Saturday, January 28, 2017

Rudine Sims Bishop honored for lifetime achievement

Rudine Sims Bishop
Among notable recognitions during a recent presentation of the ALA Youth Media Awards: Rudine Sims Bishop received the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

From American Libraries Magazine, “2017 Youth Media Award Winners Announced“:

“Bishop is a winner of numerous awards and has served as a respected member of many book awards committees over the course of her long and distinguished career. Her influential writing, speaking, and teaching articulates the history and cultural significance of African-American children’s literature. Her globally cited work, Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors, has inspired movements for increased diversity in books for young people, and provides the basis for the best multicultural practice and inquiry for students, teachers, writers and publishing houses.”

I was first exposed to Bishop’s metaphor of multicultural literature as “mirror” and “window” during an online course in Children’s Literature. Here is what our textbook had to say about her contribution:

“Rudine Sims Bishop (2007), noted African-American professor of childen’s literature, uses the metaphor of multicultural literature serving as a mirror and a window for the reader. As a mirror, it shows children reflections of themselves; as a window, it shows them what other people are like. Multicultural literature helps children to see themselves reflected in stories, and it shows them how other people unlike them feel, think, and live. … Quality multicultural literature can play an important role in providing vicarious experiences in relating to and understanding others – whether they are like ourselves or very different” (p 309). – The Joy of Children’s Literature by Denise Johnson (Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2009)

As a paralibrarian who is a member of an “invisible” minority, it matters to me that readers are exposed to stories that validate their experience, but also speak to the experience of people who are not just like them.

Why is this important? Well, it sends a powerful message about who “belongs,” who “matters” in society, whose stories are worth sharing and preserving.

That doesn’t mean that children from any particular group should only be steered toward reading about people similar to them. It does mean that, unless care is taken, children from a “dominant” group are more likely to be catered to with stories that validate them, to the exclusion of other viewpoints.

As I said above, I am a member of an “invisible” minority. To the discussion of diversity, I bring my perspective as a woman on the autism spectrum.

The difficulty of finding respectful portrayals that “mirror” the autistic experience, that aren’t simply “about” us from someone else’s perspective, led me to embark on my ongoing curation of a book list for autistic readers.

Author’s notes can be very revealing about the degree to which an author took care. In the case of autism, is the person on the spectrum him- or herself? If not, did the author get to know actually-autistic individuals? Or did this person only interact with parents and service providers?

(While valuable allies, parents and professionals may have very different agendas and priorities than autistic people ourselves. But even if an author sought input and involvement from people who are themselves on the spectrum, it would be a mistake for that author to conclude that we all hold identical beliefs and attitudes.)

Multicultural stories may be the first exposure that people outside a culture have, so it’s important that an author “do it right.”

For those inside a culture, it sends a powerful message if the author (and the publisher and the vendor and the adult in charge of a library’s collection) didn’t seem to care if the culture was portrayed respectfully.

Bishop’s recognition for lifetime work reflects an increasing awareness about the importance of literature that speaks to more than one dominant group’s experiences.

The best literature can simultaneously act as both “window” and “mirror,” depending upon not only who is reading, but what background they bring to the experience. I may be an “outsider” by virtue of not sharing the same physical characteristics with a character, but, at the same time, may wholly relate to an interest or goal we share.


  1. Cynthia, if you're not familiar with it you might want to look at the book I wrote with two colleagues: Autism in Young Adult Novels: An Annotated Bibliography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), by Marilyn Irwin, Annette Y. Goldsmith, and Rachel Applegate. We did a content analysis of young adult novels featuring at least one character on the spectrum to show how autism was depicted. The annotations include a literary quality scale (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Passable, Poor) so you can easily find the ones we thought were most worth reading. We have also published two related articles in the freely available Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults: "The Real Deal: Teen Characters with Autism in YA Novels" and "The Real Deal 2: How Autism Is Described in YA Novels" Best, Annette Goldsmith

    1. These sound like valuable resources, Annette. I'll definitely check them out.


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