Windows, Mirrors, and Getting the Word Out by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Last fall, I was at work in my school library, assembling materials for a bulletin board. I had the world map stapled up next to a banner that proclaimed: “Books can take you anywhere!” I printed out covers of books that were set in (or contained subject matter from) every continent, spanning more than 30 countries. The book covers lay spread out on a counter below the bulletin board as I organized them by geographic location. A teacher walked in and scanned the book covers, commenting on books she’d already read and which ones she thought looked interesting. She pointed to Farhana Zia’s lovely middle grade novel The Garden of My Imaan.
“Oh!” my colleague said. “I’m so glad you’re including books from the Middle East.”
I stapled the cover onto the map over New England. “This one’s set in the northeast,” I said.
She nodded. “We need more stories about immigrants. Would it make a good read-aloud?”
I told her that yes, it would be a great coming-of-age story to read aloud to her class. But this book is not about immigration at all. Aliya, the main character, is American.
As our nation celebrates its 241st Independence Day, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like for my students and their families who aren’t always seen as the American citizens that they are.
My upcoming middle grade novel, A Long Pitch Home, spans one year, beginning and ending on July 4th. The story follows Bilal, a ten-year-old cricket-playing boy, who must unexpectedly emigrate from Pakistan to the US with his mother and siblings, leaving his father behind in Karachi. They stay with relatives who settled in the US years ago, relatives who are now American citizens.
The story is set in Fairfax County, Virginia, an ethnically diverse pocket of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area where I currently live and teach. Collectively, Fairfax County’s students represent all 193 United Nations member states and speak over 170 languages. More than 60% of our kids come from non-white ethnic backgrounds.
And yet over 80% of our teachers are white.
Most teachers in my district do not know what it’s like to live in a foreign country. Most have never had to become fluent in another language. Most are dedicated, caring teachers who want the very best for their students.
Nerdy Book Club readers are likely familiar with the idea of books as windows and mirrors. We hand kids “mirror” books so they can see themselves in characters’ stories. We hand them “window” books to give them a glimpse into the lives of characters whose life experiences are different from their own.
As a school librarian, I get to witness the power of mirror and window books in the hands of kids. It’s so gratifying when a student who isn’t used to seeing herself in books finally connects with a character. One of my 4th graders checked out Paula J. Freedman’s My Basmati Bat Mitzvah and returned it a week later with a sticky note attached.
Here’s what the note said:
Then there are those moments when kids empathize with someone they met in the pages of a book, and that empathy transfers to real life. In my first novel, Flying the Dragon, ten-year-old Hiroshi leaves Japan and meets his Japanese-American cousin, Skye. One reader sent me this letter after reading the book:
I spend so much time trying to connect kids with window and mirror books that I sometimes forget about the adults in kids’ lives—teachers, parents, and administrators. My colleague who mistakenly thought that The Garden of My Imaan was set in the Middle East eventually checked out the book, read it, and loved it. She was surprised by how familiar Aliya, the main character, felt. She later told me that she didn’t know why she thought that Aliya’s story would feel so foreign. My guess is that this book shifted her worldview. That’s the power of a book.
After this exchange, I decided to post whatever I’m reading on my library door.
It’s a way to connect with readers—students and teachers, administrators and parents. It’s taking Nerdy Book Club ideals out into the wild, sharing books with adults who touch the lives of children, adults who might not otherwise connect with a book they didn’t even know they needed. It leads a primary grade teacher to a middle grade novel about an undocumented immigrant, not because she’ll use it in the classroom, but because it fosters empathy for that one kid in her class who is also undocumented. It leads an upper grade teacher to that picture book that encapsulates in 32 pages what it’s like to live in a refugee camp halfway around the world—a camp in a place that is not covered in the curriculum, but is a place that one of his students used to call home.
This 81/2” x 11” piece of paper has started countless conversations, most of which either start with, “What’s that book about?” or “I loved that book!” And every once in a while, a conversation will start with, “Mrs. Lorenzi, you have to read…”
Natalie Dias Lorenzi has been an elementary classroom teacher, an ESL specialist, and is now a school librarian. Her first novel, Flying the Dragon, has appeared on several state reading lists for children and received honors from the Bank Street College of Education, the International Reading Association, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, and the New York Public Library. Her next book, A Long Pitch Home, is a Junior Library Guild pick for Fall 2016. Visit Natalie at http://natalielorenzi.com.