Do You See Yourself in the Books You Read?

Do You See Yourself in the Books You Read?

Find all our Student Opinion questions here.

When you read books that are assigned to you in school, do you feel a connection with the characters in the stories? What about the books you choose to read on your own? Do characters in books often look like you or have similar life experiences?

In “I Was ‘Too Much’ for Boarding School. But I Had the Garcia Sisters,” Vanessa Mártir writes about her experiences of being othered in boarding school and eventually finding herself reflected in literature. Here’s an excerpt from her Opinion piece:

But I soon realized that I was different. My guidance counselor would often pull me aside and tell me I was “too loud” and “too much.” My classmates would chant “Tawk, Rosie, tawk!” as I’d walk down the hallways, my eyes glued to the ground. Rosie Perez as Tina in the 1989 film “Do The Right Thing” was the only exposure to a Latina many of my classmates had ever had.

Growing up, I’d read the “Sweet Valley High” series, Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and all the Judy Blume books. The characters in them didn’t look like me, but I was too young to understand the difference or know it could matter. One day in my junior year, I was reading on the mezzanine overlooking the cafeteria, when my English professor, Mr. Goddard, approached me. “You should read this,” he said and handed me “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” My eyes stopped at the writer’s name, Julia Alvarez. “That’s a Spanish name,” I thought.

I saw myself reflected in the story of the Garcia sisters, who had fled to the United States from the Dominican Republic with their parents. They went to boarding school and, like me, had trouble fitting in. It began to dawn on me that there must be other writers like Ms. Alvarez out there. I asked teachers for recommendations and dug through the library shelves on campus.

Later I would discover the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros. What was missing for me was the narrative of the Latina who left the ’hood to pursue an education only to find that she no longer fit in anywhere. I was too loud at boarding school and a sellout in the place I had once called home.

Ms. Mártir concludes by saying:

My mother still lives in the same apartment in Bushwick. The neighborhood is no longer reminiscent of a war zone. Children and families gather in the parks we had never dared to step into. The piragueros are all but gone. The Puerto Rican flag isn’t as prominent as it used to be. The neighborhood I knew has mostly faded out of view.

Reading books by Latina writers helped me recapture a pride in my culture that goes beyond my old neighborhood. They taught me that these gritty corners of the world can be beautiful. That our stories are worthy of being told.

I buy my daughter, who is now 15 years old, books by writers like Elizabeth Acevedo, Jacqueline Woodson and Gabby Rivera. I teach writing in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. I know from experience that when children see positive images of themselves reflected in front of the classroom, in books and on the big screen, it can make all the difference. This is how change happens, and it’s how we create a country in which all of us feel we belong. One story at a time.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Does Ms. Mártir’s experience with literature resonate with your own in any way? Do you struggle to find stories that you personally connect with? Do you ever feel misrepresented in literature? Or, do you find you can often see parts of yourself in the lives of characters you read about?

  • What is one book that you have deeply connected with? Who is the author of that book? Have you read other works by that person? How did you discover the book, and what about it allows you to relate to the story or characters?

  • What is one story that you have not found in literature that you would like to read? Why do you think that story is important to tell?

  • In the Opinion piece “Mirrors for My Daughter’s Bookshelf,” the writer and teacher Sara Ackerman describes professor Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of books as windows, sliding glass doors and mirrors:

Books can be windows into worlds previously unknown to the reader; they open like sliding glass doors to allow the reader inside. But books can also be mirrors. When books reflect back to us our own experiences, when scenes and sentences strike us as so true they are anchors mooring us to the text, it tells readers their lives and experiences are valued.

Do you agree with Ms. Bishop’s metaphor? Are there books that have provided you with windows, sliding glass doors and mirrors?

  • Do you think it is important for young people to feel represented by the books they are reading? Why or why not? Who do you think is responsible for ensuring that young people have access to literature that is culturally and socially representative? In Ms. Mártir’s story, it was teachers who introduced her to meaningful books. Do you think it is the responsibility of authors, teachers, librarians, schools or someone else to ensure this happens?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.