By Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu, illustrated by Irene Omiunu, Philly & Belle Publishing, 2018
My 4-year old’s perspective on why this book about a little girl who likes how she looks isn’t just for children who look like her.
We bought this book a little over a year ago in a shopping spree for picture books with Black characters. My then 3-year old had started making some alarming comments connecting skin colour to ability, and my first instinct was to reassess our library. What I thought to be a diverse selection, turned out to be only a handful of books with main characters who weren’t white.
In the first person, ‘Who Do I See In The Mirror?’ follows Philly – a cherubic Black pre-schooler – as she takes us though each of her features – curly hair, big brown eyes, soft brown skin, strong legs, etc – gleefully describing what she loves about each with pride and wonder. At the end of each description, she tells us that she is not just this one feature – she is much more. (I often add in another ‘much’ when reading to the now 4 year old – “I am much MUCH more.”) Philly concludes that she is made up of all her features alongside her “kind heart and curious mind.”
As a white mother to mixed children, I’m always on high alert to the forces that may make my children feel less-than. Although I was first taken aback when the younger child commented that her fairer skin made her better at things than her older sister, I knew she was really expressing a need to reinforce her own self-worth. ‘Who Do I See in the Mirror?’ was part of our attempt to address that.
The publishers Philly & Friends set out to “encourage confidence, self-love and diversity in our beloved children.” That’s what we need, I thought. Box ticked. It didn’t matter that on first read, I thought this book was a bit on the nose and worthy. Intellectually, I could see why the book was important; because representation matters and we need to see more girls (particularly black girls) who like themselves. I wondered though if my children – with their ‘peachy-brown’ skin (as the youngest calls it) and curls that lengthen in the bath instead of shrink like Philly’s – would relate to it. I thought we might read it a few times before it languished in the overstuffed bookshelves.
I’ve written before about how my taste in children’s literature and my children’s often diverge. To my surprise, the 4 year old kept requesting this book over and over again, and I started to realise how novel this seemingly simple picture book really is.
After reading this book several times, I realised how little we see representation of anyone declaring outright that they like themselves with no caveat or pretence; how to do so is at best jarring and – if you’re in the UK – seen as something that only happens in America. I realised that, more than an academic exercise, this book is a revolution. (Ruth recently wrote about a similarly powerful book in her review of Joanna Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.)
I wonder if those with children who don’t look like my children might think that they don’t ‘need’ this book. Might parents with children who don’t look like Philly think that her message of self-belief is not meant for them? To that, I will refer you to my daughter, who can provide a better review than me. When I asked her why she liked the book so much, she said:
“I like that she likes herself all the time. On this page, and this page, and this one, she says that she likes herself.”
“And how does that make you feel when we read it?” I asked.
“It makes me care about myself more. Can we read it every day?”
If you’re interested in this book, I highly recommend you watch the beautiful reading by actress Susan Wokoma on Tàta Storytime.