Why Stop at Windows and Mirrors?: Children’s Book Prisms

It has been twenty-nine years since Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” was published. Speaking to the lack of children’s books with African American characters and themes, the essay called for books to act as windows and mirrors that would allow all children to see themselves and the experiences of others in what they read.

At the time, I was mostly home with my toddler son, collecting children’s books and feeling inspired to write. As an immigrant from India, I found myself searching for mirror books to share with my child. I discovered that representations of South Asia and South Asians in American children’s literature were not so much negative stereotypes as flat-out missing. What I found in the library was Rudyard Kipling. A genius, yes, but really? That was it? You’d think everyone from the subcontinent was long-ago, faraway, and dead. When a kind librarian handed me a copy of Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay, it felt like a custom-made sliding glass door, inviting me to enter the world of children’s books.

Nearly three decades later, those questions of whose stories get told and by and to whom have not gone away. If anything, windows and mirrors seem even more important now, at a time when vastly troubling questions are arising. Who “owns” public discourse? Whose America is this? Who can be considered American?

Bishop’s beautiful “glass” metaphors are central to the conversation about diversity in literature for young readers. Yet even as diversity and representation remain on the minds of publishers and writers, those metaphors bear revisiting. For example, applying the window image to Native American stories, educator Debbie Reese calls for a curtain: “Native communities resisted historical oppression and continue to preserve our culture by cultivating our ways in private spaces — behind the curtain. While Native people share some of our ways publicly in the present day, there is a great deal that we continue to protect from outsiders.”

A window lets you look into a space other than the one you occupy; but (as Reese implies) what does it do to me to be the object of your gaze? In contrast, a mirror reflects my own image back to me. If I can see myself in a text, that text is of interest to me; but why should someone unlike me care? Sliding glass doors allow us to enter a story, but the nature of our engagement with it remains undefined. Surely diverse texts, like glass, are capable of operating in complex ways. What if, in addition to mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, some books worked like prisms?

* * *

A prism can slow and bend the light that passes through it, splitting that light into its component colors. It can refract light in as many directions as the prism’s shape and surface planes allow. Similarly, books can disrupt and challenge ideas about diversity through multifaceted and intersecting identities, settings, cultural contexts, and histories. They can place diverse characters at these crucial intersections and give them the power to reframe their stories. Through the fictional world, they can make us question the assumptions and practices of our own real world.

The prism metaphor occurred to me when changing times made me rethink my own work in progress. When I began writing my middle-grade historical novel Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I saw it as a window text. The past, after all, was past. The events of the 1940s — internment camps, overt racial discrimination — weren’t, in my limited vision, likely to recur. But the book took long enough to write that, by the time it was published, the real world had changed. Detention camps for asylum-seekers. Children torn from their families. Truth itself held for ransom. My fictional window had turned into a prism. The past, far from being behind me, was circling back in ways I had not anticipated, forcing me — and readers — to see both sets of events in a newly meaningful light.

With this idea in mind of stories as capable of refracting light — and readers’ expectations — I began to search for books that operate as prisms. What the following examples have in common is this: they do not just represent the realities of diverse readers. Instead, they shed new light on the world for all readers.

Blurring Borders of Setting and Culture
Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic, 2018), the first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series, creates a prism by blurring the borders of setting and culture. The story begins in Parsippany, New Jersey, where reality is quickly altered by an invasion of rakkhosh. What, you might ask, is a rakkhosh? Here and in other instances, DasGupta cleverly sidesteps the need for translation and definitions by showing that demon in action, thereby rendering the question moot. Throughout the fast-paced narrative, the real and the fantastical are scrambled, carrying Kiran far from the place she’s always thought of as home. In the process, her identity is also up for grabs. Kiran’s parents are not, in fact, her birth parents, and the seemingly fanciful traditional Bengali tales they’d always told her — which she once saw as no more than cultural baggage — are coming terrifyingly true. The cultural particulars DasGupta employs are regionally specific, making the point that, contrary to common American representations of the Indian subcontinent, it isn’t one monocultural space. As Kiran is whisked into a world of flying horses and birds that speak in riddles, the reader, too, accepts the implausible and leaps across cultural borders to follow along. Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is.

Toppling Assumptions of “Familiar” and “Foreign”
Prismatic books can complicate identity in less-high-concept ways for younger readers. Consider the realistic early chapter book Juana and Lucas (Candlewick, 2016) by Juana Medina. The situating of young Juana in Bogotá, Colombia, along with futbol, Brussels sprouts, and abuelos, topples assumptions about home and away, “familiar” and “foreign.” Many children are likely to identify with the character’s experience of math as a challenge, but when “the English” takes Juana by surprise (“nada de fun!”), it’s an additional invitation to child readers to empathize, regardless of their backgrounds. The lighthearted text is funny and self-aware. Although it’s sprinkled with enough Spanish words to constitute a mini-language lesson, the absence of a glossary suggests, as in DasGupta’s novel, that translation is unnecessary when each word is made clear in context.

