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NEA News

How Books Can Mirror Children’s Mental Health

This week, acclaimed author Ellen Oh connected with a New Jersey school where the librarian won NEA's Read Across America Sweepstakes. Oh's characters, who suffer from real-life issues like anxiety and grief, can support children with the same issues.
Screenshot of Ellen Oh's virtual author visit
Published: May 12, 2022

The old saying is “misery loves company,” but New Jersey school librarian Monica Dennler doesn’t see it that way. For her and many other readers, a book that mirrors real-life challenges and traumas can be comforting.

 “My first thought when reading ‘Finding Junie Kim’ by Ellen Oh was ‘this is a real character, with real emotions,’” recalls Dennler.

Especially today as mental-health issues among children and teens—especially anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation—continue to skyrocket, and as an estimated 214,000 U.S. children are grieving the loss of a parent to Covid, a book with the right character and conflict can help.

“Students often look to books to validate and identify who they are and how they think and feel,” says Dennler. “Having books, like ‘Finding Junie Kim,’ that act as ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’ make student feel less alone and isolated.”

Welcoming Oh

Put simply, Dennler is a big fan of Oh and her work. And that’s why it was such a thrill for Dennler to virtually host Oh in her Easthampton Community School classroom this week, as part of NEA’s Read Across America Sweepstakes.

Dennler had entered the sweepstakes in January, and her entry was selected randomly by NEA from nearly 7,500 entries. As a result, in conjunction with the New Jersey Education Association, NEA connected the acclaimed author with Dennler’s students and delivered 80 copies of Oh’s “Finding Junie Kim” to the school. During the event, Oh, who also is the author of “Dragon Egg Princess” and “The Spirit Hunters,” read aloud to students and answered their questions.

screenshot from Ellen Oh's virtual author visit to a New Jersey school

Winning the NEA contest will help bring awareness within our school and community as to the importance of students seeing themselves and their friends reflected in literature,” said Dennler. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to meet Ellen Oh, especially during AAPI heritage month.

Oh, who is Asian American, frequently deals with topics of racism, self-esteem, grief, and courage. In “Finding Junie Kim,” the main character, Junie, is a Korean American, who is called “dog eater” and other racist names by boys at her middle school. It’s painful. She wants to disappear. But, she has been spending time with her grandparents, Korean War survivors, and their stories inspire her.

The book is among NEA’s Read Across America (RAA) recommended titles.

“Oh embodies the spirit of [RAA] as we continue to celebrate and create a nation of diverse books, readers, and authors,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “All students deserve the freedom to read more books that are as diverse and complex as the society in which we live.”

The Power of Books

School librarians like Dennler often mention “windows” and “mirrors”—concepts developed by professor Rudine Sims Bishop—when they talk about children’s and young-adult books.

What they mean is that books can serve two purposes for their readers: They can “mirror” the reader’s life experiences, which is validating and academically engaging for readers, or they can provide “windows” into other people’s experiences. Ideally, children would have an equal mix of mirrors and windows, which means a children’s library would contain diverse characters and experiences.

In reality, it’s still a lot easier to find books with White middle-class characters, although librarians note some progress. Authors like Angie Thomas, Jason Maldonado, and Kwame Alexander are breaking through, and more resources are available for parents and educators to find diverse books.

“When we have books that include characters of all races, genders, and backgrounds, students discover their own voices and learn from the stories and voices of others,” notes Pringle.

Resources on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Student and Educator Mental Health

Supporting our students’ and educators’ mental health with social emotional learning (SEL) helps the whole school community thrive.

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National Education Association

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.