Whenever I give a presentation, I cite Rudine Sims Bishop’s argument that children’s books should serve as a mirror, a window, and a sliding glass door. Students are quick to answer when I ask them to explain the difference between a mirror and a window: the former shows you your reflection, and the latter lets you see inside or outside (though in the right light, a window can also function as a mirror). We talk about walking down the street in Brooklyn at night, and looking into the windows of people who forgot to draw their blinds; the kids titter as I prod them to consider what they could do if there was a sliding glass door. As audacious as it seems, if you’re welcomed into someone’s home, you could eat and play and talk with that person instead of simply observing her or him. These days I add a little bit more, especially if I’m speaking to a group of adults. Peering through a window is voyeurism; the glass protects the watcher and those being watched, I suppose, though a voyeur violates others by observing them without consent. That’s why the sliding glass door metaphor is so important—a good book (taught the right way) should encourage and enable the reader to enter and engage in the world of its characters. The question is, how many readers accept that invitation and how many prefer to stand in the shadows with their faces pressed up against the glass? This brings to mind Jacqueline Woodson’s Horn Book essay, “Who Can Tell My Story,” about breaking bread and sitting at the table with someone different in order to fully appreciate the complexity of another culture:
While I am not Jewish, my partner is, and we observe and respect each other’s religious beliefs and plan to raise our children with our two sets of religious values. In this way
I have stepped inside the house of my partner’s experience. It is not my house, nor will it ever be, but there are elements of it we share. (my emphasis)
When I speak to educators, I now try to offer ways in which they can encourage young readers to participate in the lives of my characters. Instead of withdrawing from aspects of the narrative that seem “too different,” ask students to consider how they felt when someone they loved went away. Ask them to name a skill they were taught by an elder or friend. Ask them to think of a threshold they crossed—a pivotal moment of transition; which aspects of your personality stayed the same, and which aspects changed? Read a book as though you’re willing to be transformed by the experience.
Speaking of Jacqueline Woodson, her dramatic adaptation of Peace, Locomotion will debut at the Kennedy Center. Check out her article at The Huffington Post on how poetry opened up a world of possibilities for her.
Next, stop by Chasing Ray to hear what the panelists have to say about silence and rage—what made YOU want to scream when you were a teen?