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Why Representation Matters

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

I still remember my first day of 1st grade at St. Lorenz—not the weather, who dropped me off

that day, or what outfit I chose to wear—but specifically my brand-new, bubblegum pink,

oversized wire frame glasses. My mom assures me this style was popular in the 90s—in fact, it is popular again now!—but as a sensitive and impressionable 6-year-old, I felt embarrassed and out of place.

I ran into the classroom and hid behind a wooden easel in the back of the room. I stayed there, motionless and silent, hoping I was entirely invisible, until everyone was seated, the commotion of first day excitement had settled, and Mrs. Schmidt said, “Good morning!”

We’ve all been there at some point in our lives: feeling like we are the outcast, the wallflower,

or the weirdo. Reading, it turns out, is one of the best ways to counteract these false narratives, reinforcing messages of kindness, inclusion, and self-worth.

The more that young people can see characters different from themselves in books, whether in the form of skin color, body type, family structure, dietary preferences, or any range of physical or mental capabilities, the more likely they are to normalize and understand these differences.

Two books that do this especially well, centralizing characters that are often marginalized or

overlooked, are Christian Robinson’s You Matter and Sonia Sotomayor’s Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You. When I read these books with my two-year-old, I look for the differences that make each character special. I draw attention to the little girl with the hearing aid, the boy in the wheelchair, the woman with the hijab, the mommy with vitiligo.

Representation is especially beneficial for anyone identifying with a minority population or a

marginalized group of people. According to a recent article in Psychology Today, Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, a Brown, Asian American child of immigrants, discusses the importance of

multimedia representation. He writes, “Positive media representation can be helpful in

increasing self-esteem for people of marginalized groups (especially youth).”

Seeing someone who looks like you, acts like you, has a prosthetic like you, experiences the

world without sight like you, etc. is empowering, and it conveys a subtle yet powerful message, one that we all need to remember from time to time: you matter. The classmate sitting at the desk next to you, the co-worker across the office, the neighbor you don’t quite

understand—they matter.

The children in Sonia Sotomayor’s Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You work together to build a community flower garden. In the same way that a variety of plants and flowers create a more beautiful and diverse garden, different types of people make our world more wonderful and vibrant too.

Back to my 1st grade classroom. Eventually, Mrs. Schmidt coaxed me out from behind the

easel, wrapped her arm around my shoulders, and ushered me to my seat. Eventually, as my teacher began to point out others who were also coming to school with new glasses, I began to realize that I was not alone, and that I most certainly did matter. I just needed to see a version of myself in the world (or on the page) in order to realize it.

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