In the chapter book Anna Hibiscus (Kane Miller, 2010 [a 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book]) by Atinuke, young Anna lives in an unnamed country in Africa “with her mother, who is from Canada; her father, who is from Africa; her grandmother and her grandfather; her aunties and uncles; lots and lots of cousins; and her twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble.” Race is not mentioned in the text and only manifests itself in Lauren Tobia’s cheerful illustrations. Refreshingly, Anna is not, as one might assume her to be, an outsider to two cultures. Rather, she is an insider to both. Her adult allies may disagree profoundly on essential truths of the world — whether a dog can be a friend, for example, or what constitutes a proper African name — but they all love Anna. Families, the series suggests, are eccentric and wonderful and not easily defined.

Breaking Stereotypes
Stacey Lee’s young adult novel Outrun the Moon (Putnam, 2017) works by redirecting the light of history, with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 rocking not just the city but fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong’s world. In a way, a parallel quake of sorts has been building up in the character herself. The daughter of immigrants, Mercy is fueled by her ambition, nerve, and growing understanding of the power centers beyond her immediate experience. Lee has said she created this character to bust the stereotypes of Chinese girls as obedient, quiet, and passive. Her story runs counter to dominant narratives of history in which people of color played roles of subservience. Born in Oakland, Mercy longs to be recognized as American, yet she is keenly aware that most people in the city beyond Chinatown do not see her that way. By focusing readers’ attention on history via a character of color, the novel reveals ethnic divides and interdependence, as well as the deeply racist order that sustains the wider economic and social fabric of the white world. In the process, it raises questions of how society treats outsiders today and who is deemed to belong.

Who Is American?
On the surface, American Street (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2017) by Ibi Zoboi is a story of arrival in the United States — a mirror text for teenage readers from immigrant families, a window upon that experience for those outside of it. But from the start, Zoboi questions what it means to be American, challenging the notion of immigrant identity as singular and aspirational. With her mother detained at the airport, likely to be deported back to Haiti, Fabiola arrives at her aunt’s house in Detroit. Her cousins have reinvented themselves as “American girls,” but where does that leave Fabiola?

In an author’s note Zoboi writes: “Through Fabiola’s eyes, her new world and the people who inhabit it are just as complex and magical as her beloved saints and lwas. She infuses Vodou into everything that happens to her. This is the source of her courage and I think she is more American because of it — this merging of traditions, this blending of cultures from one broken place to another.” That synergy is manifest in the character of Papa Legba, ostensibly just an old guy with a bad leg, victim to casual street violence, but in Fabiola’s eyes he is a sacred figure. Zoboi sets out to unsettle easy binaries — e.g., the new home versus the old, American versus Haitian. In fact, American Street shifts the trope of becoming American from such predictable dualities to the re-creation of self after a person has been transplanted. Its prism effect lies in focusing the story’s light on a marginalized girl, whose viewpoint splinters the Detroit cityscape into something at once frighteningly unknown and magical.

The Future Illuminates the Present
Joseph Bruchac’s 2013 YA novel Killer of Enemies (along with its sequels Trail of the Dead, 2015; Arrow of Lightning, 2017; and prequel novella Rose Eagle, 2014; all Tu/Lee & Low) employs the future to illuminate the present. Bruchac upholds a long tradition of dystopian fiction writers extrapolating the sociopolitical trends and realities of their times into terrifying futures. Simultaneously, within what has long been a Eurocentric genre, he places an Apache main character and gives her the power to gain real agency in a world where much of humankind has perished and a mysterious cosmic force has neutralized technology. Lozen is an enigma — armed to the teeth; a near-future descendent of Chiricahua ancestors; a virtual prisoner forced to kill; a daughter; a sister. The character herself is imperfect but she is energized from within. Named for a warrior woman of the Chiricahuas, heir to a people wounded by history, she nonetheless carries an indigenous sensibility, humor, and a worldview learned in part from ancestral stories. But Bruchac is playing with our shared contemporary reality as well. It is no coincidence that the life partner Lozen chooses — Hussein, who sings in Arabic in his prison cell each morning — brings his own yearnings and dreams to their joint pursuit of justice. Allies encountered along the way add to the prism effect. The Sasquatch character Hally exhibits djinn-like qualities, appearing and disappearing whimsically. The bibliophilic Dreamer channels European literature and culture into a common human history, locating their elements among many others. In creating this damaged future, Bruchac questions the accepted narratives of our own past, narratives that have long placed colonized people on the margins.

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Each of the examples above disrupts our view of how things work in the present, or how they played out in the past. They laugh at our follies and expose our weaknesses, whether we come to these books as insiders or outsiders. They make us reconsider whose history we know and whose we have ignored. They may idealize or distort the world of today, fix its wrongs, right its injustices. But they all play with light and shadow, known and unknown, strange and familiar. They invite young readers and those of us who care about them to take another look through the window of a book, to question what it is that the mirror reveals.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Uma Krishnaswami
Uma Krishnaswami
Uma Krishnaswami’s novel Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Tu/Lee & Low) won the 2018 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature in the children’s literature category. She teaches writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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