Deconstruct prejudices and stereotypes

An impression about Winny Ang's masterclass by Portuguese reading mediator Ana Sofia Nunes

The world of children's literature has always fascinated me. The fact that I worked as a kindergarten teacher has deepened my relationship with the illustrated books, since I used them to provoke conversations, discoveries, thoughts or even in an attempt to answer questions that came up.

Today, as a reading mediator, I think that I have become more critical in relation to the illustrated book, in the same way that I increasingly understand this type of literature as a support for the development of the thinking of both children and adults… I love it when these books cause smiles and muffled laughter in the so-called “grown-ups”.

However, what to think of representation in children's literature? What is the meaning of this word in this context?

On September 30, I had the opportunity to participate in a masterclass under the Every Story Matters Project, as a member of Acesso Cultura, an association that “promotes access - physical, social and intellectual - to cultural participation” which is one of the project partners. This project, financed by Creative Europe, aims to make books more inclusive.

This masterclass taught by Winny Ang, a psychiatrist who also writes children's books, was a time to reflect on the impact of reading and storytelling on children's development. What is the relationship between stories and people's mental health? How do identity, emotions and imagination develop when we think of the literature / psychology relationship?

There was a phrase that Winny said that stuck with me: “When we reflect on a text, there are no absolute truths”. This statement is valid in all my work: in reading mediation, in cultural mediation, in the educational act, in artistic creation. To work in these areas is to dance in subjectivity without losing the north; it is not to forget “the other”, their voice, their narratives, their experiences. That’s why it becomes a challenging and rich job; that's why I love what I do so much.

Reading is an encounter between a specific reader, at a specific time and place. I read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World for the first time at the age of 18 and read it again at the age of 28. It was two different readings of the same book, because I was no longer the same person: I had gained new experiences, perspectives, opinions.

In this sense, Winny spoke of a cycle consisting of three parts: reading-child-context. She elaborated this idea, giving the example of looking at a kaleidoscope: everything mixes together. Our identity is made up of dynamic dimensions where there are several intersections: sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, socialisation (professional), social class. Our identity is something dynamic as we play several roles in our lives. Defining ourselves is a complex act. So many times, I find myself thinking about Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms: many times I feel like several people in one.

Although the global development of children and young people is something continuous over time (instead of something airtight that can be “put in boxes”), Winny got all participants thinking about specific age groups, as these are intrinsically linked to a certain maturity. If babies (0-2 years old) start their life as readers, they "read" with all their senses and we are contributing to the development of their non-verbal and pre-verbal language. We are, thus, located in the sensorimotor stage, according to Piaget, where basic emotions and the bond are the structure of the baby's development.

The pre-reader (2-6 years old), who has a concrete language, is in a stage of development where fantasy is getting to be something conscious: hence, the distinction between reality and make-believe. When one enters the age group between 6 and 10 years old, we start to observe a child-reader as a hero / heroine. Here, we enter the world of metaphor, in which the level of socio-emotional development reveals a complexity of emotions, the capacity to build self-concept (“self”) and empathy. The interest in adventure stories begins to develop.

In the adolescent age group (and pre-adolescent, if we position ourselves between 11 and 16 years old), we start to observe a reader / thinker. The ability to think and abstract language allows the confrontation of complex perspectives on a given subject. It is, thus, relevant to introduce readings that lead to questioning, that provide a reflection on values ​​and norms. The young person begins to identify with certain values ​​and to think about moral dilemmas.

Being aware of these developmental stages of children and young people is essential not only in choosing books for mediation sessions but also in creating the books themselves, both in terms of narrative and in terms of illustration. I ask: how many picture books do you know in which the main character is black?

Representation in books matters because only then do we identify with them. Children's literature is a strong ally of civic education when it addresses fracturing issues such as gender, sexual orientation, racial diversity, disability or illness. In this sense, I have already mentioned some books, namely the editions of Falas Afrikanas Project, Julian's book (Julian is a mermaid) or what has been edited by Fragmenta / Akiara. In the future I will bring more examples.

After all, what stories inhabit the memory of our childhood? It is important to reflect on this, just as it is important that heroes are not always boys or that girls are always associated with the image of a beautiful girl who loves princesses (and here we can soon begin to question the standard of beauty); that there are boys who love to play changing clothes for dolls and going shopping; whereas girls also like martial arts or firefighters; that black and Asian boys and girls from different origins have completely different childhoods than we are used to seeing, because their toys are different from ours and their games too. And they are all valid: this is the richness of diversity and representation.

Children's literature has the power to deconstruct prejudices and stereotypes. Let’s use it.

Read the original article in Portuguese here:

With thanks to Maria Vlachou for the translation.

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