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The books that we give to our children help them form relations, those important relations that Charlotte Mason talked about so much, relating with God, relating with the universe around us, and relating with people, and that’s the aspect that we want to focus in on today. Joining me for this discussion is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.
Sonya: Amber, it’s so good to have you with us.
Amber: I am so happy to be here.
Sonya: When we talk about books that help us form relations with people, it’s easy to automatically jump to, “Oh, relating with others,” but Charlotte really had a burden for children to understand themselves, too. She wrote the book Ourselves so they could get to know themselves and respect themselves as a person, and I love how you describe those two aspects of relations with people. Would you like to explain that?
Amber: Sure, so I think when I began to examine “How can I best introduce the relationship between my children and others and my children with themselves?” I thought of books. I read an article long ago that related books to mirrors and windows, and it stuck with me, and I can say it really changed the way that I see my children’s education and our home bookshelves. Books as mirrors are books that children can see themselves reflected in. As they’re reading, they will recognize parts of that book and be able to say, “Oh, I know about that. I have that, I dream that, I’ve heard that. My family lives this way.” Then also, books as windows; in those types of situations, they’ll look through that book and they’ll say, “Wow, I can see another world. I can see the way people, who maybe have similarities but are different than me in other ways, I can see how they live,” and most importantly, “I can see their humanity.” I find that the combination of those two types of books really opened some amazing conversations and revolutionized my home school, if that’s not overpromising, but that’s what I feel like it did.
Sonya: In this post, let’s talk about books as mirrors, and then we can get into windows a little bit later. Why are books as mirrors so important to our children?
Amber: There’s so much I could say about that. There are two things that come to mind. First, we are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the important connection there is How can you love someone the way you love yourself when you don’t know yourself, you don’t have any relationship with yourself, you don’t love yourself? I think with those commandments in mind, there has to be a foundation laid where a child can know what it means instantly. When I tell you to love your neighbor as yourself, what does that mean? It allows children to connect themselves to the rest of the world and to the other people that are in the world. That’s on the macro level. On the micro level, in my own home, what it allowed for me was to show my child she’s important and that people like her are important, that people who are similar to her have done amazing things and made great contributions to this world. So I think those are the two main benefits of them.
Sonya: Now you referred to your daughter, but you have more than just a daughter.
Amber: I do, I have four children. My oldest is 11, and I have a nine-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and an almost five-year-old boy. So four children, but a lot of my experiences and what brought me to this point with the mirrors and windows, that groundwork, was laid with my oldest. She’s my guinea pig.
Sonya: The oldest is always the guinea pig.
Amber: I know. Poor girl, but I got it right with her.
Sonya: They survive, believe me they do, and they thrive. It sounds like she is thriving because of this discovery that you made and the changes you made in your home school. Tell a little bit about how you came to that point. You haven’t always been doing the books as mirrors.
Amber: Oh, no, not at all, and I wasn’t raised with any mirror books, or very few, so it wasn’t something that I was interested in. Or I didn’t know to be interested in, let’s put it like that. I didn’t know that was a way of explaining the world or meeting people through these books. So I started out our homeschooling adventure just following along with what everyone else was doing. I was reading the books to my children that I saw everyone else in the Charlotte Mason world reading, and they were great books. So there were no alarms going off in my head, because I was enjoying them.
Then this little girl started what I’ve come sometimes to refer to as “acting out,” and what I mean is acting out against herself, speaking very unkindly about herself, and her biggest concern was the way that she looked, all of them being markers of being African-American. So having brown skin was something that she just really did not like, and she would talk about it all the time and ask me, “Why do I have skin like this? Why do I look like this?” Her hair had all these curls. She couldn’t understand, “Why do I have all these curls, and why is my hair so big? Why do I have braids all of the time?” So in the middle of all of that, she began responding to different stimuli as a result, in a way that was related to how she felt about herself. I discovered she was hiding black baby dolls in the back of her closet. I knew they had gone somewhere, but I had to ask her, “Where did all the brown baby dolls go?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t know.” I’m thinking to myself, hmm . . . and one day I was organizing her closet and I saw them all shoved into the back of the closet. I asked her about it and she said she wanted to play with the white baby dolls because they were prettier. So these alarms are starting to go off in my head and I’m thinking, I had heard stories about children like that, but to me those were from long ago, and I didn’t expect it from a child being raised by me today.
