February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Parents: Empower Kids to Tell Their Stories

Monica Olivera

As a Latina mom and reading advocate, I’ve thought about diversity in children’s books a lot over the last few years. When my daughter was born 10 years ago, I started looking for books that reflected my own childhood and our culture. It took a determined effort on my part to find the titles I wanted to share with my child—that in itself is a big problem, because most Latino parents have never heard of these books. How do you search for something that you don’t even know exists?

Increasing diversity isn’t simply the responsibility of publishers. While every child is born an artist and a storyteller, writing, and illustrating are skills that have to be nurtured. From the time they are small, parents and educators should be reading to their children and students. Storytelling is a valuable tool for engaging the imaginations of kids and increasing their vocabulary. And perhaps equally important is the interaction between an adult and a child. Asking children questions about their own opinions and experiences develops their own storytelling skills and empowers them to tell their own stories. Providing our kids with art supplies allows them to recreate their own realities. This is especially critical for ethnic and racial groups that too often feel voiceless and unworthy of expressing their own thoughts and creative imagination.

Educational organizations and institutions also play a major role in the development of diversity in literature. Through programs such as art and writing contests, classes, and workshops for all children, they help to motivate and encourage future authors and illustrators. “Opportunity” is the key word here. Children need opportunities to express themselves and to develop the skills they need to succeed.

Increasing diversity in children’s literature is the responsibility of our community as a whole. But educational institutions and publishing companies play a major role in developing tomorrow’s authors and illustrators.

There are certainly some wonderful Latino children’s literature titles that have been published over the last 12 years. But to reach the Hispanic market and truly represent this booming demographic of our country’s population, publishers need to understand that one “type” of book won’t sell to all Hispanics. Instead, there must be a conscious investment on their part to seek out and publish books by a diverse group of authors and illustrators: Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, Panamanian, Costa Rican, etc. As a Mexican/Spanish American, I can certainly praise and appreciate the somewhat familiar story lines by a Guatemalan or Puerto Rican author. But it is books by Mexican authors, such as Rudolfo Anaya and Yuyi Morales that truly reflect the history of my own childhood.

Subject matter is critical as well. Hispanic parents are looking for books written by and about Hispanics, but they are also looking for books with specific themes, such as alphabet books, biographies, and traditional Latino nursery rhymes, to name a few. And bilingual books for younger children with full text in English and Spanish are an absolute must.

I understand, of course, that publishing companies don’t want to invest in books that won’t sell. That’s why, in addition to publishing more authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds, publishing companies need to rethink their marketing strategies to different ethnic groups. To do so, they need to understand the communities and the best way to market these books to parents.

Hispanic parents need to be empowered to speak out and express the need for more diversity in the children’s book industry. Already we see a growing movement through the We Need Diverse Books campaign. At the same time, we need to encourage our children to make their own voices heard through writing and illustration. Perhaps we can even pick up a pen ourselves to share our own stories with others.

If all these groups can work together, the end result is beautifully diverse literature that breaks down barriers and fosters a global mindset in which people all over the world can accept and appreciate the differences and the similarities within us all.


Monica Olivera is a homeschooling mother of two and freelance education writer. Her blog MommyMaestra.com is a site for Latino homeschooling families and parents who simply want to take a more active role in their children’s education. Monica is also a co-founder of Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) and the creator of the L4LL Latino Children’s Summer Reading Program. For three consecutive years beginning in 2011, she won the LATISM (Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media) Best Latina Education Blogger Award.

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  1. I appreciate this thoughtful, broad perspective on this topic. It is easy to blame publishers for the lack of diversity, but harder to be specific describing what we are looking for. I also love the idea of empowering our children to tell their own stories! They are our future authors, and diversity in their work will come to them as naturally as the language they choose to write in. Like so many issues, sheer demographics are going to help right this inequality eventually, but for now we much push for balance and inclusion. Thank you for a great article!

  2. I think the issue here is also that children assume that everyone experiences life as they do and that their “story” has no value and is not unique. I think it is also true that minorities feel their stories have no value outside of their small communities. My children and I are embarking on a project in 2015, “Around the World in 180 books”. We are trying to sourcing books, written by natives, who preferably are still resident in their home country/region.
    Joy, Anna and Tom Leavesley