Librarians who serve children in predominantly Latino communities were shocked this past December to read a New York Times article claiming that there is a dearth of Latino characters in books written for young readers—a notion that is at odds with their own experiences. In fact, they tell School Library Journal, there is actually a wealth of resources currently available to these kids, and librarians have the power (and the responsibility) to make those meaningful connections.
“When I first started as a librarian 27 years ago, there was very little out there,” admits Tim Wadham, director of the City of Puyallup Public Library, WA, and its Spanish-language collection as well as author of SLJ’s bi-monthly Libro por libro column of K–12 books and programming centering on the Latino experience. “There were some books available from Spain, but nothing that spoke directly to the kids that I was working with. There weren’t that many Latinos writing at that time.”
However, there has finally been a sea change for this population of readers, Wadham argues. “Now, there’s an explosion of very talented authors, writing in English, Spanish, and bilingually,” he tells SLJ.
Lucia Gonzalez, Pura Belpré Honoree for her bilingual The Bossy Gallito (Scholastic, 1994), agrees. “Quality children’s books have been published for decades, especially since the ‘90s boom,” she says.
Raising the Profile
The problem, Gonzalez notes, is a lack of visibility. These award-winning titles “unfortunately…just don’t get into the mainstream market. Instead of being displayed with the ‘regular’ books, they’re set apart,” she says. “Until we make our books an integral part of children’s literature, they are not going to be noticed. We have to make them visible.”
Gonzalez, who is also current chair of ALA affiliate REFORMA’s Children’s Roundtable, says she is disappointed in this continued misrepresentation of Hispanic-focused kid lit in mainstream media, a situation that REFORMA is still working to resolve. Since 1971, the group has sought to bring attention to books written by or about Latinos and, in 1996, created the annual Pura Belpré Award, co-sponsored with ALSC, to single out Latino(a) writers and illustrators who affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in outstanding works for youth.
Oralia Garza de Cortes, co-founder of the Award and past president of REFORMA, recalls that one of the principal motivations for establishing the Pura Belpré was because of the lack of literature for her children and patrons that she experienced as a librarian in the late 1980s.
“Ironically, fast forward 30 years…we have the award and better books, but no one knows about them,” she tells SLJ. “That’s why we created the Celebracion event at ALA Annual, where the winning titles are presented—in order to acculturate, or conscientizar other librarians.”
And as the United States population continues to grow more diverse—with Latinos being the most represented minority at 16%, according to the 2010 census—librarians continue to be instrumental in meeting the needs of the communities they serve. Many develop and create their collections according to their changing neighborhoods.
“How wise are librarians that they want to see all groups represented in their collections? They go the extra mile and work with the small presses,” REFORMA past president Loida Garcia-Febo tells SLJ.
Each Community’s Needs
Librarians serving predominantly Latino communities know how important it is for kids to have access to books about their culture, written and/or illustrated by those that share similar ethnic backgrounds.
“Latino authors serve as roles models to Latino aspiring authors,” notes Sujei Lugo, a former media specialist at an elementary school at the University of Puerto Rico who is currently pursuing her PhD in Library Science at Simmons College. While serving her young students, she purchased many supplemental titles in Spanish and English, plus bilingual editions, from Latin American publishers. For many kids, these books offer an alternative history not usually taught in schools, or often relegated to specific holidays or Heritage months, she says.
“Kids have to see themselves as part of the American story,” says Andrew Jackson, director of the Langston Hughes branch of Queens Library.
Yet Jackson also believes it’s even more important for children who have never seen a person of color to have access to these kinds of books. “All children have to expand their worldview, especially those kids who’ve only ever seen negative and/or inaccurate portrayals of Latinos or African Americans on television or in the media,” he explains. “[These books] can tear down stereotypes.”
Adds Lugo, “These books speak about diversity, acceptance—important messages for all kids.”