Sonya: Right, because that wasn’t your attitude.
Sonya: That’s not the atmosphere you thought you were providing.
Amber: No, not at all. So I’m thinking, “Where is this coming from?” So I’m digging and praying, but I’m still carrying on in the same way, because again, I didn’t know the source of it. So it all came to a head one day when we were on a field trip. We went to a living museum and there were all these people dressed up in period pieces. It was a lovely day, and at the end before we get back in the car to head home (it was a long drive), we stopped to use the restroom. There was only one kind of big outhouse-type building. It was one restroom, and we all had to wait in line. It was a long line. My younger children were outside with a friend, so it was just my oldest daughter and me. We waited and waited and waited, and while we were waiting, we would see people go into the stalls, they would come out, they would wash their hands, put them under the automatic dryer, and head out the door. Finally, it’s her turn. She uses the bathroom, she washes her hands. I’m right behind her, I’m also washing my hands, and she goes and puts her hands under the automatic dryer and nothing happens. She moves them up and down and over and nothing happens. I’m sure you’ve experienced that before, sometimes you have to get it just right. For whatever reason, I don’t know if it was her height or the size of her hands, she was never able to trigger the dryer coming on. So in that moment, in this quiet bathroom in rural Georgia, she turns to me and says, “Well, I guess the dryers only work for white people.” I was like, “Oh, what’s just going on right now?” My head starts spinning. I’m thinking, “Oh.”
Sonya: How old was she?
Amber: She was six. I was thinking, “Why, why, why? If there could be a hole that could open up.” So I ushered her out with wet hands and we get outside and I said, “Okay, we’re about to go; let’s get in the car,” and we get in the van. Before we drive away, I just couldn’t let that go, and I said, “Why would you say that? What would make you say that the dryers would only work for white people?” She said, “Because white people know how everything works. I saw all those white women and when they put their hands under, the dryer came on, and when I did, it didn’t, and they know how everything works because they made everything and they know everything.” And I said, “Okay.” Those are those moments where you’re freaking out inside, but you stay calm because you want to keep them talking. I said, “Okay, and what would make you think that?” And she said, “Because you told me that we study important things and people in school, and we only study white people.” I said, “Okay.”
Amber: Yes, out of the mouths of babes. I said, “Okay,” and I said, “I want to focus on the car ride, because there are a lot of curvy turns” (I had to come up with something!) “out on these country roads. I’m going to put on an audio book, but later on when we get home, I would like to talk to you about that more.” And she said, “Okay, Mommy.” Really, I just couldn’t speak. I had to come up with something that would allow me to go into myself for a little bit on the drive home and unpack what had just happened, and I think that was the beginning of my path to looking and seeing that . . . I know I’m reading excellent books, and I cannot take anything away from them, but are those the right books for my children? I started researching and praying, and I feel like the books as mirrors and windows is kind of where I landed.
Sonya: When you think about books as mirrors in this situation, it’s not limited to just brown skin. We get requests all the time from parents saying, “Can you recommend books in which the main character is a homeschooler?” Because my child wants to connect with that aspect of their personhood. I mean, the emailer doesn’t say that part of it, but that’s why they’re asking. It could be homeschooling; it could be maybe you have an adopted child and they need to see that in books that they read. Maybe your child has a physical challenge with blindness or deafness or cerebral palsy or anything like that. Our kids need that type of mirror. What do you think it does inside them?
