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Books as Mirrors and Windows

By Jennifer Susko | September 2021

Using children’s books to address young students’ social/emotional learning (SEL) is a valuable strategy – they engage students and can help explain complicated topics. Although this approach is nothing new, what may be new is using these books as part of a culturally sustaining school counseling program.

The ASCA Ethical Standards require school counselors to implement a program that affirms all students from diverse populations. As Rudine Sims Bishop wrote, it’s vital for students to read books with characters who look like them (mirrors) so they see their stories told and know that they matter. Characters students can relate to, who are going through a similar difficulty or achievement, can affirm and empower students. It’s also imperative for students to read books with characters who don’t look like them (windows) so they recognize the existence and value of other identities.

Employing the concept of windows and mirrors when selecting literature enhances school counselors’ impact, particularly if we utilize an anti-bias, anti-racist lens. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison collaborated with David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen to illustrate this problem in the publishing industry with this telling graphic.

(Click image to view a larger version)

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from

As the graphic illustrates, white children are overrepresented in children’s books, while children of color have many fewer opportunities to see themselves in stories. The cracked mirrors symbolize the common skewed or stereotyped versions they may see.

Although many children’s books confront specific social/emotional concerns, there are also award-winning children’s books by Black authors, Indigenous authors, authors of color and those from diverse backgrounds in terms of identity. The books may not be about the exact SEL issue you’re trying to address; however, they still tell stories about characters and families dealing with difficult issues in ways that engage and instruct.

Using books by authors from diverse communities instead of only books focused on a particular issue also supports an anti-racist school counseling program. Including authors of color writing about their own communities ensures accurate, nonstereotyped characters. Students then don’t see or internalize biased representations, helping them appreciate and celebrate others instead of discriminate or appropriate. Books by these authors also often relay important history and sociopolitical context related to various identities, races and cultures students otherwise might not learn about.

For example, I use “As Good as Anybody” by Richard Michelson when teaching about test and general anxiety. The author was raised in a Jewish family, and the story is about the relationship between the actions of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the historic march to Selma for voting rights. Obviously, it’s not a book about test anxiety. However, by discussing what the marchers might have said to themselves to be brave enough to continue marching after facing violence, my students learn about managing strong emotions through helpful self-talk. As a bonus, they also learn about a hugely important event during the Civil Rights Movement and how two leaders of different faiths worked together to achieve justice.

Using “We are Water Protectors” by Carole Lindstrom when teaching about self-management addresses and broadens students’ understanding of responsibility and taking care of what belongs to us, while also exposing them to people and perspectives often completely erased from school curricula. When combined with discussion and carefully planned activities, this book could guide students to achieve ASCA’s behavior standard B-SMS 1. Demonstrate ability to assume responsibility. Simultaneously, it teaches about inexcusably underrepresented Indigenous people and their commitment to taking care of our Earth. The book’s author is enrolled tribally in the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.

School counselors must be intentional when deciding what to read to students. According to child development expert Louise Derman Sparks, books’ visual and verbal messages can “reinforce (or undermine) children’s affirmative self-concept, teach accurate (or misleading) information about people of various identities and foster positive (or negative) attitudes about diversity. Children’s books teach children about who is important, who matters, who is even visible.”

Book Selection

To ensure you’re selecting quality books for SEL, use resources rooted in the foundational theory from Bishop’s essay on windows and mirrors. To select books to affirm all students, choose sites promoting anti-bias and anti-racist children’s literature.
  • The Conscious Kid  has been invaluable in my efforts to find anti-bias, anti-racist children’s books.
  • Social Justice Books contains a guide to selecting anti-bias children’s books using a traffic light system. Red lights signify “not recommended,” yellow lights mean “recommended with caveat” and green lights equal “recommended.”
  • The Tutu Teacher and Diverse Reads: Brooklyn kindergarten teacher Vera Ahiyya is known as @TheTutuTeacher on social media, where she shares excellent book recommendations. She also runs the account @diversereads on Instagram, where she shares books for all levels on many important topics that could be used powerfully in SEL lessons.
After ensuring you’ve chosen quality anti-bias/anti-racist books, you can begin to design classroom lessons and groups using bibliocounseling grounded in the windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors theory. First identify the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors standards to address, then add a children’s book to help teach the associated SEL skills. Children’s books not only have the magical ability to help us teach students how to cope with and understand complex topics, they are also highly engaging, especially when we choose the ones our students relate to and learn from naturally.

Whether it’s reading “The Name Jar” to teach B-SS 4. Demonstrate empathy or “Mae Among the Stars” during a careers unit addressing M 4. Understanding that postsecondary education and life-long learning are necessary for long-term career success, “The Proudest Blue” to tackle identity and M 3. Sense of belonging in the school environment or “Separate is Never Equal” to impart the importance of knowing when to B-SS 8. Demonstrate advocacy skills and ability to assert self, when necessary, carefully selected children’s books go way beyond teaching SEL skills. School counselors who take advantage of that power offer a world of benefits to students.

Jennifer Susko is an elementary school counselor in Metro Atlanta. She serves on ASCA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and is a RAMP Award recipient who is passionate about doing anti-bias, anti-racist work to increase equity in schools. She can be reached at