February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Américas Award-Winner Manzano Offers Advice About Latino Kid Lit


sonia manzano at CLASP

L. to r. Américas Award committee member and librarian Barbara D’Ambruoso, author Sonia Manzano, and committee chair Hope Crandall. Photo by Paula Willey.

She’s not a teacher or a librarian but, during the more than 25 years that Sesame Street’s Sonia Manzano has spent talking about kindness with Big Bird, letting the Count number her toes, and singing about trash to Oscar the Grouch, she has observed quite a bit about how kids learn. The actress, education advocate, and children’s book author was presented with the Américas Award in Washington, D.C., on September 23, given annually by the Consortium for Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP).

CLASP logoManzano’s debut novel, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic, 2012), was selected for the award; it draws upon her Nuyorican childhood and centers around Evelyn, a teen navigating the turbulent spaces between her conservative Mami and radical Abuela in 1969. The Latina lives in East Harlem, a poverty-stricken neighborhood that became the epicenter of the Puerto Rican civil rights movement in the United States. The activism of the Young Lords becomes the catalyst for Evelyn’s growing awareness of herself, her family, and her community.

revolution of evelyn serranoIn conjunction with the award ceremony, CLASP sponsored a half-day workshop, entitled “Exploring Latino and Latin American Literature for the K–12 Classroom.” In an airy upstairs conference room on the Georgetown University campus, Manzano shared her experiences and advice with approximately 40 educators and librarians, most hailing from the culturally diverse D.C. metropolitan area, but some who had travelled from as far as Tennessee.

In a talk spiked with anecdotes and humor, the author touched on many of the themes in her books, including picture books, No Dogs Allowed (2004) and A Box Full of Kittens (2007, both S & S)—and offered insight on discussing those ideas with kids. She suggested focusing on the universal nature of a character’s experiences—of being 14 and not being comfortable with oneself, of being embarrassed by your parents—“so kids don’t feel they are getting multiculturalism crammed down their throat.”

Manzano also stressed the broadly diverse nature of spoken Spanish—dialect, idiom, slang, and the influence of native languages such as Quechua or Náhuatl mean that one student’s Spanish may be incomprehensible to another Spanish speaker.

Aristotle and DanteThe workshop was organized by the co-chairs of the Américas Award, Claire González, assistant director for outreach at the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University, and  Denise Woltering-Vargas, program manager for Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies. In attendance were members of the 2013 Américas Award selection committee, including chair Hope Crandall, of Washington Elementary Library in Woodburn, OR; Aaron Forbes, Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans; and Barbara D’Ambruoso, of Lauralton Hall in Orange, CT.

Other titles celebrated during the event were the Américas Honor Book, Gary Schmidt’s Martin de Porres (Clarion), and several Commended Titles: Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (S & S), Mark Greenwood’s Drummer Boy of John John (Lee & Low), and Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury, all 2012).

drummer boyThe Américas Award, now in its twentieth year, celebrates “authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.” The award’s judging criteria includes not only literary merit and cultural content, but also “potential for classroom use.”

The award ceremony that followed the workshop was hosted by the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. In her acceptance speech for her award, Manzano said, “I was born in the best of times because I have seen so much change,” but went on to point out that while 25 percent of children in school are Latino, only 3 percent of books for children are by or about Latinos. “I went back to my feelings as a disenfranchised young person in the Bronx when writing The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. I hope it empowers young people. They are our only hope.”

Paula Willey, a librarian in Baltimore County, MD, reviews children’s and teen literature for SLJ and her blog, Pink Me.