Books that are Windows. Books that are Mirrors

Books that are windows, Books that are mirrors

How we can make sure that children see themselves in their books

Dear friends

I am very sorry not be with you today.  Thank you so much for accepting to have these words read to you by ….and thanks to ….for reading them. It is a great pleasure to be able to send these words to so many people who care about children and reading. 

This speech is about publishing in a world which is multi-cultural, plural and diverse.  To live together in such a world requires that we not only tolerate our diversity but embrace it.  I live in the city of Toronto, Canada in which over half the population were born in another country.  It is a city composed of people from every corner of the world. Canada has often been called the first post-modern society, a mosaic, a truly multi-cultural, post-national country. It is the country which in a world wide poll most favoured immigration.  Over 70% of Canadians think immigration is a good thing. Most of us see ourselves as immigrants or as children of immigrants.  Canada is far from perfect.  However I do think there is a general level of tolerance which may be exceptional in this world so divided by religious, linguistic, ethnic, and national rivalries.

Please let me tell you about myself so that you can understand a little better why I see the world as I do, and from what context I am speaking to you today.

I was born and brought up in Guatemala, a small country in Central America, just south of Mexico.  It has the highest indigenous population in the Americas.  Maya Indians account for about 60% of the population.  I was born of an American mother and a Guatemalan father.  As a result I was bilingual.  My mother’s mother who lived in Boston and had a great love of literature sought out, and sent me all the great classics of world English language literature.  So thanks to her I read E. Nesbit, the Borrowers, Swallows and Amazons, Beatrix Potter, Narnia, Tolkein, etc. etc.  But the only books available to us in Spanish were translations of Robinson Crusoe, the Three Musketeers and Jules Verne.  I read these books and loved them.  But nowhere in any of my books did I find a single world about the world in which I was living.  And in school we had only one book about the Maya—the Popol Vuh in a very old, dusty and incomprehensible version.  This is one of the oldest books in the Americas and wonderful.  It was one of the few Maya books to survive the wholesale burning of Maya codices carried out by Archbishop Landa, a Spanish prelate.  But the Popol Vuh, which is a complex story, was given to us in a very poor translation from the Maya without illustrations (and this for a book which derived from a culture with a strong and beautiful tradition of visual art).    It was confusing. Nobody enjoyed reading that book because there had been no attempt to make it accessible for children.  And yet it was required reading in Grade 5.  That was our entire national literature for children.

You can imagine my surprise when through a variety of circumstances I came to live in English Canada in the early 1970s.  Here was a very rich country, a predominantly English speaking country, and once again I was faced with a shocking reality.  Canadians didn’t have books of their own either.  Certainly they had access to the best English language literature.  Because every other rich English country had a publishing industry Canadian kids could read British books, American books, Australian books, even books from New Zealand but as for Canadian books—apart from Anne of Green Gables—there was almost nothing.  As I got a job in publishing I began to explore this situation.

Why were there no Canadian books for children? These were the stated reasons.

  • It’s a small country (in population.)
  • The English speaking market is fragmented because there are so many immigrants.
  • Canadian children’s books are bad.
  • There are no good authors or illustrators.
  • Children’s books are money losing, expensive to publish and risky.
  • Canadian books don’t sell.
  • Who needs them anyway?

But perhaps the most important underlying reason for all this was the deep, what can only be called colonial conviction, that people somewhere else (in the world capitals) were simply better at doing things than any Canadian could ever be.  Why bother publishing mediocre, second rate books when we had access to the best?

Does any of this sound familiar?


In the late seventies in Canada a group of small Canadian owned children publishers emerged dedicated to changing this bleak reality.  For the most part we succeeded. And in the past thirty five years or so Canada has become known for the high quality of our children’s books.  Because of the reality of who Canadians are, eventually, many of the best Canadian books came to be “multi-cultural.”  Not that it was easy.

By the late eighties there began to be a very strong movement for what was called the authenticity of voice.  It took place in Canada and the United States.  Authors from minority or oppressed groups vigorously claimed that it was far easier to get a book published about, let’s say Native-Canadian by a well-known white author than it was for a First Nations’ author to get a book accepted.  There was a prolonged and very painful debate in the North American writing and illustrating about the so-called “appropriation of voice.” 

There were many very angry meetings, even within such groups as the Writer’s Union of Canada.  In one case a Native author threw her shoes at a man who had written a television play about one of Canada’s great injustices the Residential School, in which First Nation’s children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to government and church run boarding school where they were forced to abandon their names, speak in English and in some cases physically and sexually abused.

