March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Latinx Authors Discuss Successes, Continued Challenges

Emma Otheguy grew up listening to her immigrant parents extol Cuban activist, poet, and journalist José Martí. Because she never heard anyone else talk about him, however, the author of Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad believed he was an “obscure, little-known figure,” someone important only to her family. Her shock upon learning of Martí’s historical significance made her realize that “what is considered marginal is often in fact mainstream.”

From left to right: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, Raúl Colón, Eric Velasquez, Meg Medina, and Teresa Mlawer. Photos by Kate Marcus

The exclusion of Latinx heroes and characters from literature and other media has an insidious effect, Otheguy told a crowd of librarians, teachers, and parents in her opening remarks at “A Celebration of Bilingual Books and Latinx Communities” on March 3 in New York City. The mini-conference, hosted by the Bank Street College of Education’s Center for Children’s Literature, included panel discussions on board and bilingual books for young children and diverse voices in Latinx books.

Latinx authors and illustrators of picture books, nonfiction, and young adult novels described the joy of seeing their stories resonate with readers. They also warned there’s still work to be done when it comes to publishing and highlighting titles by marginalized artists.

“Every expectation of what it means to be a Latinx child needs to be removed,” Otheguy said. “These children can’t be contained, stereotyped, or reduced to any one country of origin, one social class, one skin color. I believe it is books that will help them to find their path.”

Stories that help kids “fall in love” with their culture are crucial, as are books such as Otheguy’s Martí’s Song, said Susie Jaramillo, whose inability to find baby- and toddler-friendly Spanish nursery rhyme books for her children inspired her to create the “Canticos” line of bilingual board books.

“The African American community is 30 years ahead of us in celebrating their heroes,” Jaramillo said. “It’s important to get it together and showcase all of these brilliant minds.”

From left to right: Sujei Lugo, Emma Otheguy, Cecilia Ruiz, and Susie Jaramillo

The rewards of readers feeling seen are immense, the authors said. At a school visit, Jaramillo started singing the nursery rhyme “Los pollitos” (also one of her “Canticos” titles) and the children and parents in the auditorium joined in. Cecilia Ruiz’s A Gift from Abuela is rooted in an economic crisis in Mexico that resulted in the government issuing new currency; for her friends and family in Mexico who remember that time, the picture book “hits close to their heart.”

Several speakers stressed the importance of more nuanced conversations around diversity.

“I’m hoping that in my lifetime we’ll replace this word diversity with just normal,” said author and illustrator Eric Velasquez (Grandma’s Gifts; Grandma’s Records). “It’s normal to see people from different backgrounds and cultures speaking different languages. What’s not normal is when all the stories are told from one perspective.”

The path of Carole Boston Weatherford’s Schomburg: A Man Who Built a Library, illustrated by Velasquez, reflects the passion of Latinx authors and illustrators and the obstacles Latinx books face. In 2006, a friend of Velasquez noticed there were no children’s biographies of Afro Puerto Rican activist and writer Arturo Schomburg, whose vast collection of materials on African history provided the foundation for the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, which was later renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Velasquez proposed that he and Weatherford address that deficit. The two created Schomburg, but it took 10 years and many rejections before the book found a publisher with Candlewick.

From left to right: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, Raúl Colón, Eric Velasquez, and Meg Medina

“I am deeply committed to representing the voices of Afro Latinos, the most underrepresented people in the Latinx community,” Velasquez said.

Like Velasquez, author Meg Medina (Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass; Burn Baby Burn) wants to see more underrepresented voices, including Afro Latinx and queer Latinx writers and artists. Often, she said, the same handful of Latinx authors and illustrators are invited to speak at events.

“I think it’s on all of us who walk through to make room for newer voices coming through and to share the space,” she said in her closing keynote. She called this idea “radical abundance” and urged well-known artists to promote newcomers’ work. Making good on her own words, Medina sang the praises of YA author Elizabeth Acevedo, whose debut novel, The Poet X, publishes this month.

The prospect of giving someone else the spotlight can be scary, she admitted.

“But it’s not about us,” said Medina. “It’s about the children…who need stories and need to see themselves.”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.



  1. Great article!

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