Realistic fiction is a literary genre that best explores the emotional outcomes in the lives of others.
A good story leads the reader to see two things: mirrored reflections of themselves, or a window into the hurts, pain and joys of others. Both perspectives are useful for maturing the mind of the reader.
Children are comforted when they read a story about someone who is just like them. At the same time, they gain empathy through the life of suffering in another child.
Most readers are familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We attribute this literary masterpiece to early awakenings to the horrors of human slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first major U.S. novel with a Black main character, and the first to use regional accents. Following her first publication, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Children was made available for young readers. There were dreadful things about slavery that children could read about in Stowe’s realistic fiction of the time.
Realistic fiction provides an accurate reflection of life as it could be lived. One important benefit is exposure to problems and solutions some children may never experience. The window of realistic fiction opens the eyes of the reader to see other worlds, diverse viewpoints, and the chance to gain empathy beyond their ethnocentric viewpoint.
But there is another viewpoint: when children see themselves in a story (a mirror book), a stronger sense of self-worth and personal value emerges. The reader sees themselves in the life of another child who perseveres, solves problems, and overcomes adversity.
Thus, the windows/mirror theory developed by Rudine Sims Bishop brings the two perspectives together and provides an important guide as you think about inclusiveness in children’s literature.
Our bookshelves have not always displayed a diverse set of people and experiences. Content analysis of children’s literature over the past 80 years show few if any balanced representations of Black and brown children.
Even in award-winning books, story plots from the 1920s through the 1950s present Black children as subordinate in their character roles, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
Picture books, even as recent as the 1980s and 1990s will include a representative minority picture, but the story itself, does not include those children. They are only a brown face in the crowd.
To see only white children in every story, in the life of every hero or in every family adventure does nothing to help the child from a different race or culture gain a new sense of purpose, or even possibility for their future.
But there is good news. Realistic fiction has changed dramatically in recent years.
Publishers have become aware of the need to recruit, encourage and publish the works of African American, Latinx, Asian, as well as LGBTQ+ authors. A few of these beautifully written and illustrated children’s books are reviewed in this article.
Award-winning Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar and illustrated by Khoa Le tells the story of a brown-skinned girl who must adjust to a new life in America. After many lonesome days, her aunt tells a beautiful Persian fable to help the girl learn to become more accepting toward others while building new friendships for herself. The story shows good problem-solving skills through the support of a wise caregiver.
Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena have written a happy upbeat story about a Mexican girl who takes a ride with her dad on the back of his motorcycle. A Pura Belpre Award winner, My Papi Has a Motorcycle provides a window into the life of a young girl and her relationship with her father as they happily thunder down the streets of their village.
Published in 2023, A Door Made for Me by Tyler Merritt and illustrated by Lonnie Ollivierre is a painful, but realistic, example of racism spilled over into the life of two young boys. I would recommend this book be read with a parent, or other caring adult. It’s a sad but realistic fiction story.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang is an exciting mystery adventure that will keep the reader’s attention while telling the sad and stressful social justice story of Chinese Americans trying to survive as motel operators on the west coast. Fifth grader Mia is a true hero as she helps guests who are the permanent residents of the motel. The story is a sensitive and uplifting portrayal of those who cannot afford permanent housing. Mia is a great role model for any reader.
These book suggestions are included in a course I teach for a large regional university. It is gratifying to know these future professionals will be exposed to a realistic fiction genre that could be used to change their world view and provide comfort and guidance for the children who will become part of their professional lives.
A retired Associate Professor Emerita at East Carolina University, Brown serves as a deacon officer at Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, North Carolina. Along with bike riding, she enjoys reading and tutoring children.