Amber: I believe it allows them to see that they matter and that there’s someone out there who is similar to them, so it tethers them to other people in the world, it helps them find their place in the world, and it also says that you’re valued. Someone thought to write this book about you because people like you are important. I definitely agree with you. For my family, because my daughter was specifically dealing with things related to our ethnicity, I would say my gateway into the books as mirrors was books about African-American children and people; but once I entered into the world and I started seeing, I started seeing mirrors everywhere. You’re very much right in that these mirrors are important for everyone, because when you think of only race or ethnicity or culture, then you would say that it only matters for non-white American children, and I haven’t seen that to be the case.
I’m reading a book right now for my daughter’s book club, and the main character loves to bake, and one of her best friends has celiac disease and has to be very careful with her exposure, and just seeing how they talk about that, she still doesn’t miss out on anything. She still went to the bakery and decorated the things with her friends, but they made sure that she was safe. It’s not a major part of the storyline, it just is. I thought as I’m reading, that little children for whom it’s very important for their lives that they not be exposed to gluten will look at this book and say, “I can have friends, and my friends won’t think this is weird or strange, and it’s okay if they have to make accommodations for me because they love me.” So I see examples like that. I’ve had other friends tell me that when a character mentions that they are dyslexic or have another learning difference or they have a different type of family—maybe Daddy has passed away, maybe Grandmother is raising them—you have the city mouse and the country mouse, children who have urban lives versus rural lives. I mean, I could go on and on, but I think that, of course, we’re not going to idolize differences and look for every single aspect and how many ways can we slice it, but I think the things that your child most identifies with as being who they are, are beautiful places to begin to look for mirrors.
Sonya: I was thinking, as I think you have, that when we started my homeschool journey, I wanted to emphasize character, because I thought that was the unifying characteristic, if you will, the aspect that is true no matter what your situation is, no matter your ethnicity, whether you’re adopted or biological family, all of these unique traits, particular traits that we talked about. But as I heard about your story and talked with you, it has really changed my mind. I mean, character is still highly important. The books that we choose, even if they do address these other aspects, we still need to make sure that they have high character in their plot lines, in their whole storylines; but it’s not the whole picture. Character is not the whole picture of who a person is.
Amber: No, and I think that it’s so comfortable to think it is, and I think that’s what was happening with me. I was raising my daughter for the world that I wished we lived in instead of the world we actually live in. So in reality, while character is so important, it’s not fair to ask children to always imagine themselves in the situations that the characters in their books find themselves in. We can say, “Well, no one looks like you or has these similar traits as you in all of the books that you’re reading, but you could imagine yourself in that book, in this book, in that book, in this book.” I think a little bit of that is surely important for all children—for the book that they’re reading, for the ideas of the book to transcend maybe what the characters look like or their lifestyles—but at some point the child has to be able to say, “I could see myself doing that,” or “I can see that people like me are experiencing this aspect of life.” So I think that it’s rooted in character, but the manifestation of that character has to somehow reflect the child.
Sonya: It can be asking an awful lot of children to ask them to make that leap, when even as adults we struggle with it. I mean, we want to know about other homeschool moms.
Amber: Don’t we?
Sonya: Yes, we do; because as you said, it tethers us, it gives us that sense of belonging and that sense of place that lays that solid groundwork. I just keep coming back to “I am, I can.” Those two aspects of the student motto are so rooted in your sense of self.
Amber: That’s very true, and I’ve talked about this a lot. I know one thing that some people have said, I’ve talked about some classic books and how wonderful they are, and how they have a place on my shelf still. So this is never a message of wiping everything out, but it’s more a message of taking some down and “schootching over” and allowing room for these other voices and other stories. I think when I thought about the classics specifically, and I began to speak about those, friends would tell me, “Well, when I was a little girl, I had blonde hair, and the little girl in this book had dark hair, and I have freckles and she didn’t; and I would just imagine that I was her. Why can’t your children do that?” I thought to myself, “It’s not the same. It’s not the same.” To imagine yourself in some books or to just be happy that you’re not in the book, that works sometimes. But to say you’re going to spend your entire childhood imagining away all of the beautiful language and adjectives that an author uses to describe a person and their family and the things that are said and how that family operates in the world, that is not something that’s going to allow our children to walk away feeling like they have a voice and a place, feeling like they matter.
