February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Gateway Books: Getting Latino Kids Excited About Reading | Libro por libro

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.

At the American Library Association (ALA)’s Annual Conference in Chicago, I took part in a panel entitled “Cuentame un cuentito: A Cross Border Look at Books That Inspire Children to Read.” It was a privilege to speak along with authors René Saldaña, Jr., Judy Goldman, and the session moderator, Lorito Books president Pam Fochtman. The central message of the session was that there is no excuse to say, as has been intimated recently in media venues such as NPR and the New York Times, that there are very few books out there for Latino kids. They are out there; you simply have to look for them.

The NPR piece noted that nearly 25 percent of public school children in the U.S. today are Latino, so it is more crucial than ever to promote books that will resonate with Spanish-speaking kids. However, the books that Latino kids need are not exclusively those in Spanish or those with Latino/a characters. In his remarks at the panel, Saldaña elaborated on this idea. As a teacher, he agreed that while it’s important for Latino kids to read literature in Spanish, in English with Latino/a characters, and by fellow Latino authors, in the end, his goal is for kids to read everything, including the classics. For him, the right culturally relevant title might serve as the gateway to lifelong reading.

This column marks the first anniversary of Libro por libro. At this one-year mark, and in response to the dialogue begun at the session at ALA, I thought it would be appropriate to enumerate the diverse and various categories of books that can feed young Latino readers, and to provide examples of each. I hope that this column can continue to be a voice in directing librarians to the best titles, both current and backlist, for their collections. I appreciate all of the positive feedback that I’ve received over the past year, and I hope that you will continue to send ideas my way. If you have thoughts about themes or titles you’d like to see, please contact me at wadhambooks@gmail.com.

Books published in Latin America or Spain

This is the first place I began looking for titles for the Latino kids in my library, thinking that I wanted them to be exposed to the best literature written in Spanish. I soon discovered that many of these titles did not have specific Latino cultural context, but in most cases addressed the more universal concerns of childhood.

COTTIN, Menena. Yo. Ediciones Tecolote. 2013. Tr $15.50. ISBN 9786077656807.

PreS–This is a simple book that explores the concept of “me.” The basic images depict individuals in silhouettes. The first wordless page shows the mother and the father. The mother is clearly pregnant. The child then identifies her mother, father, grandparents, dog, and house. The new baby arrives, and is now “me.” The child recognizes this, and says “you,” and then acknowledges her sibling by saying simply, “We.” This is a terrific book for parents to share with very young children, especially when a new sibling comes on the scene. It is an example of a title that, though originating from Mexico, is entirely universal in its concept.

ALMADA RIVERO, Marcos. El libro de Óscar. ISBN 9786074561722

––––. Óscar cola del lombriz. ISBN 9786074561760.

––––. Óscar y Pancho Pijiji. ISBN 9786074561739.

––––. Óscar y el rey de lodo. ISBN 9786074562507.

ea vol: 2009. Progreso Editorial. pap. $11.95.

PreS-Gr 2–Once in a great while a book comes along that is a real discovery, a gift to librarians everywhere, and that will become something you will use again and again in storytimes and programs. El libro de Óscar, and the rest of the books in the “Oscar the Possum” series are just such books. The first one introduces Oscar, a mischievous possum, who likes to leave the large tree where his family lives to experience adventures out in the world. I particularly like this first book, as the curious Oscar spends his days looking for treasures in the trash. But on an especially fortunate day, he discovers a book, which is like nothing he has ever seen. He opens it and is submerged in a new world. This is my new go-to book for any presentations I do for Spanish-speaking kids, parents, or caregivers.

The other Oscar books are equally as delightful. In Óscar cola de lombriz, Oscar learns to appreciate his unique tail. Óscar y Pancho Pijiji tells of his friendship with a duck who he helps after Pancho is wounded by a duck hunter. Óscar y el rey de lodo is a more fanciful story about Oscar and his friends playing at being king. Oscar won’t give up the crown, but then wanders off and encounters a real king who doesn’t permit playing in his castle. “Kings don’t look for diversion, but rather for glory,” says King Cirilo I. Obviously, Oscar is going to have to make a decision.

