The first time I really identified with a character was in eighth grade. Our school librarian displayed new titles in the library with short descriptions of each story. As soon as I read the description, I wanted to check out the title. I was interested because of one point of similarity between the author and me. As soon as I finished the book, I put it on my Christmas list so I could read it anytime and looked for other books by the same author. I asked my librarian, and she helped me find similar titles and got a few more for the library.
That book stands out in my memory because it was the first time a main character shared my ethnicity. Her story didn’t track exactly with mine, and it was a memoir - not one of my preferred genres. But I recognized parts of my own experience - grandparents’ names, combined languages, the food. I read that book and all the others my librarian suggested, searching for more points of similarity. Decades later, I still remember that experience.
This is why representation is important. Nobody assigned those books to me. I didn't need reminders to read 20 minutes each day. I was reading for myself. When we, as educators, say that students need to see themselves in the stories they read and hear, this is why. Reading about characters with whom we identify makes us feel seen and heard. It’s validating, and supports developing personalities. For me, ethnicity was the catalyst, but it could have been anything - ability, hometown, interests, orientation, even age. Each of us needs that connection to others, and not all of us have the human resources close or comfortable enough.
But it’s not just seeing ourselves in stories. It’s also crucial that we see others - people whose stories, situations, perspectives, and desires are different from our own. That diversity lets us peek into others’ lives, to understand and appreciate that those experiences exist and are just as important and valid as our own. Besides, our stories are all evolving; situations, perspectives, and desires change. One day those ‘other’ stories could become more relatable or even our own.
My middle school librarian may not know it, but she made that wonderful experience possible for me. As an American-born Chinese girl, it was thrilling to read about a family looked like mine. Now, I get to help provide opportunities for other students to recognize themselves in stories. This very incomplete list of titles might help spark that interest for some of your students, including the audiobook version of the story that started it for me.
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Chinese Cinderella is the story of author Adeline Yen Mah's childhood. Adeline is just three days old when her mother dies. She is blamed for the death and considered bad luck. For years, she tries to please her family, wanting only acceptance and love, but often facing rejection. Finally, after discovering literature, she is given the chance to succeed.
All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka
Inspired by her own two children's multi-ethnic heritage, Ms. Hamanaka uses soaring text and beautiful art to celebrate the glorious diversity of children laughing, loving and glowing with life.
Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay
A boy and a girl in the Philippine jungle must confront what coming of age will mean to their friendship made even more complicated when Americans invade their country. Samkad lives deep in the Philippine jungle, and has never encountered anyone from outside his own tribe before. He's about to become a man, and while he's desperate to grow up, he's worried that this will take him away from his best friend, Little Luki, who isn't ready for the traditions and ceremonies of being a girl in her tribe. But when a bad omen sends Samkad's life in another direction, he discovers the brother he never knew he had. A brother who tells him of a people called 'Americans'. A people who are bringing war, and destruction right to their home.
A Very, Very Bad Thing by Jeffrey Self
From the author of Drag Teen, a startling novel about the complexities of identity -- and of truth. ... Marley doesn't just want to be labeled The Gay Kid, but he doesn't have much else going on. He doesn't have any hobbies. Or interests. He's the only kid he knows without a passion . . . until Christopher comes to town. He's smart, cute, gay, and . . . the son of the country's most famous, most bigoted television evangelist. Marley and Christopher immediately spark -- and become inseparable. For a month, it's heaven. Then Christopher's parents send him to a Pray Away the Gay program, which leads to even worse things. Hurt and outraged, Marley tells a very big lie -- and then has to navigate its repercussions.
Finding My Voice by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
The groundbreaking Own Voices classic by celebrated author Marie Myung-Ok Lee. Seventeen-year-old Ellen Sung just wants to be like everyone else at her all-white school. But hers is the only Korean American family in town, and her classmates in Arkin, Minnesota, will never let her forget that she’s different. At the start of senior year, Ellen finds herself falling for a football player who is popular and blond and undeniably cute . . . and to her surprise, he falls for her, too. Now Ellen has a chance at life she never imagined, one that defies the expectations of both her core friend group and her strict parents. But even as she stands up to racism at school and disapproval at home, all while pursuing a romance with Tomper, Ellen discovers that her greatest challenge is one she never expected: finding the courage to speak up and raise her voice.
Looking for more titles to highlight? Here's a Virtual Bookshelf Starter Sheet, and you could also try these:
Do you have a representation story you'd like to share? Definitely email me.