Books and Belonging: The Importance of Seeing Ourselves in Stories, a guest post by author Misty Wilson
There is a universal truth that applies to nearly everyone: we want to feel like we belong. Even us introverts—the ones who’d rather hang out by ourselves on the weekends—need our people. The people we can turn to when things get hard, when we need advice, when we’re bored and just want to chat.
When I was teaching third grade, I had a student who stayed in for recess every day because they said they didn’t fit in with anyone and others who cried because they weren’t “popular.” In third grade—it was mind-blowing because they were so young. But the reality is, sometimes being a kid is hard. And often, kids endure more than they should have to.
But I wanted kids to know that they aren’t alone in their feelings and their experiences. My middle-school years had been very similar to what some of my students were already going through, so I decided to write Play Like a Girl.
Sure, my graphic memoir is a story of a girl taking on a male-dominated sport in the face of adversity, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s about toxic friendships and friendship break-ups. It’s about first crushes and disappointment, about failure and persistence. It’s about finding your people and figuring out where you belong. Mostly, it’s about being true to yourself—even when others don’t accept you.
Other people’s stories—whether fictional or real—help us process our own experiences, help us deal with our own trauma, help us feel seen. While each of us is unique, our identities don’t exist in a vacuum. Media and society influence our behaviors, the way we view others, and the way we think of ourselves, which is why it’s so important that kids have access to books that represent their own identities and experiences—especially in a positive light. If girls, for example, are constantly exposed to the misinformation that they’re lesser than their male counterparts, or if boys are continuously told they shouldn’t cry, that they need to toughen up, that they can’t like the color pink, they begin to believe it. Books are the window through which we see what could be—what should be—and the door through which we walk to experience something secondhand before (maybe, hopefully) venturing out and doing it ourselves.
Books give us the courage to be brave even when we’re scared. They help us face the unimaginable. And maybe the unimaginable isn’t dragons or witches, but is instead our parents, our bullies, or even ourselves. Books help us grieve and teach us about love and loss. They give us a place to escape when we’re overwhelmed, sad, or angry with the world.
Books help us see that we don’t belong in boxes. That we aren’t alone. That it’s okay to fight back against injustices and stand up for others. That it’s okay to cry when we’re expected to be strong. And that strength isn’t defined by how stoic we pretend to be, but rather by the feelings we claim and face head on. They help us know we’ll come out stronger on the other side.
Books bring us laughter and joy, and they grant us permission to believe in and to love ourselves. They have the power to change the way we view the world.
Sometimes, books are the only place kids see themselves. For many, these books are lifelines, giving kids hope, showing them joy can exist for them, letting them know they belong even when the world around them seems to be telling them otherwise.
In Play Like a Girl, I face boys telling me I don’t belong on the team and mean girls making it clear I don’t belong in their clique. Middle school was extremely hard at times—I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. For years, I kept all my feelings bottled up. I think many of the feelings I had in middle school were universal, yet I often felt alone with them.
However, my graphic memoir is ultimately a feel-good story because middle school was also one of the best times of my life. It was when I learned to be myself, that it was okay to break out of the box girls are placed in, and to face (or ignore) the people who didn’t accept me. It was when I figured out that the people I was surrounding myself with were part of the problem—that what I needed was to find people who loved me for who I was, that I needed to forge my own path and not change in order to be what others expected. For me, middle school had a happy ending—even if it wasn’t the ending I’d gone in wanting.
I often wonder, if I’d read a book like Play Like a Girl when I was a kid, would I have figured everything out sooner? Maybe not. Maybe we have to actually go through the experiences in order to make the discoveries about ourselves. But I’m certain that seeing a girl like myself in a book would have helped me know I wasn’t alone. It would have given me hope and courage and a sense of belonging.
Having the opportunity to share words with others is a privilege. So, I want to use this opportunity to thank the librarians, authors, teachers, parents, and, yes, the kids, who are fighting book bans across the country. Kids need access to books that help them know they are loved, that show them that they are important, that tell them their existence is both needed and wanted.
And to all the kids feeling hopeless or unaccepted, facing friendship troubles or heartbreak, fighting with your parents, or feeling alone:
You will always have a home in books. You belong.
Meet Author Misty Wilson
Misty Wilson is the author of Play Like a Girl, her debut middle-grade graphic memoir, which earned a starred review from Booklist and was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Misty teaches by day and writes by night. She’s a voracious reader who also loves binge-watching television shows. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, David Wilson, illustrator of Play Like a Girl, and their two daughters.
Headshot credit: David Wilson
Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3nOeMY3nT8
Filed under: Graphic Novels
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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