Matthew de la Peña knows what a profound impact literature can have on kids. As an author of young-adult fiction, he can talk all about how books like “The House on Mango Street” made him a reader by showing him diverse, non-white characters he identified with.
But de la Peña saw the impact of his own work firsthand two years ago when a student and a librarian at a high school in Tucson, Arizona, invited de la Peña to visit. As the New York Times reported, the invite came just before the Arizona Legislature banned his book as part of the dismantling of a program it deemed "anti-white." When de la Peña arrived months later, he brought 240 copies of his book for the kids to replace the ones taken away and was surprised at the impact of his book on young readers.
“It was the ultimate symbol that these books, whose characters look like these kids, were being placed in the basement,” de la Peña said. “All they really did was create a generation of activists. These kids were chaining themselves to seats in city hall. They were really fighting for their program.”
Literature as a catalyst for action and changing attitudes is not new — a study from Washington and Lee University earlier this year suggests that reading fiction can make people less racist. But how the books written for children really affect them is something science is just beginning to explore.
"Kids aren't going to do everything they read about for goodness sake," ALAN Review founder Alleen Nilsen said. "But it can help them understand (the world)."
Accio, world view
As the Washington study points out, children who are exposed to a wide range of characters and ideas in books written for their age group develop a more accepting and open attitude toward others in real life. The study found that young people whose worlds are mostly limited to their families and school develop empathy for characters they become attached to — even if they come from completely different backgrounds.
Among the most popular books for young readers is the Harry Potter series. While he may not have been a racial minority, the boy who lived encountered and fought against all sorts of prejudice between muggles and pure-bloods.
Anthony Gierzynski, University of Vermont professor and author of the book "Harry Potter and the Millennials," studied the series. In his book, Gierzynski highlights his research on the kids who were fans of the books versus those who were not.
Gierzynski and his students hypothesized in class about the possible impact of children's books on a person's outlook when read as a child versus another outlet like TV. They then visited seven college and university campuses in 2009, surveying more than 1,000 millennial-age students about the impact of Harry Potter on their lives that included their outlooks on violence, authority and politics.
"Consistently, fans of the series differed from non-fans," Gierzynski said. "The fans tended to be less authoritarian and less supportive of the use of violence, for example."
Gierzynski said young kids can develop opinions about the world formed in empathy for book characters. So when Draco Malfoy humiliates Hermione for her muggle heritage in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," a young reader might translate that into a reaction against racism later in life.
Gierzynski said readers become more immersed in the story than when they see it on screen, which is why participants who were only exposed to the Potter films didn't develop the same level of tolerance readers did.
"The level of transportation into a narrative that the reader experiences, the more immersed in the story you are, the more likely you are to adopt the perspectives from the narrative," Gierzynski said. "Reading is much more immersive than watching a film. Especially since those who read the books often read them more than once."
Gierzynskis' findings were echoed in a study published last month in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that found young Harry Potter fans were more likely to have "improved attitudes" about minorities and stigmatized groups such as the LGBT community.
Researchers in that study surveyed British and Italian students about their opinions on groups like homosexuals and immigrants. They then split up the kids into two discussion groups: Ones who read passages of "Harry Potter" that dealt with prejudice and those who read neutral passages. One week after the groups, new surveys found that students who discussed oppression in the books developed a positive perspective for victims of prejudice, while the others did not change their opinions significantly.
“Participants reading about Harry Potter’s interactions with characters belonging to stigmatized groups may have learned to take the perspective of discriminated group members,” the study concluded. “(Participants) applied this enhanced ability to understand disadvantaged groups. Contact via fictional characters improved attitudes by eliciting a cognitive process similar in real contact.”
While books can't be the only thing influencing a child's attitude, Gierzynski said, the books in kids' backpacks may count more than parents realize.
"You’re trying to put together a picture of a factor of how people come to see the world. If you discount the role of narrative in that, you’re missing a big part," Gierzynski said.
Diversity in kids' books doesn't just help kids become more tolerant, it can also help kids in minority groups, Louisiana State University education professor Steve Bickmore said.
"If kids can see themselves reflected, they’re more likely to read," Bickmore said. "So often, they’re often required to read books that don’t reflect who they are."
That can easily turn kids off reading, which is exactly what de la Peña says happened to him.
"As a kid, once or twice I was exposed to a book without a white character. And that really turned me into a non-reader because it felt very removed from my experience," de la Peña said.
And that lack of diversity may be part of a continuing achievement gap, Bickmore suggested.
Bickmore said, "If you look at the demographics on reading, white kids outread black and Hispanic kids. Maybe only 20 percent of the books for kids in early reading ages would be ethnic (feature ethnic characters). That's not an intrinsic motivation to read."
Common Sense Media's 2014 report found that 46 percent of white children were considered reading "proficient" compared to 20 percent of Hispanic kids and 18 percent of black children.
"It's about getting kids engaged and giving them the power and exposure to choose books for themselves," Bickmore said. "If they're not doing that by the middle grades, it's harder to do that in high school."
Reading and talking
For parents who are concerned about what their children read, Nilsen urges patience and communication.
"Parents and teachers can have a ton of influence over young readers, but not if they refuse to think about it," Nilsen said. "You won't learn anything if you refuse to talk about it with your kids. Don't just count the swear words in it, think about it and help your kids form their conclusions."
Bickmore agrees and added that reading to kids can lead to later helping kids choose books that are right for them.
"One of my favorite things to do with kids is say, 'OK, you read 'The Hunger Games,' now let's draw comparisons between 13 districts and the 13 colonies," Bickmore said. "You can talk with them and give them that extra dimension to what they're reading. That builds kids into critical thinkers."
When in doubt, Nilsen said, parents should test the books out first or with their kids to help identify themes and values that can lead to great discussions.
"The parents should read these books themselves. Kids love to talk about serious issues," Nilsen said. "Kids also respect their parents. They want to know what you think."
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