February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Librarians Sound Off: Not a Lack of Latino Lit for Kids, but a Lack of Awareness

Spanish-language books by Latin American publishers

Spanish-language titles by Latin American publishers.
Photo by Sujei Lugo

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.”

Pura Belpré Honor book by Lucia Gonzalez

Pura Belpré Honor book by Lucia Gonzalez

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.

Broadening Horizons
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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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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  1. Yay!

    Great article!

    For those that are interested, we are forming a book committee that will look for more “gritty” reads for latino readers, books like It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way by Luis Rodriguez, The Secret of Sonia Sanchez by Sitomar, Next Stop by Ivan Sanchez, Detoured by delaCruz.

    In the Margins Committee 
    What is it? A group of Librarians under the umbrella of Library Services for Youth in Custody seeking out and highlighting books: preschool through adult fiction and non-fiction titles of high-interest appeal to boys or girls, ages 9-18 who may fit into one or all of the following categories:

     multicultural (primarily African American and Latino)
    from a street culture
    in restrictive custody
    reluctant readers
    What does it do? The committee will select and review the best books of the year, specifically for the population listed above. Titles of interest may be unusual, possibly unreviewed, have multicultural characters, dealing with difficult situations including (but not limited to) street life, marginalized populations, crime, justice, war, violence, abuse, addiction, etc.

    Blog featuring highlighted titles: YA Underground, a School Library Journal (SLJ) column will run reviews every other month or so through-out the year. Please see: http://www.slj.com/2013/01/books-media/collection-development/ya-underground-books-for-teens-you-might-have-missed/ for an example.

    The final list will be decided upon by this committee and also run in SLJ. Books will be put on the Library Services for Youth in Custody website.

    Committee membership and requirements:
    research and nominate titles that are self, independently and small press published,
    research and nominate titles of interest from all publishers
    provide written review of books, and read for special content for detention facilities
    read all nominated titles
    work with or do outreach to teens in custody and/or from street culture.
    get feedback from at least 3-10 teens on each title
    actively participate in email discussions
    meet 4-6 times a year via video conferencing and/or in person

    For more information, contact Amy Cheney at ajcheney@mac.com

  2. Interesting article. It is so difficult to get most children’s books in front of any kind of audience. So little money and effort is spent publicizing them. As bad as it is for most children’s literature, it is harder by multiples for Latino books. The awards help but unfortunately are often still considered to be “special interest” by bookstores and libraries. Naidoo’s ah-ha moment holds for almost every reader–they want to see themselves in books. A 43-year-old student in my children’s lit class at UT-Austin finally made a connection to reading when he read a book about a kid with ADHD…Joey Pigza was just like him. Librarians try to connect kids with books they will relate to, but first we have to have access to the kids. And we have to have the books that will be meaningful to them. The struggle continues.

  3. Mary Donley says:

    Good article but not enough emphasis on English language bicultural books, such as
    Bless Me, Ultima and adult books such as Amigoland (Oscar Casares).

  4. Another great award to follow is the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award out of Texas State University’s College of Education. The 2012 winners were ‘Sylvia and Aki’ by Winifred Conklin and ‘Diego Rivera: His World and Ours’ which was both written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.

  5. Jennie Quinonez says:

    There is a lack of awareness of literature , but this entry does not mention the Wisconsin study (Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/pcstats.asp) which was referenced in the New York Times article. “in 1994 we began keeping statistics for the numbers of books “by and about” American Indians, Asian/Pacifics and Asian/Pacific Americans, and Latinos” Yes, people are writing and there are more titles but looking at the data from CCBC the percentages are very low.

    • Shelley Diaz Shelley Diaz says:

      Hi Jennie,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. The CCBC study is mentioned in the 4th paragraph under the Expanding the Market heading. Yes, it’s alarming that Latino titles being published have declined in 2012, and it is our hope that the more people are aware of the books that already exist, the more publishers; authors; editors; will be convinced that this is a viable market.

  6. There is a lack of awareness of literature , but this entry does not mention the Cooperative Children’s Book Center data (Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/pcstats.asp) which was referenced in the New York Times article. Yes, people are writing and there are more titles about Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans — but looking at the data from CCBC indicate that these percentages are very low. Does CCBC provide a list of titles used int their report ? In another entity collecting this data or are these observations that books are published.

