The potential of children’s literature to confront issues of injustice

Cross-posted from Centre for Education and Race Equality in Scotland (CERES)Blog post by Julie McAdam, University of Glasgow, UK

My Stance

The world as we currently experience it, is beset with waves of crisis (Guilherme and Dietz, 2015: 1) all related to capitalist economics that have paved the way for stringent austerity and a growing sense of  ‘not knowing where the world is or could be going’ (Kleist and Jansen, 2016: 375). The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated social and economic injustice, culminating in increased hostility towards diversity and difference. My stance as a teacher educator has always been grounded in imaging the world as a better place (Levitas, 2011: 8). Through my work I actively educate to counter injustice, drawing on the potential of children’s literature to develop an ‘understanding about the human condition’ (Arizpe, Farrell and McAdam, 2013: 245). When mediated by teachers, children’s literature has the potential to confront local and global issues of injustice (Short, 2011), reduce prejudice and educate about racism (Smith-D’Arezzo, 2003).

Mirrors, Windows, and Doors

This blog has been written to share my work as a teacher educator and explain with reference to praxis why children’s literature can provide a valuable resource of hope in confronting issues connected to injustice. When working with teachers, mediators or Initial Teacher Education (ITE) students, my starting point in discussing the potential of children’s literature is to share Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) metaphors of mirrors, windows and doors. Bishop developed the metaphor to highlight the extent to which black children were unable to encounter themselves within texts published in the United States. Texts that function as mirrors enable children as readers to directly relate to the characters, contexts and actions within a text, providing a sense of ‘belonging’ as they see representations of self. Surrounding children with such texts can lead to an empowered sense of self and a greater understanding of one’s own culture (Gopalkrishnan, 2011).

The metaphor of the window suggests that texts provide alternative worlds that pose options and alternatives to those surrounding you as a reader. The process of looking inwards and outwards can shift and reframe readers’ views of the world, allowing them to confront truths and falsehoods, trusts and betrayals. This process is akin to a crossing the threshold of a door; propelling readers forwards towards personal or collective action. Conceptually, books have the potential to reframe thinking, moving readers to organize or take action against injustice. Thinking about texts using the metaphors of mirrors, windows and doors, provides a practical way for teachers to use literature to challenge issues connected to decolonizing the curriculum and open-up safe spaces to discuss the impact of racism at many levels. The example discussed below comes from the praxis of an early years Scottish teacher who participated in a community of inquiry project known as ‘Narratives of Change’ (McAdam, 2019). The project led Sophie (pseudonym) to work with her primary one class to challenge monolingual ideologies that permeate school systems, silencing multilingualism (see Hancock’s blog) and recognize the linguistic plurality present in the school.

The Praxis

Sophie chose to work with Mr Wuffles, a wordless picturebook by award winning author and illustrator David Wiener. The book tells the story of a cat, Mr Wuffles and his encounter with an extraordinary toy, which happens to be inhabited by aliens. In playing with the toy, he breaks the spaceship, forcing the aliens to leave and seek help amongst the local inhabitants of the house: ladybugs and ants. The aliens speak using signs and symbols and the local insects speak using a series of scratch marks, but through the use of wall art and the exchange of cultural artefacts they develop a daring plan to fix the spacecraft and escape the clutches of the cat. Sophie chose to use the text and felt it could stimulate discussions about being multilingual.

Sophie introduced the book to her primary one class, using techniques that the children were familiar with, such as examining the front and back covers to make predictions and allowing time for the children to walk and talk through the book connecting the narrative to their own life experiences. The children discussed that while they could not decode the symbols of the alien language, they could read their body language to determine the ideas being communicated. Sophie paid attention to this and invited the children to use English to deduce what the aliens and insects might be communicating to each other. The children were able to decode the body language of the aliens and insects and recognised that the holding out of arms/tentacles symbolised peace and friendship. She asked the children to examine their emotions if placed in a similar position of arriving somewhere new and needing help to solve a problem. The children were able to talk of how they might feel sad, lonely and isolated and this led them to think about how visitors or new students might feel arriving in the school and not seeing signs and symbols they understood. The children and Sophie felt that the signage in the school did not represent the linguistic diversity of the school population and they wanted to do something to change this.

Sophie facilitated a project between the P1s and the Primary 7, and together, they set out to survey how many languages were spoken at each stage across the school. They identified 21 different languages spoken by Primary 1 children, and it made them feel sad that these languages were not represented across the school.  They decided to work on creating a set of multilingual signs to be shown in key locations around the school. Once created, they shared their work at a whole school assembly.

Sophie was delighted with the work produced by her children and the ways in which the children has been able to make changes to their school environment. In summing up her work with the children, she explained:

The children are becoming more aware of the different parts of their lives – such as languages used or learned at home – and they are now beginning to see these as relevant in the classroom.  The P1 children are also starting to have a sense of the impact they can have. By looking closely at the school and problem solving, they did come up with the journey themselves. They found out there was a problem – no representation of languages – and they worked out how they could solve it (transcript, 29th May).

Sophie’s practice is indicative of a stance that empowered the children to take authentic action that met the needs of the school community. She worked alongside the children using the children’s literature as a mirror, window and door to generate themes that would prompt the children to think about why and what they were able to do within the school to enact change (Short, Giorgis and Lowery, 2013: 42). The children responded to collaborative ways of working with others to solve problems, pre-figuring relationships within their own school that would extend their linguistic knowledge and challenge concepts that monolingualism was the norm.

Further reading

Arizpe, E., Farrell, M., McAdam, J. (2013) ‘Opening the classroom door to children’s literature: A review of research’, in Hall, K., Cremin, T., Comber, B. and Moll, L. (eds.) International Handbook of Research in Children’s Literacy, Learning and Culture.  London: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 241-57.

Bishop, R. S. (1990) ‘Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors’, Perspectives.  6 (3), pp. ix–xi.

Gopalakrishnan, A. (2011) Multicultural children’s literatureA critical issues approach. London: SAGE.

Guilherme, M. and Dietz, G.  (2015) ‘Difference in diversity: multiple perspectives on multicultural, intercultural, and transcultural conceptual complexities’, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 10 (1), pp. 1-21.

Kleist, N. and Jansen, S. (2016) ‘Introduction: Hope over Time—Crisis, Immobility and Future-Making’, History and Anthropology, 27 (4), pp. 373-392

Levitas, R. (2011) The concept of utopia. 2nd edn. Oxford: Peter Lang.

McAdam, J. E. (2019) ‘Narratives of change: the role of storytelling, artefacts and children’s literature in building communities of inquiry that care’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 49 (3), pp. 293-307.

Short, K. G. (2011) ‘Children taking social action within global inquiries’, The Dragon Lode, 20 (2), pp. 50-59

Short, K. G., Giorgis, C. and Lowery, R. M. (2013) ‘Books that make a difference: Kids taking action for social justice’, The Journal of Children’s Literature, 39 (1), pp. 32-35.

Smith-D’Arezzo, W. M. (2003) ‘Diversity in children’s literature: Not just a black and white issue’, Children’s Literature in Education34 (1), pp. 75-94.


For further information on the author of Mr Wuffles see: