“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”
The first time I ever saw myself in a book was when I was five, and my mother read Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda for the first time. Matilda’s plucky personality, love of books, and firm belief in magic all resonated, but it was her feelings of being an outsider that truly stuck with me. From the inside out, Matilda and I seemed one and the same, with our muddy brown hair and short stature. All I was missing were her awful parents, something I was and am glad I didn’t share! To this day the same tattered edition of Matilda comes to college with me each year, and I still see it as one of the most significant pieces of literature in my life.
As an adult, I recognize that finding a character who looked like me at such a young age was a privilege. Like all literature, middle grade and young adult fiction struggles to represent all children in that age group (around 9-18). Every reader knows the power of seeing themselves in a book like Matilda; it gives us confidence to be who we truly are. Perhaps even more importantly, seeing people who don’t look like us in books created empathy and understanding of different backgrounds and abilities. While massive strides toward a more complex version of diversity have been made in the past decade, there are still gaps that need to be filled. Also significant is the problem of dissemination. When these books are written, how do educators, parents, and students find about them?
My website InclusiviREAD was born out of this question. I wanted to create an easily accessible website where children, their parents, and their teachers could all find books at an appropriate reading level that choose to include at least one significant character who has a disability or debilitating condition. I chose to focus specifically on disability because I felt it was a marginalized group that is often overlooked in conversations on representation and diversity. InclusiviREAD has a database of nearly 300 middle grade and young adult novels that have been categorized to fit certain needs; for example, a high school English teacher who wants a book that is historically accurate will receive different, tailored recommendations on the website than a sixth-grader who wants to read science fiction. As the number of people that InclusiviREAD reaches increases, hopefully the number of books will increase as well. It is a collaborative and sustainable place for people who want to choose inclusion in their everyday reading.
When educators do not include stories of children with disabilities in their classrooms, when parents do not invite their children to read books where characters face challenges from a difference of ability, or when students who have a disability do not see themselves reflected in their literature, the world loses. A lack of inclusion is a failure to reveal complexity, and by so doing children of all abilities will struggle to see themselves as the complex, thoughtful human beings that they are. It should be a right, not a privilege, to experience the feeling of being known like I did with Matilda. Just one book can have an impact on how a child will see themselves forever; everyone has a responsibility to make sure that chosen book is worthy of its significance.