On facebook Sharyn November posed the following three-part question:
- When you were a child, did you see yourself in the books you looked at and read? How about when you were a teenager?
- What, in your opinion, does “seeing yourself in books” mean?
- If you didn’t see yourself in books, did you want to?
I think about this all the time in terms of the diversity conversation. First of all, as a child, I had one major way I could see myself in pretty much all the books I read — by being white. So I want to start by noting that privilege I had as a child reader. And certainly the books I read were pretty much all featuring white protagonists. So while they may have seemed very different from me (more on that below) we shared that whiteness and all that afforded. But in other ways, the child-me almost never saw herself in the books she read, nor did she want to especially.
Here’s my response to Sharyn’s question:
I moved constantly as a child (faculty brat), was shy, and my family always seemed way outside the norm of the various communities we lived in — often small towns where everyone else seemed to have lived there for generations. I always thought of the kids I knew there as “having been born in the house they lived in”. (My parents were German refugees with strong accents, didn’t do religion of any kind, and we were living mostly in the south and midwest where none of the kids I knew had parents like that. Or we lived in Germany. First time went to a German school not knowing the language so major outsider status. Second time went to a Defense Department School where all the kids lived in what was called “The Golden Ghetto” — Bonn’s American embassy community — and hated the Germans. My family, on the other hand, lived in German communities and had German friends. So always way outside the dominant community.) Alone and with my younger sister we were constantly creating imaginary experiences for ourselves in our games — running away, living in what we thought were more conventional families, fantasy lands, rich (we weren’t), etc. Often based on stories we read — going to Neverland, Oz, or Wonderland. And so, seeing myself in books would have meant outsiders exactly like us. As a child my favorite books were the Alice books and I loved to imagine myself as Alice in those fantasy lands. At around eleven I fell madly in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young as the outsider main character was a lot like me personality-wise and got to go to boarding school something I was dying to do. Around then I also saw myself a bit as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, probably partly because of her personality and partly because of her outsider academic/scientist parents — closer to my own family than others I’d come across in books.
But just as I could immerse myself in one of the imaginary worlds my sister and I created (some with toys and some just talking), so I did in the books I read. As a child, my favorites were those where I did find the main character to be an avatar, one I could be too. And so I read imagining myself that character. Generally they were the sort of people I wanted to be rather than who I was — not so shy, active, etc. (I totally remember feeling I was absolutely IN Looking-glass land everything I read that book.) Loved Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames as I would have loved to be them though they were nothing like me. I can’t recall running across books with families like mine and suspect I wouldn’t have like them particularly as I wanted to be in somewhere new and different from that. That is, the last thing I wanted is to be reminded of my real life — I wanted to be enveloped in a different one. As for books with situations like mine — not sure I would have liked it particularly in a book because it probably wouldn’t get it right (German refugee agnostic lefty parents?).
Having come from a sort of German-Jewish family that is rare in the US, I have always chaffed at being stereotyped as a more conventional Jew. And so books of that sort did and do little for me in terms of seeing myself in them. And knowing this I keep in mind that this many well be true for some of my students. They read for so many different reasons — some to see themselves, some to see others, and some to become something different from themselves.