This was a very painful and difficult time. On the one side were writers saying “What right do you have to tell my story? You don’t know and can never know what it means to be me.”  On the other hand were writers saying, “I am a writer.  The very essence of my work is to imagine what it is like to be someone else.  You cannot tell me what to write.”

Of course this had an impact on publishers. When I listened to this debate the sub-text I heard was “What right do you have to tell my story when I can’t tell it myself?”  For it was obvious that with few exceptions, for reasons of history, because of subconscious or systemic racism, or simply fear of and discomfort with people different from oneself, or all these things combined it was much harder for people from minorities to get published. And of course there was the market.  Books by minorities didn’t sell. “They” didn’t use bookstores was (and continues to be) a common excuse.

For publishers this was a challenging time. In 1984, before this debate, I had published a very successful book, CHIN CHIANG AND THE DRAGON’S DANCE, by a young Canadian, Ian Wallace.  It’s about a little boy that wants to dance the Dragon Dance.  He lives in Vancouver which has a large Chinese immigrant population.  It was very successful and still sells thousands of copies a year more than twenty years after its initial publication.

One day the National Film Board of Canada came to us because they wanted to make an animated movie of the story.  The possible director was a Chinese Canadian.    Then came the word that the NFB would not pursue the project because an eminent Chinese Canadian, director of the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver, Paul Yee, a fourth generation Chinese had declared that the book was inauthentic, inaccurate, and that the voice was basically stolen.  The book has no right to exist.

About a year later I met Paul Yee in Vancouver.  I asked him whether he had written more authentic stories of his own.  Quite soon I received a manuscript from him for one of the best books we ever published—TALES FROM GOLD MOUNTAIN—contemporary fairy tales that tell the story of the Chinese in Canada and the contribution they  made to building the railroad, the fishery and farming on the west coast.  It told of their heroism and the cruelty that they suffered.

It was not only a far less easy book than CHIN CHIANG it was also very original in the way it blended archetypes drawn from the fairy tale canon with  a very fierce anger and grief at the suffering of these people who had contributed so much and received so little reward for their essential role.  It was admirable in its writing and I was very moved by it, though I immediately realized it would not be an easy book to do.

And I was presented with a huge challenge.  If the text was now “authentic” how could I ensure that the illustrations also came from an “authentic” place, from a Chinese esthetic for example. There was no Chinese-Canadian illustrator that I knew of.  We searched and searched while Paul waited patiently.  It took about two years but finally we found a brilliant young art school graduate, Simon Ng.  The result was a brilliant, prize winning book. 

There are a great many Chinese immigrants to Canada.  Few of them have been here for as many generations as Paul Yee who is a fourth generation Chinese Canadian but these books tell even the young Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong or Fujian Province that they have deep roots in this new country.  That their fellow country men built this place where we all lived.  And that they experienced injustice and racism. 

I truly believe that it was the process of coming face to face with the inadequacy of our response to the needs of the Chinese community that fundamentally changed Groundwood’s idea of what we were about. Having to stretch my aesthetic sense, to challenge my own traditional ideas about what a children’s book could or should be in terms of its content, and how it should look, being forced to make effort to find the right author or illustrator and to work with them to make sure their books were as good as any coming from the “mainstream” was very enriching for Groundwood and our publishing program.

But why was all this important?

The answer lies in the question, what leads a child to become a life-long reader?

In Canada and the UK we are in the grips of people who believe that the issue is literacy in its shallowest sense.  And the solution to the problem of literacy appears to be giving children books called graded readers.  They are mediocre, boring stories that children read one at a time as they progress up the ladder of reading skills.  The problem is that no one in their right mind would ever want to reads them because they are of the deepest mediocrity and totally lack cultural specificity.

How can anyone believe that these so called books will accomplish anything other than to teach children how to sound out words, if that?

In Latin America, on the other hand, whole countries such as Mexico and Brazil, heavily influenced by the very great reading guru, Emilia Ferreiro, have understood that life long readers are people who love to read.  And what makes people love to read—but the very best books?  And exposure to books before one can technically sound out the words so that one has some motivation to try and sound out the words.  And what is a great book?

I prefer to talk about this question using the metaphor presented by Elisa Bonilla, former director of educational materials at the Mexican Ministry of Education (SEP) of Mexico. At the recent IBBY congress in Macau, she said “Children need books that are windows.  And they need book that are mirrors.”

They need to look out at the world; they need to look in on themselves.

While access to books by children is highly unequal around the world I would argue that our priority today must be for books that are mirrors. Why?

For me the very essence of the answer lies in another question--what is the long term effect on a child of a steady diet of books from which he is totally absent or present but falsely depicted?

