Posted in Thematic Spotlights

Mirrors and Windows

Current events have me thinking so much about books as mirrors and windows.  Rudine Sims Bishop first wrote about this idea in 1990:

 Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.

Throughout my teaching career,  I’ve concentrated more on mirrors than windows. I’ve always taught in schools where most of the students are African American, and finding lots books that are mirrors hasn’t been easy. I’ve worked hard to find books in which my students would be able to see reflections of their own lives.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about windows and doors part of Bishop’s metaphor. She goes on in a paragraph that feels as if it could have been written today:

Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves.  If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world – a dangerous ethnocentrism.

In a time when our country is filled with such xenophobic, ignorant, and flat-out-false rhetoric about people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, teachers (and parents) have a responsibility.

We pick the books our students hear.

We decide if they see windows, or only mirrors.

We decide where those windows face.

So let’s lead our students to these windows, throw them open, and cry, “Look!  There are people out there!”  For surely, by looking through these windows at stories of people of different races, ethnicities, and religions, our children  will develop greater empathy for all people.

So today, I want to share with you some of my favorite books that feature Muslim characters.

I chose books that take place in the United States and around the world.  I also chose some books whose plots center around war and the struggle of refugees and other books whose plots center around lollipops, friendship, and family dynamics.   The variety is important; we don’t want students to think the view from one window is the singular story of a people.


Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

This is really a story about sisters and empathy.  Rubina is invited to a birthday party.  Her mother insists she take her younger sister along, even though Rubina insists that is not how things are done here.  Both girls learn lesson about empathy.



One Green Apple by Eve Bunting

Farah is the new kid at school, struggling with the language and getting to know her new country.  A field trip to the apple orchard reveals some of the ways her new country is similar to her home country–and reveals some of her new classmates as friends.



The Roses in my Carpets by Rukhsana Khan

A young boy describes his life in an Afghan refugee camp with his sister and mother where his only reprieve is learning to weave.




King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan (can you tell I’m a fan?)

Malik is a kite fighter celebrating Basant.  He takes down the kites of the bully next door–only to have the bully reappear, taking the kite of a little girl. This book tells the story of Malik’s generosity and of a centuries old festival.



Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

Lailah has moved from Abu Dhabi to Georgia, and is going to fast for Ramadan for the first time.   She worries that the other students won’t understand, but with help from her teacher and her librarian, she comes up up with a solution.



What other titles would you add to this list?


Reference: Bishop, Rudine Sims.  The Ohio State University. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”  Originally appeared in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1990.
Posted in Thematic Spotlights

The Best Books for Back to School

The first weeks of school are tough.   We’re tired.  The kids are tired.  We’re trying to get 20, 25, 30 (or more!) small people to move in a common direction, both physically and mentally.  The expression “herding cats” floats through our brains with frightening frequency.  We’re trying to set up routines and procedures that will keep our kids safe  and productive all year, and at the same time, we are trying to establish warm, engaging classroom culture where every student feels known and loved.


This is why, for me, Read Aloud is so important in the first weeks of school.  It’s the time when kids can relax a bit, not having to worry about the right way to head a paper, get into a line, or ask for a new pencil.  They know what to do during a read aloud.

It’s also so important because we use stories to create a vision of what we want our classroom communities to be.  A place where Lilly can make mistakes and fix them with an apology and an interpretive dance.  A place where Swimmy learns that teamwork can you get out of a tough spot.  A place where EVERYONE can learn to ride a bicycle (or cement their growth mindsets, at least).

So, with that, here is the non-exhaustive list of the best books for back to school!

Growth Mindset

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle feels like it was written for the exact purpose of introducing the idea of growth mindset and persistence to children.  It chronicles the journey of an unnamed character learning to ride a bicycle.  There are small successes and many bumps in the road, but in the end with continued practice and hard work, it happens!

You’ll undoubtedly ask your students to do many things that won’t come easily this year.  Make this little cyclist your mascot, and you’ll remind students that even when things get bumpy, persistence will lead to success.  (Bonus Book: If you want to teach students how their brains develop and learn new things, I suggest Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD.)


We dream of classrooms where our students not only notice each other’s feelings, but also take great care with them.  We know, though, that this is not always their first instinct.  Leonardo can relate.

In Mo Willems’ Leonard0 the Terrible MonsterLeonardo dreams of being a truly terrible, terrifying monster.  He is not.  He develops the ingenious plan of finding the biggest scaredy-cat of a kid and scaring the “tuna salad out of him.”   It turns out that this is not quiet as satisfying as Leonardo would have hoped.  He makes the decision to be not a terrible monster, but instead, a really good friend.  Let’s all be like Leonardo.

Learning to Read (and more Growth Mindset!)

Much like Leonardo, the titular character in Becky Bloom’s Wolf!  wants to scare the other characters in the book.  Unfortunately for him, the farm animals who are his targets are too busy reading to pay his scary howls any mind.   Wolf decides he will also learn to read.

It is a slow process in which Wolf returns to the farm several times before he truly proves himself a reader. Wolf struggles to read complex words, read at an appropriate rate, and read with the expression of a storyteller.   With practice in school, at the library, and with his very own storybook, he gets it.    Students will be able to relate!

Making Mistakes

 Lilly.  Oh, how I love Lilly.  In Kevin Henke’s classic, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly struggles to delay the gratification of showing off her new purple plastic purse (it plays music for cryin’ out loud!).    When her teacher Mr. Slinger holds onto to it for her, she takes some regrettable action in retribution.

Lilly makes a mistake, but Mr. Slinger accepts her apology and suggests, yes, an interpretive dance that makes everyone feel better. If only all classroom conflicts were resolved thus!   Use this book to normalize the making of mistakes, and to build the understanding that we can always fix our mistakes.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Leo Lionni’s Swimmy is the story of a little black fish who uses quick thinking and his own unique characteristics to rally a school of little red fish to fend off a big, bad predator.

Use this book to help students understand that being different can be a good thing, and that working together can make even the the most insurmountable problems solvable.

Happy Reading and Happy Back to School to all!