Lit Counts: Windows and Mirrors: A Book for Everyone

By Denise Vega

A couple of years ago I was on faculty at a conference with the brilliant award-winning author Grace Lin (pictured). During her keynote, she talked about how books can be windows to other worlds, but books can—and should—also act as mirrors where we see our own reflections. During her speech she posed a very important question: “What happens when you never see anyone in a book that looks like you?” (I encourage you to watch a version of her keynote in her TedX talk.) She talked about growing up as an Asian American and not seeing herself in any books and how through most of her life she denied that part of who she was.

This got me thinking about my own reading experience, my own background. My paternal grandfather was Mexican, but I wasn’t very connected to the culture. And though my dad experienced some prejudice, I was fairly insulated and grew up “white.” Because of this, I saw myself reflected in books I read all the time.

In my childhood, I read widely across genres, but I can also see patterns that emerged. In my “horse phase,” I devoured Marguerite Henry’s horse books including Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind (still have my copies). I loved Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, Stolen Pony by Glen Rounds and more. Windows and mirrors because of course I was that girl—it was always a girl—training, riding, and caring for the horse.

When I wished to be more than merely mortal, I read books like Half Magic by Edgar Eager, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, and Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey. More windows and mirrors because surely I was as brave or clever or selfless as the characters in these books.

And when I wanted another life altogether, I headed to Alaska with Julie of the Wolves (Jean Craighead George), or to the Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell). Windows into the lives of girls who didn’t look like me, but whose strength and courage I craved.

During an author visit at a school last year, a young boy in a wheelchair asked if I had any people with disabilities in my books. I told him that one of the characters in Rock On is profoundly deaf. I also told him that everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in a book and he had inspired me to consider that more overtly.

Every child, every person, deserves to have that mirror and be reflected in a book, along with the windows that will enable them to explore vast, wide worlds that they—we—may not explore or experience anywhere except within those pages.

This is why lit matters, why lit counts. It provides the windows and mirrors we all need not only to see ourselves but to see past ourselves to the truth of other people.

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today.

Denise Vega is the award-winning author of seven books from toddler to teen, including her newest picture book, If Your Monster Won't Go To Bed. Denise has a B.A. in Film & Television from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Harvard University. She is a Young Adult Mentor for the Regis University MFA in Creative Writing Program and is Regional Advisor Emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI. Denise lives Denver with her family where she loves to hike, walk, swim, read and eat French fries.