I believe that a diet of books from which one is entirely absent, even if they are all award winner winners, begs the question—“Am I of value?”  “Is my life as good as the life that is in my books?”  “ Why can’t I have what they have, be what they are, have parents, things, experiences like that?”  And it is important to note here that the world’s children are simultaneously exposed to film, television, music and all kinds of popular culture reinforcing this message—it’s better over there. Somewhere else.  In the metropolis.

Surely nothing can be more destructive of our sense of self-respect, our confidence in ourselves, and our belief in the value of our own ways than not to exist in a culturally precious medium such as books.

I would argue that self-confidence is a healthy thing.  These days so much of what we hear from people who are committing acts of terrorism, for example, is that they are acting out of a deep sense of humiliation.  Anger, hatred yes, but what underlies that but a deep sense of humiliation?  I think that feeling that one’s point of view is important; that one has value is the single most important way to address that feeling of humiliation in people.

A further very important dimension to all this is that of language.  People who speak minority languages are doubly disadvantaged.  Perhaps they live in a poor country of diverse people whose only common language is the one inherited from the former colonial power as is true in so many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Their only commonality may be an imported language. They may never find their own language in their books (or on TV, or the computer for example).  This puts minority language people at an almost fatal disadvantage. 

And if learning to read has to happen in a language that is not your own, where does that leave you?

Another issue which arises when the flow of books is all one way—from the Anglo-European world to the rest is that of fairness.  Just as issues of fairness arise in all trading relationships—if I buy from you I should be able to sell to you, it is even more critically the case in cultural production.  It is blatantly discriminatory to have all the movement be one way.

And in the end, as well as all these other reasons why children need books that are mirrors has to be that it is sheer pleasure to hear one’s own words, see one’s own face, one’s familiar trees, one’s streets, one’s house, one’s world in a book.

None of what I have said means that I don’t believe that the other side of the metaphor also applies.  Children need books that are windows. It is a great and essential thing for us all to have access to the very best books from other places. And the best books from around the world are also objects of sheer pleasure.  And after all my mirrors are your windows and vice versa.

And it is this sheer pleasure, this emotional, esthetic delight that books--windows and mirrors provide that brings a love of reading. This is the best means to ensure that a child will grow up to be someone who reads throughout his or her life.

Who will provide these books? How can children everywhere have the opportunity to become readers? This brings to the fore the importance of “national publishing.” The definition of “national publishing” is that in a country books by the people who live in that country are published in that country preferably by publishers who are based in that country.  This is different from depending on multi-national publishers to provide you with books or to support local authors.

For if we look critically at what has happened in world publishing, we might ask ourselves whether books coming from, for lack of a better word, I will call the metropolis, even guarantees us the best books today.


As many of the great editors from the once world famous publishers have retired their publishing programs are being managed by people whose job depends on making ever higher profits.  And I know from sad experience that while publishing can be marginally profitable, it is almost impossible to make the kinds of profits that Wall Street and other investors expect. More and more of the books produced by these once great houses are now based on Saturday morning TV cartoons. And these houses need to produce more and more books, 500-600 a year, just to cover their overheads.  This is not a model which produces good books.  It is a model that drowns out good books because they become harder and harder to find amongst the flood of garbage.

Much of the best publishing in the world today is coming from small publishing houses-- some from the US, Britain, France and Germany but some in Sweden, India, Venezuela, South Africa, Korea, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, Australia, and Canada, among others.

The consolidation of the industry is only one of the reasons for another great difficulty facing the world which is the growth in the dominance of the English language. I won’t go into this at length beyond what I have already said but to raise one issue about quality. 

Translation, especially into English, has shrunk dramatically.  So it can be said that even while high quality children’s books continue to be produced, fewer exchanges are taking place between cultures and almost all the exchange is one-way: from the English language to the rest of the world.  The majority of children of the world continue either to have no books or books that still do not reflect their own reality: the colonizers may have changed, but the reality for most children has not!

The great German, Scandinavian, Dutch and French books cannot find their way easily into this closed shop anymore—much less books from small countries.  Is this the best of the best?

This situation has further consequences.  On the one hand children (and adults) in English speaking countries are learning less and less about the rest of the world and we can see where that leads.  But also because of the way the book market is structured it means that in general what is read around the world comes from English speaking writers.  English is the lingua franca.  If a book is not available in English it is harder and harder for it to find publishers in other languages—a terribly narrowing and restrictive effect if we want to know each other.

