Why children need to see themselves in books

Parents, teaching staff, donors and pupils in a happy mood after the launch of the new library targeting the foundation phase group.

“It broke my heart to hear my son ask whether black boys can also be heroes.” This is what a friend told me when I asked about his eight-year old’s reaction to the characters he sees in his books. If none of the heroes looked like him, the young, avid reader reasoned, then perhaps he could not be a hero. This all-too-common example demonstrates the power of children seeing themselves (or not) in children’s books.

A reasonable response to the problem of children not reading enough, especially in our under-resourced communities, is to channel as many books and reading materials to them as we can. But in doing so we need to consider carefully what lessons and messages we are feeding our children in these books. So many children’s books foster the very same social ills that we seek to eliminate in South Africa, such as violence and stereotypes around gender and race. It does not serve our society to be addressing one social ill, that of inadequate reading, while simultaneously propagating another.

There are at least three important social and pedagogical reasons to ensure that children see themselves in the books they read.

Firstly, it encourages a positive self-perception. When a child sees characters that look like them or speak like them, or live in environments like theirs, they begin to place themselves in those stories and form positive perceptions of themselves as they relate to the story’s message, which could involve beauty, strength, intelligence or other attributes.

For girls in particular, seeing how female characters are portrayed, and seeing themselves in those characters, can contribute to their perception of themselves as beautiful, strong, intelligent etc. It is validating to see a character that looks like you and shares your thoughts and experiences. And the converse can also be true; not seeing yourself represented in books may make you believe that only others possess these heroic or positive traits, or have these kinds of thoughts and experiences.

Secondly, representation in books contributes to how children see the world around them. Books are a window to the world. What a child sees through that window has a profound impact on how he or she perceives the world. It tells them what is important and what matters. Seeing themselves in story worlds helps children to establish themselves as people who matter and see their place in society. 

The first two reasons lead to a third, which relates to literacy and children’s development as readers. Seeing themselves in books helps children to build the vital skill of reading with comprehension and establishes an affinity with reading. The more children enjoy reading, and find meaning there, the more they will come back to books.

Sadly, in South Africa today, despite recent improvements, many children do not see themselves in the books that they read. Addressing this problem urgently requires that books representing our rich mix of languages and cultures be written, published and distributed. Parents, teachers, publishers and librarians should all work towards making a healthy range of books available to children. This will undoubtedly have a significant positive impact on our society as it will encourage children to read, advance their comprehension abilities, and contribute towards them developing a healthy self-perception and sense of belonging.  

Nal’ibali is calling all South African youth – and everyone with an interest in promoting literacy in their communities – to become reading role models by signing up to join its volunteer network, FUNda Leader. The platform provides specialised literacy training, access to multilingual stories, and invitations to events and activities. It also gives ongoing support and motivation to help meet young children where they are; dreaming about and creating better futures for themselves through books and stories.

Athol Williams is an award-winning South African poet and social philosopher.