Ginger Young was reading "Martin’s Big Words" — a picture-book biography of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. — to a fifth-grade class.
When she finished, one of the students ran up to her excitedly. She had enjoyed the book so much that she wanted to know how she could get a copy of her own.
“You can have my copy,” Young told her.
The girl’s jaw dropped and her eyes lit up. She thanked Young and then ran over to her mother, who was watching nearby, to show off the gift.
For Young, these moments aren’t just heartwarming — they’re why she does this work.
That’s because when you give a book to a child, it’s so much more than a simple act of kindness — it can have a powerful impact on their life.
All photos provided by First Book and Ginger Young.
This is especially true if that kid has never seen themselves in the books they’re reading.
As a literacy educator and founder of Book Harvest, a nonprofit in North Carolina that has now distributed over half a million books to kids in need, Young has seen firsthand how powerful it is when children connect with the diversity they see in the stories they read, especially given that there aren't actually that many of these kinds of books out there.
In fact, that’s why she started Book Harvest’s “Mirrors and Windows” program in partnership with First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise organization that provides new books and resources to classrooms and programs in under-resourced communities, helping create equal access to quality education.
She was inspired to name the program after reading the work of Rudine Sims Bishop, who coined the phrase to describe how books can act as “mirrors” to reflect a child’s world or “windows” into worlds other than their own.
Young wanted to make sure the kids receiving books could see their own experiences and identities reflected in these narratives — and that they could read about other communities too.
It can be powerful for a child who hasn't had access to a story with characters that reflect their own experiences to finally see themselves in what they read.
That's because it can be especially challenging, if not impossible, for children of color, children with disabilities, children who identify as gender nonconforming or transgender, or children who come from nontraditional families to find books that speak to their experiences. And without that representation, these kids will struggle to feel that their own stories matter.
In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,400 children's books that they received in 2016 and they found that only 287 of the books were about black characters, which amounts to only 8.4%. Further, only 240, or 7% were about Asian Pacific Americans and 169 (4.97%) were about Latinos. Only 55 (1.6%) were about Native Americans.
While these ratios have improved in recent years, there are still more books that feature animals than children of color.
"Every child wants to see themselves mirrored in stories, wants to be connected to others as who they are. It’s a fundamental, basic human need," Young says.
It can be challenging for children from marginalized communities to see what's possible when there is little positive and dynamic representation of their experiences. Children both need and deserve affirmation from the outside world that their stories matter too. And if they don't get that validation, it can cause them to lose interest in reading — something that could affect their ability to succeed in school later in life.
Not only do these books affirm a child’s sense of self-worth, but they also help cultivate empathy by exposing them to other worlds.
Building empathy in children early is key to creating an accepting, inclusive society. "[Books offer] a sense of others mattering as much as we do," Young explains.
"Stories are how you create that," she continues. "It’s very important to have the avenues to developing empathy in place way before children get to school."
Research has shown that reading fictional stories can break down stereotypes. Reading multicultural children’s literature can have a powerful impact on social and emotional learning, enhancing empathy toward others. It can also get kids more excited to understand the world around them.
That’s why Young created a book list that goes all the way from pre-K through middle school, including many titles from First Book’s Stories for All Project collection, which places a special emphasis on diverse books and books by underrepresented authors and illustrators. Young believes that parents need to create a strong foundation for empathy with their kids before they even get to school, and they can do that by reading books to them.
"Those are the kind of young readers who grow up to be the citizens of the world we should be aspiring to," Young says.
The good news is, the momentum is building.
There is an increasing demand for books that are as complex and thoughtful as the communities reading them — books that represent a variety of races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, languages, and cultures from storytellers whose backgrounds also reflect that rich diversity.
And this, Young hopes, can grow into something larger than her own efforts. As she says, "We can knit this into something that is much bigger than any one community."
After all, children across the country deserve access to stories that inspire them, with characters and themes that ring true to their experiences, particularly in a world that rarely offers these children the affirmation they need.
“If we are to create the kind of society we want for our children, we have to use the power of stories to show our children that they matter,” she explains. “If we haven’t done that for every child, then all children have suffered.”
If we want to create an empathetic society in the future — one where all children believe in the value of their own story — these books are critical.
With the help of First Book, Ginger Young is giving children books that are truly empowering, helping kids navigate a divisive and challenging world.
Millions of children from low-income areas don’t have the tools needed to learn, placing them at a disadvantage that perpetuates poverty. First Book is a community that believes education is the way out of poverty for kids in need.