  7. Each student is shaped by personal experiences and culture and that we can explore different cultures through the integration of resources into the classroom curriculum and library program. It is critically important that students see themselves reflected in the library collection and programming and in the books that they read in their classroom and for pleasure. By doing so, we build students’ self-esteem and cultivate empathy, respect, and cultural and global awareness. As such, our school initiated the MOSAIC project—a school-wide reading program that uses globally diverse literature to teach targeted reading strategies. Each month the entire school reads a single text portraying a different country or region and uses it to explore culture and delve into a reading strategy appropriate for the grade level. Through the MOSAIC project, we’ve been able to open the doors to new worlds to all our students. For more information on the project, see http://www.apsva.us/Page/6203.

  8. Raising awareness about what exists is a huge problem, it’s the whole discovery aspect. I know when I go to talk about multicultural books at education and library conferences, people in the audience are always amazed by the wealth that already exists. Finding quality books and materials is the big problem, because sometimes it is a needle in the haystack activity.

  9. I appreciate any press that draws attention to this issue, but the fact that you only call out Latin American publishers is really disappointing. No mention of Children’s Book Press, Lee and Low, Groundwood Books, Arte Publico Press, Piñata Books? Hard to believe! There are publishers stateside that are putting out really fabulous Latino books, they deserve some name-checking!

  10. Kamala Platt says:

    I sent the following to the NYTs after the article ran, but it was not published…
    RE: “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing” by Motoko Rich, December 4 2012 (Education section…)
    On 12/5/12 2:41 PM, Kamala Platt wrote:

    “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing” compels me to write: I concur with its premise–students benefit from finding themselves in books. I agree that schools need more Latina/o books. Yet, I find sad irony in the images missing from the article itself: those of Latina/o books and authors, and their publishers. In the Comments, Bobby Byrd notes that Rich fails to mention Independent Publishers like his Cinco Puntos Press. For starters, Rich misses Arte Público’s Piñata Books, Wings Press books like San Antonio poet laureate Carmen Tafolla’s award-winning biography of Emma Tenayuca, books from Pat Mora (her website lists over 30 children’s books, many bilingual) and Francisco Alarcon (two of his among 50 bilingual children’s books on a 2011 CCBC* list.) Latina/o children’s books are flourishing despite lack of recognition on many fronts and having been explicitly excluded from classrooms by Arizona HB2281 & subsequent Tucson rulings.

  11. Here’s another perspective. Some of us aren’t waiting around for risk-averse mainstream publishers to decide that our literature matters; we’re entrepreneurs and we’re creating our own independent publishing and marketing firms, and launching best selling books into global markets just like the big boys. One of our biggest challenges can be summed up in this email I received this morning from a major library system. “Materials of this nature will be considered for branch collections of The New York Public Library only if accompanied by a review from a standard reviewing medium. These include The New York Times (or other major newspapers which regularly review books), Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and Choice. Reviews published in other well-established periodicals, academic journals and genre magazines are also acceptable.” If getting reviewed by these guys is a requirement for entry into major library systems, then no wonder the perception remains that our literature doesn’t exist! These established reviewing agencies of nearly exclusively white men and women have been making news for years because the authors they review have been found to be 90% white. We certainly have tried. We submitted our first two books to ALL those agencies but received zero reviews. Maybe it’s the word Latino in the title of the first book, the author’s obviously Latino last name or the presence of English and Spanish on the cover of our first bilingual children’s book that scares them? Who knows. I do know that someday when the nation is fully 1/3 Latino, I’ll be laughing that we once had this conversation….for now we press on and create our own way into libraries, schools and homes. It’s the creative, bootstrapping kind of approach that has always worked when others said it couldn’t be done. :-)

    Graciela Tiscareño-Sato
    Chief Creative Officer and Publisher, Gracefully Global Group LLC
    Publisher of “Good Night Captain Mama / Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá”
    ISBN: 9780983476030
    “Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them”
    ISBN: 9780983476009


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