There has been an acknowl­edg­ment of this prob­lem and an out­cry in the edu­ca­tion and lit­er­a­ture worlds to address it. A recent New York Times arti­cle asked, “Where are the peo­ple of color in children’s books?”  The con­cept of “We Need Diverse Books” quickly evolved from a hash­tag to an orga­ni­za­tion, and in 2015, the John New­bury Medal win­ning children’s books all fea­tured an aspect of diver­sity. There is grow­ing aware­ness but change is slow.

Teach and Trans­port
“Win­dow” books have the power to teach chil­dren about aspects of life for which they are unfa­mil­iar. They can shed light on peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent in a myr­iad of ways– reli­gion, fam­ily struc­ture, abil­ity, race or coun­try of ori­gin.  In small and big ways, books can illu­mi­nate dif­fer­ences between peo­ple and reveal how bias is some­times caused by mis­un­der­stand­ing. Poignant words and illus­tra­tions trans­port chil­dren into new realms and expe­ri­ences. Through books, they may learn about some­one who is deaf or autis­tic. They can gain famil­iar­ity with the expe­ri­ences of immi­grants from other coun­tries or those who have fam­ily con­stel­la­tions dif­fer­ent from their own. They may learn about dif­fer­ent cul­tures and their hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions.  Help­ing chil­dren gain com­fort with dif­fer­ences has last­ing benefits.

Action
When chil­dren are faced with bias and bul­ly­ing, it can be dif­fi­cult for them to know what to do. Books can help and they often res­onate with chil­dren in ways noth­ing else does. As young peo­ple look for strate­gies to deal with teas­ing and bul­ly­ing, they can also dis­cover books that help them learn how to be an ally. Sto­ries about peo­ple who stand up to prej­u­dice and injus­tice can inspire chil­dren to see them­selves in oth­ers who have fought for jus­tice, espe­cially child and youth activists.

Whether it’s a nine­teenth cen­tury suf­fragette, a Holo­caust resister or a Nobel prize win­ning Pak­istani girl fight­ing for girls’ edu­ca­tion, through books we can teach chil­dren about the world out­side them­selves, the his­tory of injus­tice and how they can make a difference.

This guest blog was shared by, the Anti-Defamation League. You can learn more about their great work here.