Representation. Often when writers use this word we are talking about being represented by an agent.
But for our readers there is a meaning that is vastly more important. Representation also means that readers should be able to see themselves in the books they read. Thus it is vital that all kinds of characters be present in books.
I’ve always said this but now I really get it thanks to the video that Linda Sue Park shared this weekend. Check it out.
It is easy to imagine that this girl had seen dolls that were like her in many ways – gender, race, and probably the type of family that she lives in. But never had she seen a doll that shared what made her different, her prosthetic leg.
Should I be the one to write a story about this girl? No. It isn’t an experience that I know anything about. I did go to highschool with a young man who had only one leg, but I didn’t know him beyond greeting him in the hallway.
This girl’s reaction is the number one reason that representation matters.
Number two is that it does us all good to see people who are unlike ourselves. It is vital for us to understand that not everyone has had our experience. And through this we get the third reason that varied representation is vital.
It helps build empathy. By seeing something of the variety of humanity reflected in books, we have a bit more willingness and ability to empathize with a wide variety of people. When someone says that X is not their experience, we are more likely to listen because we see that many people have many different experiences.
Whether we are talking picture books or young adult, graphic novels or nonfiction, readers need to see a wide variety of characters represented.