Ah, the joy that comes with the smell of a new book. It’s probably related to a strong and special connection with literature that was created while we were growing up. It might be a connection with a character, even to the point of considering them our friend. Or maybe we just can’t stop reading a novel because we have the impression the author is talking to us. The sense of intimacy and pleasure we derive from literature is a very powerful tool.
Maria Nikolajeva is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. In 2014 she published the book ‘Reading for Learning. Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature’, a presentation of her research on young readers’ cognitive and emotional engagement with fiction. Her findings show that reading fiction is not merely pleasurable, it is essential for our cognitive, social and emotional development. Moreover, pleasure makes the acquisition of knowledge more efficient. In fact books are likely to be more powerful than movies in developing empathy.
Recent comparative research by Marlon Schotel (Tilburg University) on the cognitive responses of readers and viewers of fiction demonstrates that both books and films contain many indicators of possible positive effects on out-group attitudes. But a book’s potential is embedded in a deeper cognitive complexity. In short, reading has many benefits and enjoying reading is key to acquiring them.
So how can we stimulate the joy of reading diverse and inclusive literature with young readers?
Diverse reading as a general lens. Instead of introducing supposedly inclusive reading on special days, or creating a separate table with diverse books, it would be more effective to add a critical lens to our general selection process. Diversity and inclusion should not be a niche, but rather a paradigm for all the decisions we make. This does not necessary mean eliminating any text that may contain discriminatory elements. It means providing the tools we need if we are to read them critically.
Building active reading communities. Among the most enjoyable and powerful reading experiences are those that take place in reading communities, reading circles or book clubs. When young readers are involved in systematic discussion about the books they read, they acquire a capacity to see the way different readers create meaning out of the same text. Any collective reading practice can then become an inclusive experience in its own right, promoting a deeper understanding of different perspectives.
Horizontal dialogues. Books do not contain an inner meaning. Meanings are built through each reader’s connection with what the author has written. A book may allow a young reader to feel represented through the voice of a character for the first time, while simultaneously making another reader feel uncomfortable. In fact many of the books we consider valuable in terms of diversity and inclusion may make certain groups of readers feel awkward. It’s important for adult mediators to be aware of this and allow everyone to express feelings and opinions of their own, while avoiding evaluative and moral judgements. Instead of building dialogues based on closed questions, to check whether a child has understood the storyline and whether they get the message, it’s more powerful to let the books open up questions, discussions and new ways of understanding the complexity of human life.