How You Felt When You Recognized Yourself in a Book for the First Time

Authors share the moment they first saw themselves in a character.

diverse books

When I was 10, I read It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume. Tears streamed down my face as I read. I was her. She was me. And it didn’t matter if the story wasn’t exactly the same. My parents’ divorce colored everything in my world and I’d never thought about it. Here was Karen, who didn’t even know me, telling me how I felt and she was right.

What is reading diversity?

Recently I read this article about kid’s needing diverse books on their summer reading list, and it really got me thinking. What do we mean when we say diverse books? Some people think only about race or culture, and surely those are a part of diversity. Others say gender identity or sexual orientation, and again those are a part of diversity. But, what about children who are homeschooled, whose parents divorce, who live in poverty, and even those who have happy two family homes? Aren’t they also diverse at this point?

When we say children need diverse books, aren’t we really saying that they need to see themselves in what they read?

Reading how Grace Lin, the author of many kid’s books like Ling and Ting and The Year of the Dog, felt about her first moment of recognition confirmed this for me. “One of my first Asian American “Ah ha!” moments came when reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior—the scene where she wonders why people think that Chinese American girls are nice and quiet, when Chinese women are so bossy and loud. Without a friend or a book to note the obvious, however, I had completely missed that contradiction that was right in front of me my whole life.”

That moment of recognition, an aha! moment for everyone

So I dug deeper, first asking the editors at WeAreTeachers if they remember their aha moment with a book. Many did and felt it was an incredibly personal moment. Here are some of the books they shared:

Then I asked some children’s book writers, and this is what they said:

Tamra Wight, the author of the Cooper and Packrat series, said “For me, it was Laura Ingalls Wilder, On The Banks of Plum Creek, although I loved all of Ms. Wilder’s books. I remember being fascinated by their living in a house made of sod (the nature geek in me wanted to try it). I was humbled by how happy Laura was to have real glass windows when her dad built them a house. I also think I gravitated toward her books because they had a great sense of a family who worked hard and played hard together, much like my own.”

Cynthia Lord, the author of many kid’s books like Rules and Shelter Pet Squad, explained, “Kit in The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. She was someone I really felt a kinship with. She was a bit impulsive and full of ideas that sometimes ran counter to and challenged her family. I felt that way at times too—a fish out of water. Not fully fitting into the conservative New England world that I was born into. And yet, I loved that world, too. I wanted to fit in and yet, I also wanted to be myself—which is Kit’s challenge, as well. Also, it was the first children’s book I read where I felt that the author was really trusting me to understand adult things. So it really was a pivotal book for me.”

Why Teachers Need Diverse Classroom Libraries

I first noticed the “aha moment” phenomenon and how much it matters to each and every person when I taught second grade. Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon had just come out. I put a copy of it on my four iPads using the Kindle app. One 7-year-old boy started reading it and suddenly shook uncontrollably with laughter. He was trying to explain a part and he couldn’t stop laughing enough to tell it. He insisted I call him Dory because he said he and Dory were so much alike. He changed significantly from that day forward. He looked for not only himself but his friends in books. “That’s just like Hannah,” he’d call out when I read a picture book about a girl who liked to collect small things.

Which brings me to the second reason we need diverse books—so that children can learn from other people’s experiences and not solely from their own. That is by definition the human experience. We are the only mammals who can learn from reading or hearing about other’s mistakes and successes.

When it comes to that aha moment of personal discovery, we can leave no stone unturned. It should be a right, not a luxury, for students to have access to that moment and to have the opportunity to experience the world through others’ eyes. We should be doing everything in our power to get as many diverse books as possible into their hands to make this happen. These books should be as different from each other as the differences between humans in the world.

The right book can be life-changing. What was your aha moment with a book? Please share in the comments.

Posted by Kimberley Moran

Kimberley is a Senior Editor at WeAreTeachers. She has 15 years of classroom teaching experience and a master's degree in literacy education.

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