• Vanessa Harbour

In difficult times, children’s books provide an important source of hope and escape. This paper will discuss how children’s books can provide mirrors and windows on the world for readers: where they can see characters just like them or walk in the shoes of others. This idea is developed by using the prism as a way of exploring the expansion of knowledge through reading.

Stories are a vital part of the life of children and childhood. It’s the place where the sense of life is explored. Roni Natov (2006: 262) writes that, ‘In its broadest sense ... the literature of childhood represents a challenge to the world ... in its varied imagined landscapes [it] suggests an inclusive society in which children can find a safe and creative way to live’. But what we can’t assume here is the idea that somehow ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ are so easily identified. As Danaher, Schirato and Webb write (2000: 78):

categories such as ‘childhood’ were generally understood as being stable (‘everybody knows what a child is’), in reality they were subject to transformation and revision as new forms of knowledge were developed … the ‘truth’ of childhood (and doubtless the same applies to categories such as adolescence and youth) can be understood as both stable and unproblematic, on the one hand (‘the truth of childhood is the sum of those knowledges that take it as their object’) and, more problematically, as a site of discursive and institutional ‘battles’ (and therefore lacking in final authorisation, not the truth but a set of ‘truths’) … while we all think we know what a child or an adolescent is, in fact these categories have histories … and are always in the process of being transformed.

What is clear though is that the literature Natov refers to is a crucial source for addressing the challenges this throws up. As Adam Phillips concurs, ‘Adults can nurture children … but they do not have the answers … what they can do is tell children stories about the connections’ (Phillips 1995: 1–2). Therefore storytelling is a crucial element of their own identity and their own idea of being, because childhood is temporary and because it is always changing. But while this idea of constant transformation is persuasive and enduring, what is also clear is that cognitive development is children is experience-dependent. As Goswami (2008: 1–2) writes, ‘It is now recognised that children think and reason in the same way as adults from early childhood’. Children are less efficient reasoners than adults, of course, but this is simply because adults have more had more experiences, and this is where storytelling comes in. Stories help make the connections through their vicarious capability. As a writer of stories then, I want to say what this means for me when I am thinking about the practical delivery of stories for children.

Stories are a vital part of life. We all tell stories: explaining to our loved ones what sort of day we’ve had; retelling that funny event that happened on the way to school or to work. For children they can be much more than everyday life. Stories are a way to understand the world they live in. This is particularly important when they are dealing with difficult themes, as children’s authors consistently argue. Philip Pullman, in his Carnegie Medal Award winning speech, suggested that, ‘There are some themes, some subjects too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in children’s books … stories are vital’ (2006).

Young adult fiction author Holly Bourne reiterated this, speaking to journalist Anna Leszkiewicz about YA fiction, and her view that it is ‘the ability to speak frankly to audiences about complex real-world issues that makes a YA story a success’ (Leszkiewicz 2018). ‘Stories really can change the world’, Bourne notes, and it is vital, then, that writers not shy away from ‘complex real-life’ themes, as many children face difficulties on a daily basis: difficulties ranging from bullying to abuse, to the complex issues of relationships, poverty, displacement, and more. A book provides a reader a place to escape, and an opportunity for them to ask questions. This might be questions for others or questions for themselves; particularly important when they are searching for an identity. Books can provide them with a source of hope. But notably, and as Philip Pullman again suggests, no book should be a list ‘of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts; we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but once upon a time lasts forever’ (2013). 

I am sure many people can remember books they read as children, books that had a major impact. Stories grab the imagination, and can provide a place for escape, solace and hope. At times when there is a rise in prejudice—a 29% rise in hate crime in the UK (O’Neill 2017)—and poverty—30% of children are currently living in poverty in the UK (Barnard 2018: 7), stories have become even more important for young readers.

It is vital, too, to ensure that stories remain accessible to everyone. During periods of austerity and cuts in the UK, as at the present, there is constant pressure to ensure books are still made available to children. Activities such as the #Bookbuddy scheme set up by the author Maz Evans, where authors supply books to schools that have been hit by cuts, have proved to be popular. There is also a drive to keep public and school libraries open, led by Michael Rosen, SF Said, Chris Riddell, and Phillip Pullman, all of whom understand the importance of story. In an essay on the importance of libraries, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell (2018), Gaiman writes, ‘Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, about entertainment, about making safe spaces and about access to information’ (Gaiman 2018). They are also a place for children who may not have access to books at home to explore a world of stories. This is particularly necessary for the one in eight disadvantaged children who have no books at home (National Literacy Trust 2017).