As I have met and come to know publishers from all over the world I have realized that in some countries a very similar process to the one we undertook in Canada has taken place.  In Venezuela for instance, a very high quality national publishing industry has developed despite extreme lack of resources.  In India most interesting books are beginning to emerge from some very high quality houses. The same for Iran.  Ireland a much richer country has also developed an industry where there was none.  And Mexico, a large but very poor country, is now producing outstanding books.  There are very high quality books being produced in South Africa.  On the other hand the fall of the Iron Curtain had a very perverse effect on what were once some of the greatest creators of quality books in the world.  Poland and the Czech Republic for example have virtually ceased to exist as publishing nations as their children’s publishers have either closed or turned to mass market product.

But how many of us who are not fortunate enough to attend international book fairs like Bologna or IBBY congresses know these books from smaller nations?

Now more than ever we need to know each other, to understand what underlies our different societies.  In these terrible times a lack of respect for each other is not only damaging to our world—it is extremely dangerous.   But of what use is it if this is not a mutual process.  If I understand you (because I have your literature and learned all about you) but you do not understand me because I do not exist in written form, one by which you can come to know me, then we do not have a fair and equal relationship.  Fairness and equality are utopian concepts in this world I realize.  But then those of us involved in the creation of children’s books are utopian, aren’t we?

But now, what can we do to ensure that children everywhere have books of their own?

How can we ensure that writers and illustrators in all countries can become excellent?

How can we help to ensure that publishing companies emerge in all parts of the world—publishers who have the capacity to publish first rate books and to bring them to local and international markets?

I may be naïve, but I have spent the last number of years working within IBBY—the International Board on Books for Young People. Established by Jella Lepman over fifty years ago, its primary goals were to build bridges of understanding between children of different nations to help bring about peace.  And IBBY was always dedicated to the idea that these books had to be of the highest quality.  In some respects these goals have been met.  There are many very high quality children’s books in the world.  And children in some countries have access to some of the best books in the world.

But as I stated earlier there is so much left to do.

In the past few years IBBY’s mandate has shifted to ensuring that children everywhere have books of their own, and that their right to read be assured. This is a subtle shift in emphasis but an important one.

IBBY now has a program of workshops in publishing, writing, illustrating, editing and librarianship.  They are taking places in countries such as Mongolia, Palestine, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda and Uruguay.  This meeting is one of those IBBY workshops. But workshops alone cannot change the world. Writers and illustrators without publishers cannot reach an audience, nor can they make a living.  Without a vital network of publishers who are specialized and knowledgeable, I would argue that you cannot have national literatures.  And as I described above international conglomerates will occasionally find and promote the one in a million most outstanding talents from countries outside of Europe, Japan and the Anglo-Saxon world and publish them.  But their primary job is to make profit and they do this by publishing the 300 or so “world authors” most of whom come from the major publishing centres.

But the real work of finding local writers and illustrators, nurturing them and helping them to develop their abilities to the fullest, developing local markets, reaching local children, and finally bringing their work to the world is the job of a publisher.  Their must be publishers, and good ones, in each and every country if we are to attain our goal.

Publishers who are willing to invest their own time, money, and what is called inelegantly “sweat equity” and who dedicate their lives to this pursuit deserve all the help they get from local governments, ministries of education and culture and from international institutions such as UNESCO, the World Bank UNICEF and IBBY.  Two years ago UNESCO passed a ground breaking treaty, called the Treaty on Cultural Diversity, which allows governments to do precisely that—develop, support, and even discriminate in favour of local cultural producers, ie publishers.  This is a very important step as under the new international trading regime under the WTO this was not really allowed.

Governments need to do something to support their local publishers. There are many ways a government can support local publishing—through grants, purchasing policies, ownership policies, etc.  And major agencies must be persuaded that they too should support this goal. 

Elisa Bonilla whose metaphor I find so illuminating ran one of the great library programs in the world in the Mexican school system.  A program of rigorous selection by librarians, teachers, critics and experts, followed by bulk purchases and training of teacher librarians created excellent school libraries—and those libraries contained mirrors and windows.  Many of the children in those schools were being given access to the very best of both for the first time in their lives.

And one exciting result, an unintended one, was the dramatic jump in excellent Mexican children’s books that resulted.  The majority of these were published by small and medium Mexican and Latin American publishers.


We live in such a difficult world and we owe our children so much given what they will soon be facing.  We must help to give them some of what they will need to go forth as strong, open minded, confident and curious people who will do good rather than harm.  And we need to help them to live in our diverse world, appreciating and enjoying the differences, while remaining themselves.  The IBBY’s dream of a peaceful world might come a little closer to being real.