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Sally J. Pla: What Kids Need from Fiction (SEL, Mental/Behavioral Health)

photo by Robert Adams, "New Housing: Colorado Springs," 1969.

Many of us, especially those of us with underrepresented identities, often describe the "first time I saw myself in a book" as a moment of magic. A rite of passage, a life-changing, validating moment. We talk of mirror-books, window-books:

"Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience . . . readers often seek their mirrors in books.” -- Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop

It's a brilliant point. And certainly, all children deserve to see themselves in a book.

But here's the thing: When I was young, I didn't want a mirror! I didn't care about seeing myself in a book at all!

I wanted someone better than me, who knew more than me.

I wanted a role model, a guide.

I grew up an undiagnosed autistic/neurodivergent child in a sometimes turbulent, confusing environment. For many reasons, I had a very hard time, and I turned to stories to teach me how to behave. And what I wanted from books was a blueprint. Instructions. How do you navigate confusing everyday situations?

Literary and television characters taught me how to act, do, be. Nancy Drew eschewed gossip and exuded thoughtfulness. That gave me clues. The Boxcar Children were polite and respectful to each other. I liked that. How did Ramona and Beezus's parents discipline them? Were there other ways for families to be? How did the All-of-a-Kind Family, The Borrowers family, treat each other? How were bullies handled?

My childhood yearning for models was not unique. Many writer- and reader-friends over the years have confided how they, too, studied literary and TV families in desperate fascination, looking for clues and life-lessons we weren't finding elsewhere.

There are so many elements to building the house of childhood.

I'm not saying that the windows, mirrors, and doors aren't important. They are! I'm just saying that some kids may need a bit more of a foundational blueprint.

Settings that model a reliable and caring community. Plots that show the golden rule in action. Main characters who model tolerance, acceptance, understanding, intelligence, good decision-making. They don't have to be old-fashioned, saccharine-goody-two-shoes books. They just have to model something to strive for. What healthy family relationships look like. Kindness in action.

Because it's rough out there, and some kids may not be seeing much of that on display in their daily lives.

And how can children strive for something, or personally achieve it, if they don't ever see it well and truly modeled in the stories that surround them?


In addition to being an advocate for neurodiversity and autism acceptance, Sally J. Pla is the award-winning author of the novels, The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and the picture book Benji, The Bad Day, And Me. Her newest novel, The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, pubs in 2023. Sally's also co-founder and editor of A Novel Mind. Find more about her on linktree, at, and on Twitter @sallyjpla.


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