November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Pura Belpré Paved the Way for Latino Firsts at 2016 YMAs | Libro por libro

A scene from Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, illus. by Christian Robinson.

A scene from Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, illus. by Christian Robinson.

The cheers that resounded on January 11 at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2016 Youth Media Awards (YMAs) in Boston as the outstanding Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam) by Matt de la Peña was awarded this year’s John Newbery Medal continue to reverberate with enduring significance as librarians and educators reflect upon this historic moment. Not since 1982 has a picture book won the top award for most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, and that was an illustrated collection of poetry. Moreover, the significance of this year’s Newbery Medal recognition of Last Stop on Market Street is especially important as conversations about diversity in children’s literature become more frequent in popular discourse. And, perhaps most significant, for the first time in the history of the Newbery, a Latino author was recognized with the golden medal.

For advocates of Latino children’s literature, this recognition of de la Peña’s work is especially impactful given the long legacy of determined efforts and hard-won triumphs by librarians and educators to create spaces for the voices and contributions of Latino authors and illustrators who capture and communicate through their works the diverse experiences of Latino children in the United States. As noted by Oralia Garza de Cortes, cofounder of the Pura Belpré Award, in a press release distributed by ALA affiliate REFORMA—The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking—“The historic moment was 20 years in the making since the establishment of the Pura Belpré Awards, [which] laid the groundwork for the recognition and inclusion of Latino authors and illustrators for children onto today’s literary stage.” Indeed, many of this year’s glass ceiling–breaking authors and illustrators were first recognized by the Pura Belpré Awards.

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The first Latina librarian, Pura Belpré

Established in 1996, in a joint effort between REFORMA and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the Pura Belpré Award recognizes outstanding works of children’s literature that “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience,” and is named after Pura Belpré, who in 1921 became the first Latina librarian of the New York Public Library. Belpré’s pioneering innovation in library outreach to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking communities of New York City cannot be overstated. With her captivating storytelling and puppeteering talents, as well as her authorship of children’s books and folktales from her native Puerto Rico, Belpré imbued her work with a vision for collecting and preserving the literary contributions of her rich Puerto Rican heritage. Moreover, her leadership and vision set a precedent for introducing Spanish-English bilingual storytimes that invited and created spaces for children who perhaps were considered at the time to be non-traditional library users. As the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré Awards draws near, it is important to remember Belpré’s contributions as a writer as well. The fact that Belpré wrote and published several works of Puerto Rican folktales is especially significant in light of today’s conversations regarding the role of publishers in supporting diverse voices of children’s authors and illustrators of color. Belpré’s remarkable ability to prop up mirrors and open windows affirmed the lives of brown children and continues to inspire all those invested in the value of children’s literature.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s portrait of José Guadalupe Posada from Funny Bones:  Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s portrait of José Guadalupe Posada from Funny Bones.

From Pura Belpré to the New York Times to the Sibert

With five Belpré Awards and Honors to his name, Duncan Tonatiuh has become a household name in the Latino children’s book world. The author-illustrator also made history on January 11 at the YMAs for his book Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams), which won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal—the first book by a Latino to do so. This win, as well as his inclusion in the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2015, brings much-deserved recognition and attention to Tonatiuh’s artistry, which proudly showcases Mexico’s rich indigenous artistic heritage, as well as its modern-day art iconography, as evident in his informational work about influential artist José Guadalupe Posada. Tonatiuh will be one of the speakers at the 20th-Anniversary Pura Belpré Celebración, hosted by REFORMA and ALSC at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL, on Sunday, June 26, which will recognize this year’s Pura Belpré winners.

The ripple effect of “firsts”

The 2016 Youth Media Awards held many firsts for Latino authors and illustrators who broke new ground, being recognized by seven different youth literature awards committees (Michael L. Printz, Odyssey, Alex, YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction, Coretta Scott King, Belpré, and of course, the Newbery). Along with the visibility and affirmation of diverse voices that come with these awards, it is additionally important to consider the concentric circles that emerge from these “firsts” in children’s literature. Just as Pura Belpré took her message beyond traditional library walls to reach underserved communities, the potential impact that these books by people of color have in the broader community is immense and indelible. The celebration and acclaim that these narratives have received ensures that educators and librarians will use them in their day-to-day programs and classrooms and, in so doing, promote the idea that books that reflect ethnicity as an asset should be championed.

Librarians and teachers have the power to consciously incorporate Latino children’s literature into lesson plans, programs, readers’ advisory, and displays. The titles honored this year offer all readers a chance to celebrate our shared humanity as well as appreciate the authentic experiences Latinos bring to the United States’s diverse cultural heritage. For some, these books are mirrors. For others, they provide windows through which readers can see themselves in the lives and experiences of others. Indeed, the promise of a better future lies in seeing ourselves in the lives of others.

The wonderful recognition of Last Stop on Market Street reminds us that we have a lot to learn from Nana’s example, as seen in her guidance of CJ. As the two make their way through a familiar urban landscape, Nana helps CJ truly see the world around him and appreciate the gifts that come from human connection. Nana’s wisdom and worldview exemplify the strength that comes from recognizing and exploring the beauty in differences. As Nana helped CJ open his eyes, so too do these excellent works inspire us all to keep our eyes open, to question publishing decisions, and advocate for the recognition of diverse voices in children’s literature. We must also consider it a duty, as Belpré did, to create outreach initiatives to serve the most marginalized, and also, examine our policies that impact access to literacy. All of the work and efforts of those invested in the value of children’s literature have a role to play in creating a better world for our children.

Lettycia Terrones is an education librarian at California State University, Fullerton and a member of the 2017 Pura Belpré Award committee.

Latino Kid Lit Highlighted at #ALAMW16
NEW JERSEY LIBRARIAN LUCIA ACOSTA set out to find new books that had a Hispanic character, theme, or backdrop on the floor of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in January 2016. Check out her recommendations of titles that belong on the shelves of every public and school library.

This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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