GOLDMAN, Judy, retel. De astutos, tragones y mordelones: cuentos de tradución oral. Grupo Editorial Norma. 2011. pap. $9. ISBN 9786079107093.

PreS-Gr 2–Goldman retells three folktales, two of which are identified as coming from the Mayan tradition. In “Rabbit and the Three Teeth,” Rabbit sees Jaguar and laments that he doesn’t have the same large teeth and powerful body. He takes this up with God the Creator, and asks to be made like Jaguar. God the Creator says that he will do this if Rabbit can obtain teeth from a monkey, an iguana, and the jaguar himself. Rabbit only manages to obtain two of the teeth, and so God the Creator gives him only part of what he wants, and that is why rabbits have big teeth to this day. The second story tells why skunk no longer goes hunting. (It’s because of a horrible experience he has with Jaguar.) In the third tale, Rabbit tricks Coyote out of eating him. This is a terrific book with appealing and animated illustrations of the animal characters. These stories can be easily integrated into storytimes, and storytelling and outreach programs.

Books translated into Spanish from a language other than English

SAUERMANN, Marcus. El niño y la bestia. tr. from German by Sergio Pawlowsky. illus. by Uwe Heidschötter. Picarona. 2013. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9788494074516.

PreS-Gr 2–Many things change when your mother turns into a beast. The young narrator of this tale proceeds to enumerate all the things that he has to deal with, and not all of them are negative. While the child is forced to do things on his own, as if she weren’t there, the beast mother is also not constantly saying “no”—so he can do whatever he wants. But just at the moment that he has become accustomed to the beast, it transforms into his mother, and that is not easy either. This book is surprisingly sweet, imparting the message that, without a doubt, mothers are better than beasts, but encourages patience and understanding when they are in a beastly mood.

RODARI, Gianni & Anna Laura Cantone. El hombrecillo de los sueños. tr. from Italian by Manu Manzano. Picarona. 2013. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9788497074523.

PreS-Gr 2–This book about the little man of children’s dreams carries the message that children should not be afraid of sleeping and dreaming. The hombrecillo whispers words in youngsters’ ears that transport them to fantastic realms where everything is possible–this is a place where you can go sliding down a rainbow and know that you are always safe because the hombrecillo will be there to catch you. The book is particularly distinguished by its unique and delightful illustrations. The whimsical, surrealistic style may not be familiar to readers, but it is perfect for this story.

Books by Latino authors published in English or bilingual editions

Over the past 30 years, the biggest and most welcome change in what sorts of books have been available to U.S. children has been the explosion of authors of Latino heritage who have entered the field of children’s books. They publish primarily in English, sometimes including Spanish words and phrases, or write books that are bilingual. In some cases their works are subsequently translated into Spanish. The important thing is that authors like Yuyi Morales and Monica Brown are providing bilingual Latino children with books featuring characters who mirror their own bicultural experiences.

MORALES, Yuyi. Niño Wrestles the World. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781596436046.

K-Gr 3–The first spread of this appealing title says it all. With the simple text “Niño!” (Kid!), readers see a boy playing with his toys, including a lucha libre wrestling ring with masked wrestler toys. One by one, Niño faces and defeats his formidable opponents: The Mummy of Guanajuato, the stone Olmec Head, La Llorona, the Alien, and the devil-like El Chamuco. But when his little sisters wake up from their naps, he faces his biggest challenge yet: Las Hermanitas. Everything about this book is well integrated and thought out: The endpapers are decorated with baseball-card-style information on each of Niño’s opponents, including phonetic spellings of their Spanish names. Spanish words and phrases appear throughout, but they are easily understood in context. An author’s note gives some background information about lucha libre and its popularity in Mexico. This is a near-perfect book, and absolutely essential for any collection.

BROWN, Monica. Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash/Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual. illus. by Sara Palacios. Lee & Low. 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9780892392735.

PreS-Gr 2–Marisol McDonald is fiercely determined not to match. The character came out of Brown’s own experience growing up in a bicultural home with a North American father and a Peruvian mother and not being sure where she fit in. This title finds Marisol preparing for her birthday party. Her friends ask her what sort of party she should have, and, of course, Marisol doesn’t want one theme. When she goes shopping with her Mami, she insists on buying clothes that don’t match. When the party arrives, Marisol has dressed up as a soccer-player-pirate-princess-unicorn. The mismatched party is a success, and is topped by a Skype visit with the child’s Peruvian grandmother. Pair this with Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina (Children’s Book Pr., 2011) for a dress-up storytime.

