Books as Mirrors: Black Immigrant Young Adult Literature

Illustration: Niege Borges

What might it feel like to open a book and see reflections of yourself?

Characters who speak like you. Settings that remind you of home. Story events that resemble your lived experiences.

In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University, wrote an article titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”. In the piece, she argued that books can be mirrors for children to see themselves. Books can also be windows for them to see in other worlds that differ from their own. Sliding glass doors, according to her, allows for children to see different worlds as well.

Essentially, diversity representation in children’s literature needs to go both ways. In an interview with Reading Rockets, Bishop says:

“I mean it’s not just children who have been marginalized who need these books. It’s also the children who always find their mirrors in the books, and therefore, get an exaggerated sense of self worth and a false sense of what the world is like because it’s becoming more and more diverse as time goes on.”

This two-way diversity is especially critical for a population that has been rendered invisible in the United States — Black immigrants.

Though Black immigrants have migrated to the US at increasing rates in the last five decades, they remain overlooked in US immigration policies. These policies are deeply rooted in white supremacists beliefs that uphold racism in America. Unfortunately, these beliefs shape the children’s book publishing industry, which does not reflect the United States’ rapidly growing diversity population.

While there are many ways to make Black immigrant youth feel a sense of belonging in this country, one way to do so is through literature.

Below, I’ve listed 7 young adult books that serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors into the Black immigrant experience across the globe. This list is not comprehensive. They are just a few of my personal favorites.

Young Adult Black Immigrant Books

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Ayiti by Roxanne Gay

Black Enough: Stories of Being Black in America by Ibi Zoboi

Home is Not a Country, Safia Elhillo

A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe

Now is The Time for Running by Michael Williams

What books would you add to this list?

Storyteller & Ph.D. Candidate @ The University of Texas at Austin. Writing about society, culture, women, and identity.

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