Becoming Mirror Makers

If you’ve spent much time around children’s writers, educators, and librarians, you may have heard us talking about mirror books. That’s not just because we’re all big Lewis Carroll fans. The concept of a mirror book actually comes from an essay published by the mother of multicultural children’s literature, Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, titled “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors.” In this essay, Bishop explains that books are windows, “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined.” In other words, books offer us a glimpse into the experiences of others.

Some books, when viewed by the right person, in the right lighting conditions, and from the right angle, can reflect our own experiences back at us. These are what we call mirror books. In the world of children’s literature, we often use this framework as a jumping-off point in discussions surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe that it could also be applied to the Children’s Music Network members’ work as social justice advocates, literacy builders, and songwriters.

Growing up, I thought the answer to any problem could be found within the pages of a book. There is no shortage of stories about curious young girls who sometimes struggle with making friends, or standing up to bullies, or navigating their many crushes on boys. In other words, I had plenty of mirrors to see myself in. Not every young reader is so lucky. Because most books that get published are written from a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender perspective, it can be difficult for readers from marginalized backgrounds to find books that reflect their lived experiences. This is especially true for readers who fall into the intersection of marginalized groups.

It can be difficult for readers from marginalized backgrounds to find books that reflect their lived experiences, especially those who fall into the intersection of marginalized groups.

When I was fifteen years old, I came out to myself as bisexual. This is still one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, in part because acknowledging my sexuality as an essential part of my identity left me somewhat mirrorless. I could still catch glimpses of myself in the stories I read, but they were spread out across the shelves.

If I put the feather-light nervousness of Lara Jean’s many crushes in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before next to the fear keeping Simon Spier in the closet in Simon vs. the Homosapien’s Agenda and squinted, I could just about make out something resembling my lived experience. Because I have always loved the search for the perfect book, I began to dig, going out of my way to seek out books by and about bisexual individuals. Often, I had to preorder these titles myself, because it seemed as if my local library would only purchase a visibly LGBTQIA+ book if it hit the bestseller list. I often wonder what would have happened if I had faced these same obstacles when I first began reading at five, instead of at fifteen. If I hadn’t been able to see myself in books, or only saw myself in narratives about the history of my own oppression, would I still have developed a deep love of literature? Or would I have written off books as something that weren’t for me? Sadly, this is the reality for a lot of kids. For a more educated perspective on the impact this can have on children, I encourage you to read Bishop’s original essay in its entirety.

Historically, people of color and queer people have not been able to find their stories published in books. Although more diverse titles are being released every year, they still often struggle to make it into the hands of young readers—in no small part because there are people out there fighting to create as many obstacles for them as possible. In 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) recorded over one thousand attempted book bans, targeting 2,571 unique titles (see Banned and Challenged Books, a website of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom). This was the highest number on record since the ALA began collecting data on the subject twenty years ago.

The vast majority of challenged titles were written by or about LGBTQIA+ individuals and/or Black people, indigenous people, and people of color. Look at the top ten challenged books from any given year, and you’re likely to notice a majority of them were written for children and young adults. Even in areas where books aren’t actively being banned, librarians and educators are forced to consider whether putting a book on their shelves would be worth potentially inviting a challenge.

In 2022, the ALA recorded over one thousand attempted book bans targeting 2,571 unique titles. The vast majority of them were written by or about LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC individuals.

This is the landscape in which authors are trying to write stories for children and educators are trying to engage children in reading. It’s also the landscape in which your music is being received. When we ask children to engage with books, we must also ask ourselves: How can we make sure every child is given the resources to find their mirror stories?

Of course, books aren’t the only medium for stories that can become mirrors. We can use this framework to discuss all different modes of storytelling, including songwriting. I hope all you songwriters are wondering: How can we become mirror makers?

You start by being aware that we can’t all be mirror makers for every child. The more a song’s perspective aligns with the perspective of its listener, the more mirror-like it becomes. If you want to polish up a song until it shines enough to reflect a diverse array of listeners, I’d recommend incorporating into your writing process feedback from people whose background and perspectives differ from your own.

Last summer, my father, children’s songwriter and longtime CMN member Monty Harper, asked for my feedback on a song he was writing with LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in mind. The song was all about the experience of having a crush. The first verse began with the question, “Have you ever had a crush on a girl or a boy?” while the second verse asked, “Have you ever had a crush on a they or a them?” I was happy to see him attempting to cover all the bases of both gender and sexuality, but I immediately flagged that second line as an issue.

While well intentioned, using the phrase “a they or a them” as shorthand for a nonbinary individual came across as othering. Besides, not all nonbinary people even use the pronouns they/them/theirs. After explaining my concerns, I asked him if he’d consider writing a version of the song without any gendered language in it. At first, I got a little pushback. He was worried that if he didn’t explicitly acknowledge multiple genders that people wouldn’t understand the song was supposed to be about diversity.

There are a lot of kids’ songs about diversity. These are songs that ask the listener to observe examples of diversity and recognize them as part of a wider world, which can be a great exercise in building empathy. One example is “Love Makes a Family” by Two of a Kind. Throughout that song, the singer describes various families they’ve interacted with—from adoptive families, to multigenerational families, to a family with two mothers—all brought together by love. This is a wonderful window song because it helps kids think about the different shapes that a family unit can take. However, because the song is sung from the perspective of an outsider, it wouldn’t make a great mirror song for an adoptee or a child with same-sex parents. These children already know there are different types of families because they’re living in one.

I heard “Love Makes a Family” and other songs like it frequently growing up, so I already knew that there were families with two moms, yet I struggled to recognize the feelings I sometimes had for other girls as the crushes that they were. That was, at least in part, because the image I had in my head of what a crush was supposed to look like was steeped in outdated gender roles. If you’re a girl and you have a crush, you scribble little hearts around their name in the margins of your notebook. If you have a crush on a girl, you yank her pigtails. I wasn’t doing either of those things. There were just some girls I always hoped would pick me as their partner in dance class, or who I really, really wanted to play Barbies with. Those things looked more like friendship than a crush, and so I never really considered that the underlying feelings might be more than that. I really could have benefited from a song that encouraged me to think about what a crush feels like, rather than giving more examples of what it could look like.

So, let’s look at an excerpt from the latest version of my father’s song, “Crush”:

Did you ever have a crush (yeah yeah yeah yeah)
On someone from afar? (so far)
And your brain is full of mush (yeah yeah yeah yeah)
You’ve been bedazzled by the brightest shooting star

Did you ever have a crush (yeah yeah yeah yeah)
And you know that it’s real (so real)
All you wanna do is gush (yeah yeah yeah yeah)
No one else could ever feel the way you feel

Your mom would say it’s only puppy love
Your friends might shame you for the one you love
So you keep secret who you’re dreaming of
But you’d share if you could, yeah you totally would
Just to say their name would make you happy

This song started as an overview of the different people you might have a crush on, categorized clumsily by gender. Now it’s less about who you like and more about how it feels. By freeing the lyrics from the constraints of the gender binary, we’ve opened it up to the full scope of a child’s romantic imagination, leaving space for the listener to reflect on their own experiences. This isn’t a song about diversity, but it is one that is informed by diverse perspectives.

Of course, there are still some people who won’t see themselves reflected in the song, whether they haven’t had their first crush yet or they just don’t experience romantic attraction. A song about having a crush isn’t ever going to reflect the lived experience of an aromantic individual. That doesn’t make “Crush” a bad song. It just means that there’s a hole in the catalog for some awesome aro-spec songwriters to fill with songs that will help kids navigate that facet of their identity.

Which brings me to my other piece of advice: Give yourself permission to write songs that you know not every child will relate to. Over the years I’ve observed that a common goal when it comes to children’s music is helping children understand their place in the world. Often that results in songs about experiences like losing a tooth or having stage fright—things that, while they can be weird and scary, are also completely normal and happen to everybody, right? Well, maybe not. Personally, I never suffered from stage fright as a kid, and several of my baby teeth held on stubbornly until they had to be surgically removed. We don’t all experience the same things in the same ways and understanding that is also an important part of understanding your place in the world.

So, sing us stories about the things that make you uniquely you. Invite us to share in your culture or understand the obstacles you’ve overcome. These songs will become windows through which children can look into your unique perspective on the world. And the children who need it the most won’t see just you in the song. They’ll also see a beautiful reflection of themselves.