Wadham is also concerned that books with Latino themes or characters be made more accessible to all kids, and not unfairly pigeon-holed or ghettoized. “I don’t think…a reader should be limited to reading books in [one’s] own culture,” he says. “Kids should be able to read everything; it doesn’t matter where that kid is from or what culture they belong to. It’s good literature, regardless of cultural content.”
Elizabeth Burns, NJ youth services librarian and SLJ blogger, agrees. “We as industry leaders should point to and promote these titles…Our role is to connect the right book to the right reader,” she says. “If a child is looking for a family-themed book, why can’t we offer Julia Alvarez’s How Tia Lola Comes to (Stay) Visit (Knopf, 2001)? These titles are for everyone.”
And, notes REFORMA president Denice Adkins, “Most of our children’s books are about universal themes of childhood—love, fear, growing up. These are topics all children can relate to.”
Expanding the Market
Beyond raising visibility for these wonderful books, many are working to expand the market even further for these diverse voices—and librarians are leading the charge, even at the publishing level.
Garcia-Febo, for example, actively encourages presses large and small to produce stories about Hispanics that portray “the true Latino experience,” in every skin color, economic status, and tradition. “And, from personal experience,” she tells SLJ, “I can say that publishers actually listen.”
She also urges Latino professionals who are already in the publishing industry to continue to promote and foster Latino talent, and cites Marcela Landres as a great mentor to burgeoning authors.
Despite the large selection now available to today’s kids, there has actually been a slight decline in the number of children’s books being published for Latinos recently, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book center—a distressing report, says Adkins.
That means children’s book publishers should be actively looking to cultivate even more Latino authors and illustrators to create new works, Gonzales tells SLJ.
Notably, librarians wield great influence when dialoging with publishers due to their immense buying power, blogger Burns tells SLJ. “When we talk to publishers at conferences or via social media, it should be a two-way street,” she says. “We have to let them know that these books are popular with our students. ‘If you publish them, we will buy.’”
And within ALA, librarians of any background should strive to become active in the many ethnic library associations, such as Asian Pacific American, American Indian, and the Black Caucus, Garcia-Febo says. “This is a complex issue and we must continue to bring it to the table, not only among ourselves, but also everyone in our community: nonprofit organizations, celebrities, and government agencies,” she says, adding that the more people involved in the cause, the more successful it could be.
For those librarians who want to learn more about how to better serve the Latino community, there are many additional resources available.
Jaime Naidoo, past chair of the Pura Belpré award and organizer of the biennial National Latino Children’s Literature Conference, encourages all library science graduate students to take classes that focus on working with underserved communities and multi-cultural groups. He also urges experienced librarians to continue their professional development in much-needed areas of the study—like this one. The conference, he notes, is a great place to start.
Meanwhile, Lugo praises several Latin American publishers that already produce books about Hispanic children in everyday situations, instead of the cultural emphasis that is prevalent in many books and series currently in print. Venezuela’s Ediciones Ekaré offers bilingual and Spanish-language editions; Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico publishes primarily Puerto Rican authors; and Spain’s Editorial Hotel Papel offers the Libros para crecer en igualdad series, which includes titles that encourage children ages 3–8 to break away from stereotypes and racism.
Librarians’ mission to create lifelong readers and learners has not changed, and reluctant readers, Latino or not, often need a connection to the story to be drawn in. Naidoo describes an unforgettable story-time event with award-winning Latina author/illustrator Yuyi Morales. “A mom came up to me after a Día program in a public library,” he says. “Her daughter never pays attention during story hour, but was transfixed because the author looked just like her. She had her light bulb moment.”
These kinds of eye-opening experiences illustrate the deep and ongoing need for books with Latino characters, a need that has has been articulated for decades by youth librarians, affirms Wadham.
Fortunately, “it has finally become part of a national conversation, which is a good thing, because these are good books,” he says. “We’ll soon see the day that a novel by a Latino will win the Newbery Medal.”
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