Having created 70+ personalised books (and counting!), we know the power of helping a child to see themself in the world of books – and the long-lasting impact of children’s books with representation. In fact, we believe so strongly in representation in children’s books that we commissioned our own research in partnership with OnePoll to report on it.
We asked 1,000 little readers aged 6 to 12 – and their parents – what they thought about children’s books with diverse representation, and more than a third don’t currently feel represented due to their gender or ethnicity. But that’s just scratching the surface. Read on to see why what we read can drastically impact what we do, and who we are.
Creating windows and mirrors
Let’s start off with some interesting facts, shall we? Big thinker – or ‘Relational Scholar’ to be precise – Emily Style first published her ‘windows and mirrors’ take on the curriculum in 1988, and it couldn’t be more appropriate today. In recent years, the term has become widely used by educators when discussing children’s books, and it essentially means that reading offers windows into other’s lives, while mirrors reflect your own. And it is thought that only through a balance of the two that engagement can really take hold.
This, of course, makes perfect sense. How often did you feel a bond with a character that shared either visible or interested-related similarities to yourself when you were younger? Be it your family make-up, ethnicity, love of horses or whether you both wore glasses or not. Just like choosing friends, oftentimes we seek validation from our stories, too. We want to be told we’re not alone, that we can lead exciting lives, and ultimately, get our own happy endings.
In our own research, we found that of the 50% of girls who don’t feel represented in the books they read, 39% thought lead roles in stories always seemed to be boys. While only 13% of parents see minority races represented in the books their children read. This is just one of the reasons why we chose to make our books entirely personalised. We also learned from the children we spoke to that nearly three-quarters read regularly but noticed that characters often look the same and don’t always represent different views, which is something that needs to be addressed really quickly.
How reading shapes perceptions
Reading doesn’t just alter how you feel about yourself, but also how you feel about everyone else, too. It is vital for everyone, yes everyone, to be exposed to all different kinds of books and stories, in order to grow into the most open, compassionate, and insightful people they can be.
In response to our survey, Asi Sharabi, Co-Founder of Wonderbly, underlined the value of finding books with diverse representation: “Books are a way to educate your child on an infinite number of topics and themes that shape how they view the world.” And quite simply, the more that children understand and appreciate that everyone is different and that there is no such thing as ‘normal’, the better future generations will be. If we don’t fill these knowledge gaps with positive tales of diversity, then they will likely be filled unconsciously by indiscriminate outside sources, such as stereotype-driven hearsay and media.
With this in mind, we took our research beyond the world of books, as parents recognize the importance of representation in all aspects of a child’s life. Three-quarters of parents believe it’s important for kids to see themselves in the content they consume including books, movies and TV. While 44% of children would like to see more people like them in movies and 44% want to see more representation in TV shows. When it comes to the characters that star in these shows over a third (36%) of children said they have never seen a character they relate to on television, while over half have asked their parents to buy books with personalities that speak, look or act like them.
Why more really is more
Quite simply, the more children see themselves represented in the books that they read, the more books they will read. This is something that 62% of parents believed when we asked them. While 61% stated that a lack of representation when it came to race and gender had put them off reading altogether. Which is logical, as if you don’t see yourself or your circumstances mirrored back at you in the stories you seek out, then it is entirely possible that you would think that they’re not for you. In the same way children’s books and grown-up books cover different things, the same principle applies.
In fact, our research conclusively found that in order to engage a child in reading they need to feel they can relate to either the story or characters. While parents were very aware of this when it comes to the books and content they choose, they found there were lots of character traits children didn’t see in their books.
The 20 most common traits highlighted as missing from children’s books were
- Being transgender
- A physical disability
- Skin conditions
- Female or non-binary/alternative gender identity
- Having same-sex parents
- Having lost a parent
- Having dyslexia
- Being significantly under/above average height
- Non-heterosexual sexuality
- Religious beliefs
- Living in a flat
- Minority race
- Having divorced parents
- Wearing glasses
- Not having a brother or sister
- Non-native nationality
- Wearing braces
- Uncommon hair colour
A way to explore feelings
As children grow, so do their brains – at an astonishing rate. And with this, come a lot of thoughts and feelings. We know that historically, this was an element of parenting and development that was overlooked, but now, learning to be emotionally communicative is recognised as one of the key steps in becoming a happy and healthy grown-up. And, surprise surprise, representation in children’s books plays a big part.
If you think that a lot of the emotions that children experience are new to them, then it makes sense that a degree of reassurance and normalisation is needed. Whether it’s loneliness, starting school, dealing with new family dynamics, or even grief, when a child sees a character similar to themself in the same circumstances to them, they can then relate more to the story. It can help them understand the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others, as well as provide validation for their own feelings.
Empowering future heroes
Children needing and wanting to see themselves in the lead role of a book is about more than status. It’s about eliminating limits and maximising dreams and ambitions. As Wonderbly Co-Founder Asi Sharabi explains: “When children see themselves as the hero of a story, it helps them believe that they can do anything they can imagine; that any story they imagine could be their story.”
The power of seeing yourself in a book was also widely acknowledged by parents, with almost half believing that seeing characters like themselves in books enables children to feel they can achieve anything. Though 38% admitted it was difficult to find books that do represent their children.
At Wonderbly, we know that personalisation helps children relate to the storylines and makes children more receptive to the key messages of each tale. Asi continues: “We want as many children as possible to see themselves in their own story. When you create a Wonderbly book online, you choose from a range of skin tones, hairstyles, and colours to bring your child’s character to life.” With the insight from this survey, we’ll be working hard to make sure our personalised books continue to reflect the experiences of all the fantastic little readers out there, because representation in children’s books truly matters.
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