January 14

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Reflections in a Mirror: Writing Identity in YA by Kelly McWilliams

If you’ve ever been a teenager, you don’t need me to tell you that mirrors are tricky things. 

You remember. There was a time in all our lives when we had a face, but no settled identity, not quite; and there was that morning we woke up and saw ourselves, for the first time, through society’s jaundiced eyes. Suddenly, our self-conception is misshapen: we’re too big or too small; we’re the wrong skin color; we’re too different from the protagonists we read about in books and watch on television. 

We try to see ourselves for who we are, but what does that even mean in a society where people aren’t equal? Harsh external standards make seeing our own beauty terribly hard. And, because we’re just teenagers, we’re desperate to understand what other people see when they look at us. After all, the eyes of others seem to be the most important mirrors of all.

In my YA novel Mirror Girls, set in rural Georgia during Jim Crow, Magnolia Heathwood was raised white, but learns that she is, in fact, a mixed-race child. In a flash, her reflection mysteriously disappears from mirrors. In a segregated society, seeing yourself as Black or white was paramount—there was no space in between. In society’s eyes, Magnolia has always been white, and her dying grandmother hopes that she will continue to pass for white. But how does Magnolia understand herself, now that her true origins have been revealed? How can she move forward, and how will she get her reflection back? In her heart, Magnolia knows she can’t survive without a reflection for long.

Luckily, she has a twin sister—a girl named Charlie, raised well within Black culture. Charlie’s reflection never disappears, but her world is severely shaken when she learns of her lost twin. The girls come together to unravel the mystery of their birth, their separation, and their future as sisters in a world that refuses to see past Black and white. 

Though the book is set in the 1950s, Charlie and Magnolia’s fight to be recognized as family is one I know well. My own family is mixed, and my brother and I were born with skin-tones that don’t match. I present as white; he presents, almost uniformly, as Black. Throughout my childhood, I insisted to strangers that we really were brother and sister—and every time, it was painful. In the grocery store, when my brother and I shopped with my white father, people asked if he was adopted; when I was alone with my Black mother, people mistook her for the nanny. I even met a school teacher who was so adamant that my brother and I could not be blood relations that, under her scrutiny, my kid brother broke down crying. He had nightmares for years.

Shortly afterward, I began my own struggle with mirrors. As a white-presenting mixed race child, I was raised with all of Black culture’s treasures but none of its outward signs. I didn’t know who I was seeing when I looked in the mirror. The person reflected there didn’t really seem like me, at all. From my teens and well into my twenties, when I actively identified as mixed race, the sight of my own reflection could push me off balance, because others didn’t see me as I did. Who the heck was I? What did people see when they looked at me, and how could I protect what I knew to be true—and create the person I wanted to be?

Reading books about characters who identified one way, but presented as another, helped me immensely in crafting my own self-image—but if I’d been born at almost any other time, I’d have lacked a great many of these fictional mirrors.

For ages, fiction revolved around a white male perspective, and every perspective outside of that was deviant. And when BIPOC or LGBTQ+ characters did appear in those canonical stories, they were almost always doomed. How can you imagine a happily ever after for yourself, when the people in stories who look like you never find one?

Thanks in part to #ownvoices and We Need Diverse Books, our children’s fiction is becoming more diverse; and better representation, more varied and clearer mirrors, matters. We need a healthy sense of our own identity before we can act on the world.

I set Mirror Girls during Jim Crow because that, it seemed to me, was a time in American history when segregation laws tried to trap Black Americans inside a dangerously warped glass. The South had a major investment in making Black people feel small. If Black people saw themselves as less than the white folks surrounding them—not worthy, even, of sharing the same water fountain—how much change could we really make? How strong, under such a gaze, could we ever become?

During the Civil Rights Movement, Black Americans took a hammer to false mirrors. We would no longer accept a lesser image of ourselves; we would no longer accept laws that existed only to cut us; and we would no longer believe that true worth lay only in the bluest eye. 

Across young adult literature today, our diverse protagonists continue to break society’s mirrors. To shatter them into a thousand broken pieces. Among the shards, these much-needed characters can finally see what society tries to keep from so many of us: our worthiness, our potential, and how much we, too, deserve our stories, our happily ever afters. 

Kelly McWilliams is a mixed-race writer. She is the author of Doormat and Agnes at the End of the World. She lives in Seattle with her family. You can find her on Twitter @KellyMcWilliams17.