Seeing yourself in a story
When I was a child of about eight or nine years old, something unexpected and traumatic happened. I lost my hair. I had a condition called alopecia and although most of us now recognise and understand the term, back in the 1970s that was not the case.
Having no hair was something of a comedy illness. Whilst no one would snigger at someone wearing, for example, a prosthetic limb, a wig was nothing more than a cause for hilarity, especially among other children.
The condition lasted until adulthood and no one ever knew why it started or why it stopped. As a bookish child, I was acutely aware of any references to hair in a story, whether it was Rapunzel whose hair was long enough to reach to the bottom of a tower, Jo March selling her locks in Little Women or Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley dying her red hair – the ingrate! – with embarrassing consequences.
I never once picked up a book where I saw a child like myself in the story.
Of course, one of the joys of fiction is to put yourself in another’s shoes and learn from experiences which perhaps you could never personally undergo. But there is also evidence to suggest that children also benefit from seeing themselves as the central star of a story.
I recently saw an inspirational talk by the award-winning writer Candy Gourlay and her long-time friend Judy Lawson, called ‘The Hero Is Me’. Philippines-born Gourlay explained her journey to becoming a writer and how, growing up, she had never seen children of her own background at the centre of a story. This affected her confidence as a writer and it was only when, eventually, she wrote about her own background and experience that her work really began to mean something.
Judy Lawson explained the astonishing results gained by the Shared Reading project in which children rewrote a famous story – such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or George’s Marvellous Medicine – and put themselves at the centre of it, complete with pictures. The children wanted to read this self-made story again and again, because they were at the heart of it.
In my debut children’s time fantasy novel, The Serpent House, the protagonist Annie has lost her hair. I wanted have a heroine who looked and felt different, who was not a Disney-style beauty with long, flowing locks or part of the familiar trope of the feisty redhead, which seems to be so desirable in children’s literature. It was also gratifying to win the support of a children’s alopecia charity, BeBold, whose young reviewers tell me there are hardly any books in which a central character looks like they do.
For a young reader, stories about people like themselves, even if they are rare, are an important confidence-building tool. And I think we all know how books help us empathise with those who are ‘different’.
Have you ever seen ‘yourself’ in a book? Do you prefer to get into the head of character who’s nothing like you?
[Image Credit: Reading 4, © Leonie Broekstra, OCA Photography student]