Roald Dahl neatly summed up the importance of stories in Matilda, where the narrator describes Matilda sitting alone and reading: ‘The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives’ (Dahl 2016: 18). Stories give readers an opportunity to explore different lives through vicarious experiences. But because we live in a culture where information moves fast and is freely accessible, children may access material unsuitable for their age group; say, by watching the news or hearing it on the radio. Consequently, they may become aware of issues before they can truly comprehend them; or, as McCaw and Melrose (2007) suggest, they may try to understand them but cannot yet articulate them in any meaningful way. This is where books can prove so significant. Maria Nikolajeva suggests that ‘novice readers have limited life experience of emotions; therefore, fiction can offer vicarious emotional experience for readers to partake of, long before they may be exposed to it in real life’ (2014: 79). Writers can mediate between awareness and understanding by using knowledge and ‘authenticity’ accessed via characters and the vicarious experience of the narrative, thereby creating further empathy because ‘fiction allows us, through various narrative devices, to enter other people’s minds’ (Nikolajeva 2014: 81). As a children’s writer I can only hope any story I write will be one that children can escape into, and explore.

A vicarious experience, Nikolajeva writes, is where ‘our brains can simulate responses to fictional emotions just as if they were real’ (2014: 79). Children’s books and, in particular, young adult fiction, provide opportunities for readers to develop understanding of how to deal with issues through this protected vicarious experience. It is the product of an interaction between reader, character and text. Tony Bennett writes, of such interaction, that it:

would be conceived of as occurring between the culturally activated text and the culturally activated reader, an interaction structured by the material, social, ideological, and institutional relationships in which both text and readers are inescapably inscribed all of which are culturally activated as they are written and read. (Bennett 1983: 3–17)

All of this can guide authors as they construct their characters, bearing in mind that, as John Yorke suggests, it is the main character with whom the reader is most likely to identify and empathise, through whom the reader will experience the story, vicariously. What this means is that when the main character is in jeopardy, readers feel they too are in jeopardy; when the character is feeling ecstatic, so too does the reader (Yorke 2013: 3).

Stories can encourage empathy as they help us understand each other better, to become aware of the feelings and emotions of others. As former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell writes, ‘Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine’ (2017). Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence, and part of helping children to appreciate others. Writers are trained to create fully rounded characters and that includes emotional depth: even the ‘baddies’ in a story should be making decisions that are right for them, emotionally, at that particular moment.

Educator Edith Cobb argued, based on her early research, that ‘what a child wanted to do most of all was to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self’ (in Sobel 2002: 81). But this is not straightforward: a recent National Trust survey found that the current generation of children play outside for only half the time their parents did (Press Association 2016). In a world where the places children can play have been reduced due to perceived safety issues or lack of physical space, or where they are just too busy with extracurricular activities to play outside, escaping into a story might offer similar opportunities.

A further question about identity formation in children’s fiction is that of diversity. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (Serroukh 2018) recently noted that only one per cent of children’s books have a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority-Ethnic) main character. Given that thirty-two per cent of school-age children are classified as BAME, there are many children wo cannot see themselves represented in stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘The danger of the single story’ (2009), offers a compelling argument, based on her own experience, for why diversity in children’s stories is so important. As a child, living in Nigeria, she could access only a limited range of books: ‘I was an early reader’, she says, ‘and what I read were British and American children’s books’. So when she started writing her own stories as a small child, ‘I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples’. She had been convinced that stories could not feature characters like her, living in her culture, until when she came across ‘writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature’.

This is not unusual; authors frequently report that when they visit schools, they encounter similar perceptions, and find children who come from diverse cultural backgrounds writing stories with characters who bear conventional English names. Not all writers find this a problem though: during her keynote address, ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, novelist Lionel Shriver stated, ‘I am hopeful that the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’ (2016). Several audience members walked out at this stage, and a public debate ensued, both in person and across the media (Wyndham 2016). It is an argument that remains unsettled, though it is an important issue. Librarian Dawn Finch made this explicit, when she ‘tweeted’:

When I read things from people like Shriver banging on about the perceived ‘dangers’ of diversity in books, I remember the kids I worked with who changed their own names in their stories for white ones because ‘brown kids aren’t heroes or princesses’. I wept every damn time. (Finch 2018)

One way to address this is to provide them with more books whose characters are like them. But given that only nine YA novels written by British people of colour were published in 2018 (see Lawrence 2018), it is vital to encourage BAME people to become authors, not only to tell the stories, but also to help children aspire to become writers themselves.  

Readers are looking for characters who are like them and, just as important, who are not like them; this is particularly important for young adults who are searching for an identity, and trying to work out both who they are and who they are not. The call to address diversity (or inclusivity) is not simply directed toward BAME communities; the Everybody In charter of the Inclusive Minds collective (established 2015), which aims ‘to help all those involved in the book world to move forward in making books more inclusive’ (‘Everybody In’ n.d.) define diversity as encompassing ‘race and heritage, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion, and culture’ (‘Everybody In’ n.d.).

Inclusive Minds have also set up a scheme of Inclusion Ambassadors—(mostly) young people, whose aim is to support authors and publishers who want to achieve better representation of any aspect of diversity in their books (Inclusive Minds n.d.). Such programs are an important feature of the publishing world, which is marked by quarrels between those who reject cultural appropriation, and those who, like Lionel Shriver, argue they have a right to write any story they want.

Stories are both windows and mirrors. They are windows insofar as they offer readers an opportunity to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’; they are mirrors where they offer readers an opportunity to see themselves: another important element of inclusivity. As Karen Armstrong writes, ‘a novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest’ (Armstrong 2005: 149).

Books and stories are not just windows and mirrors though; they also operate as prisms. A prism, of course, is a transparent body, often a polyhedron made of glass, which can refract a light into a rainbow. Following this analogy, a child coming to a book, and bringing their own, albeit restricted knowledge and understanding, is the single bright light approaching the prism; the book is the prism; and, like the rainbow of light refracted through a prism, the child’s light of knowledge expands and ‘refracts’ as they gain and extend empathy, knowledge and understanding. This can happen every time they read something new; and it is not confined to fiction. I think of poetry, like Joseph Coelho’s collection Overheard in a Tower Block (2017); or Sarah Crossan’s Carnegie Medal winning verse novel One (2016), based on the story of a conjoined twin. Nonfiction books too can offer prismatic moments—giving boys insights into how men may make a difference in everyday life, like Ben Brooks’ Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different (2018), or tales of extraordinary women, like Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2017). The important fact is that they are reading and therefore we need to encourage them to read more. Making a range of texts available to them. It is all about creating stories for the multitude of children out there, so they can find their own prisms with rainbows of knowledge, understanding and empathy in. Thereby helping that rainbow to grow and deepen.

Books show that the world can be a better place and that the reader can make it so: as Neil Gaiman puts it, when discussing reading: ‘You’re finding something out as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different’ (2018).


Works cited: 

‘Everybody In’ Charter, Inclusive Minds collective (accessed September 2018)

Adichie, CN 2009 ‘The danger of a single story’, TED Global (July), (accessed June 2018)

Armstrong, K 2005 A Short History of Myth, Edinburgh: Canongate Books

Barnard, Helen 2018 ‘UK Poverty 2018’ report (4 December), Joseph Rowntree Foundation (accessed 10 June 2018)

Bennett, T 1983 ‘Text, readers, reading formation’, The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 16.1 (Spring): 3–17

Brooks, B 2018 Stories for Boys Who Dare To Be Different, London: Querus

Coehlo, J 2017 Overheard in a Tower Block: Poems, London: Otter-Barry Books

Crossan, S 2016 One, London: Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Dahl, R 2016 Matilda, London: Puffin

Danaher G, T Schirato & J Webb 2000 Understanding Foucault, London: Sage

Favilli, E and F Cavallo 2017 Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, London: Penguin

Finch D 2018 Tweet 9/6/18 12:48 @dawnafinch

Gaiman N and C Riddell 2018 ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’, The Guardian 7 September (accessed September 2018)

Goswami, U 2008 Byron Review on the Impact of New Technologies on Children: A Research Literature Review: Child Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Inclusive Minds collective n.d. ‘Inclusion Ambassadors’ (accessed September 2018)

Lawrence, P 2018 ‘Indigo glowThe Lawrence Line blog (2 March) (accessed September 2018)

Leszkiewicz A (2018) ‘The kids aren’t alright: Is the YA movie boom over?The Guardian (21 August) (accessed September 2018)

McCaw, N & A Melrose 2007 ‘Crabs (and stories) walking sideways: Life beyond the death of the story’, in M Butt (ed), Story: The Heart of the Matter, London: Greenwich Exchange, 17–32

National Literacy Trust 2017 ‘1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don’t own a single book’ (6 December) (accessed September 2018)

Natov, R 2006 The Poetics of Childhood, Abingdon: Routledge

Nikolajeva M 2014 Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature, Philadephia: John Benjamins

O’Neill, A 2017 ‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2016–17, Statistical Bulletin 17/17’ (17 October), Home Office (accessed June 2018)

Phillips, Adam 1995 Terrors and Experts, London: Faber and Faber

Press Association 2016 ‘Children only spend half as much time playing outside than their parents did’, The Guardian (27 July) (accessed September 2018)

Pullman, Philip 2006 ‘Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech’, in His Dark Materials, Random House, accessed 19 January 2007

Riddell, C 2017 ‘Reading allows us …’, in ‘Empathy and stories’, EmpathyLab (accessed 16 June 2018)

Serroukh, Farrah 2018 ‘Reflecting Realities—A Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017’, Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

Shriver, L 2016 ‘Lionel Shriver’s full speech: “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad”’, The Guardian (13 September) (accessed September 2018)

Sobel, D 2002 Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Homes in Middle Childhood, Detroit: Wayne State University

Wyndham, S 2016 ‘We need to talk about Lionel’, The Guardian (14 September)

Yorke J 2013 Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, London: Penguin