Sonya: So how did you make that transition, that little “scootchy” on your bookshelf? Like you said, we don’t want to just take all the good stuff and throw it out. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. How did you work it with your schedule? Are we adding a bunch more books, so now we’re just drowning in books? How did you make that transition?
Amber: It was a step process, and I did not arrive at where I am today overnight. It actually took years, and I think sometimes people are surprised to hear that. It took years to get to where I am. So my first step, because I couldn’t add on to our day—one, that would not be a Charlotte Mason type of a thing to do, but also just for the happiness of my family, I don’t want to be doing school all the way into the night—and so I also wasn’t prepared at that time to remove anything. I lacked confidence and I still hadn’t quite worked out in my mind the separation between Charlotte Mason’s principles and a book list. At the time they were enmeshed, and so I couldn’t remove books; I just couldn’t. So what I did was I did my three terms and then I added a fourth term, and to my friends who were close to me at the time, they know that I referred to it as my black term. So we had our three proper “Charlotte Mason terms,” and then we had a “Charlotte Mason and an Afro term,” and that’s the time we would spend those weeks diving deep in every aspect. So we listened to black composers and read black poets who were writing poetry about black things, and we looked at the artwork of black artists, we read historical fiction that talked about things that black people were experiencing during the time period that we had spent for our other three terms, and we read biographies about black people, and we sung hymns, the same hymns, but we sung them a black way.
Sonya: Black style.
Amber: It’s different.
Sonya: It is. I played piano for a black church for three years. Honey, I love black music. It is my heart music.
Amber: Yes, it’s different. So we spent that time and we just jumped in, and it brought life back to my little girl. She stopped asking me every time we went somewhere, “Will I be the only brown one?” The baby dolls came out. I pulled them out of the closet, but I never mixed them into her toys because I wanted to see her do it. So I set them aside and they were moved into regular play. They came into the rotation and I knew then that we were onto something. The children began talking about it with people out in the community. They would tell the mailman that they always used to wait for, and they would be out there singing with a little bit of rhythm there; and they would tell their grandparents, you know, children like to tell their grandparents about what they’re learning, and they would tell them about the music they were listening to and the artists, and they were reciting poems.
I saw the spark in their eyes, and I knew then that whatever we were experiencing in the fourth term was something special and it needed to be experienced throughout the rest of the year. So then the next transition was, “Oh my gosh, how can I remove something?” I had to come to an acceptance that doing things a little bit differently than all of my friends was not going to make me less of a Charlotte Mason mother, and in fact, I’ve now come to the conclusion and say that it would be more. Charlotte Mason really respected the mother as knowing what was best for her children, and in fact she said that when we know what’s best that, you know, in my words, we’ll move mountains to give it to our children. I said, “I know what’s best, and she’s expecting me to move mountains.” That’s when for that next school year and ever since then, I pulled some things off. I did not add on. You really cannot add on. I pulled some things off, shifted some things to another day, pulled some things from our school lessons to our free read shelves, and made room. At first I made room for black voices, because that was the healing balm that my children needed. But since then, it’s expanded even more to say, “Oh, that was good, but what about these people over here, or what about those people?” Even within white America, I have found areas; I was recently reading My Antonia and learning about this life and this slice of America that I didn’t know about, and people that wouldn’t be considered people of color, ethnic people, but yet learning their differences and similarities and what they bring to the table. So I just started looking at all these different things and getting hungry for more. So now our view of mirrors in our home has expanded quite a bit, but it started with the black term.
Sonya: So it sounds like as you expanded those mirrors, you were also working on the windows aspect and seeing other people around you.
Sonya: Let’s talk about that next time. How can people connect with you, Amber?
Sonya: Great, thanks so much for sharing today.
Amber: Thanks for having me.