PAIZ, Casimiro. The Legend of Ponciano Gutiérrez and the Mountain Thieves. illus by Amy Córdova. University of New Mexico Pr. 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978082635239.

Gr 1-4–This story comes from the oral tradition of a New Mexico family and is transcribed here for posterity. The legend itself is a classic trickster tale. When Ponciano Gutiérrez finds himself surrounded by the notorious Vicente Silva and his gang of bank robbers, he ingeniously works his way out of his predicament by first challenging the best pickpocket in the gang to steal eggs from an eagle’s nest. Ponciano not only steals the eggs, but pockets the gang members’ eggs as well. He then wins a sharpshooting contest. Finally, he asks for a room, and demonstrating his prowess in tying knots, he ropes the entire gang together and carts them off to the sheriff in Santa Fe. Córdova’s illustrations add just the right folk-art touch to the tale. A great choice to add to storytelling repertoires.

SALDAÑA, René, Jr. The Mystery of the Magic Marker Mischief Maker/El misterio del maloso marcador mágico. Piñata. 2013. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781558857766.

Gr 4-7–Mickey Rangel is called into the principal’s office, and he’s terrified that he’s done something wrong. Instead, Mrs. Abrego actually needs him to solve the mystery of who has been writing graffiti on the school grounds. Mickey is a great kid private eye in the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown and the Three Investigators. Saldaña cleverly inserts some lessons about spelling and grammar into the fast-moving plot, which revolves around the fact that the graffiti-writer can’t spell. There is also some moral conflict given the fact that Mickey’s nemesis, Bucho, is the main suspect. Mickey could easily let Bucho take the rap, but would that be the right thing to do? This is ideal for reluctant readers.

Translations of popular U.S. titles

PILKEY, Dav. El Capitan Calzoncillos y la asquerosa venganza de los Robocalzones Radioactivos/Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers. Scholastic. 2013. pap. $5.99. ISBN 9780545544566.

Gr 2-5–Okay, I just reviewed another Captain Underpants book in my May column, but this is a great example of a tremendously popular U.S. book in translation, one especially preferred by Spanish-speaking boys. I really enjoy the clever way that Scholastic has translated this series, and that they have taken the care to extend the translation to the design and illustration of the book.

Tim WadhamTim Wadham is the director of the City of Puyallup Public Library in Washington State. wadhambook@gmail.com.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Tim Wadham About Tim Wadham

Tim Wadham (wadhambooks@gmail.com) is a library administrator and the author of Wordplay for Kids (ALA Editions, 2015).

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.


  1. These are some great ideas, but I also have to say, as a 2nd generation Hispanic immigrant I always get a little annoyed when reaching out to Latino patrons only means a) books in Spanish or b) books with Hispanic characters. I rarely if ever read books with Hispanic characters as a kid, and that was okay. I could identify with kids in books whether they were black, white, Asian, or for that matter mice! – Because I had similar experiences to them – color wasn’t something I needed or cared about. I fear that focusing so much on reading books only featuring characters from a particular race does nothing to discourage racism and encourage interracial relationships. For Hispanic kids who are not Spanish speakers at all, or who prefer to read in English having books in Spanish doesn’t really add incentive for them to get reading either. One thing that applies to all kids of all races and languages though is reaching out to parents and soon-to-be parents about the importance of sharing books together!

  2. Martin Blasco says:

    Hi Amy: I understand your concerns as a second generation Latina. On the other hand, it’s sad to see that new immigrants don’t have good collections in Spanish or bilingual to tell to their young children. Remember that talking to your child in your native language is a key requisite for a fluid conversation, an important practice in early literacy. I understand that books in Spanish not necessarily have to reflect a specific culture, but it can be great that both native born Latinos and every other culture in the U.S. learn that our culture also has universal values that we can share. There’s a whole world out there, different colors, cultures, languages, etc. We cannot keep ignoring that the world is not just “Anglo.”