Latin@ Heroes of the Planet

by Lila Quintero Weaver

Views on Global WarmingFacts to contemplate and amaze: 1. A high percentage of Latin@s are persuaded that a connection exists between global warming and human activity. 2. A majority of Latin@s feel global warming carries an extreme or very serious potential to affect their lives.

According to the findings of a new poll conducted by The New York Times, in conjunction with Stanford University and Resources for the Future, an environmental research group, “Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally. It also found that they are more likely to support policies, such as taxes and regulations on greenhouse gas pollution, aimed at curbing it.”

Pew Research PollThe article in the New York Times acknowledges that these findings challenge stereotypes about Latin@s, as well as common assumptions that saving the environment is of concern mostly to white liberals.

So where are the books for kids that highlight this vigorous interest among Latin@s in saving the environment? My answer: they’re not easy to find and it sometimes means digging within tables of contents to discover a chapter or two featuring Latin@s.

Here are a handful of kids’ books sure to inspire a new generation of Latin@ planet saviors. Consider adding them to your Earth Day observations (April 22).

HEROES OF THE ENVIRONMENT: TRUE STORIES OF PEOPLE WHO ARE HELPING TO PROTECT OUR PLANET, by Harriet Heroes of the EnvironmentRohmer

This nonfiction book for grades 4 and up celebrates the environmental triumphs achieved by a dozen unsung heroes of all ages located in various parts of the United States and Mexico. I’m giving it star billing because I feel it deserves wider attention. The environmental challenges the activists take on—from urban gardens to saving caribou—are as diverse as the heroes themselves. Of the twelve, three heroes are Latin@, two are Native American, two are African American, one is Asian American and the remaining four are white. Rohmer relates the story of each person’s activism in a short chapter illustrated with photos and art by Julie McLaughlin.

The determination, innovation and enterprising spirit shown by all twelve heroes is truly inspiring. Here is a brief recounting of one of their stories. Erica Fernandez is a young immigrant from Mexico who learns of plans by an Australian company to build a large processing station for liquefied natural gas near her new hometown in California. If the company’s plans go through, a large, potentially lethal gas line would run directly beneath her community. Using Spanish and broken English, Erica sets out to inform neighbors and elected officials about the grave risks. The outcry of the community eventually reaches the ears of the governor, who nixes plans for the gas line.

In addition to the stories already alluded to, you will also find:

  • A Hopi girl installing solar panels on her reservation
  • A teacher turning the protection of wetlands into a classroom project
  • A man designing a unique bio-digestive sewage-treatment system
  • A boy organizing the safe disposal of old electronics
  • A lucha libre warrior fighting to protect coastlines and waterways
  • A woman taking on the coal company responsible for destructive mountaintop removal in her West Virginia location
  • A Bronx resident turning the problem of construction-site trash into a cooperative business
  • A young woman inventing a device for purifying polluted water
  • A Louisiana woman pressuring an oil company to relocate an entire community victimized by toxic disposal

The quieter message of this book is thrilling to me: that anyone can make a difference to the health of our planet—people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and economic or educational levels.

Parrots PRPARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO, by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

This ingeniously illustrated picture book about a parrot species brought to the brink of extinction and the valiant efforts underway to rescue it, has received well-deserved acclaim. The story of Puerto Rico’s iguaca parrots demonstrates the vulnerability of all biological species, especially to the encroachment of human activity. Over the course of centuries, natural enemies preyed on the iguaca’s nests and hurricanes damaged their forest habitats, but it was humans who posed the biggest threat, primarily by trapping the birds and destroying their nesting sites. In 1968, when the iguaca population stood at less than thirty, Puerto Ricans jumped into action to save the birds. Thanks to their efforts, iguaca parrots’ numbers are on the rise again. An afterword provides further details on the Parrot Recovery Program.

SAVING BIRDS: HEROES AROUND THE WORLD, by Peter Salmansohn and Peter W. KressSaving Birds

This book teaches young readers about preservation efforts on behalf of endangered birds in six locations around the world. One chapter focuses on a Latin American bird of legend, the quetzal. Like many animals of exceptional beauty, the quetzal has been exploited and poached. Furthermore, its habitat in Central America’s cloud forests is under threat by human activity, including deforestation and fires. Two men employed by a natural reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, called El Triunfo, set out to address the educational gaps surrounding the quetzal. Using puppet shows and books, they have recruited the support of children in villages throughout the region, teaching them to prize the quetzal and its forest home.

LUZ MAKES A SPLASH, by Claudia Dávila

Luz Makes a SplashHow can young readers learn about something as abstract as water conservation? This graphic novel for elementary grades introduces wise water-usage in a kid-friendly package. It’s part of a two-book series called The Future According to Luz. The companion book is entitled Luz Sees the Light. Luz Makes a Splash is built around an eponymous character and a community of friends and family whose lives are affected in multiple ways by scorching temperatures and drought conditions. Gardens are drying up. So is a city park and Luz’s favorite spring-fed pond. It turns out that a nearby soft-drink company is tapping groundwater to manufacture its cola products, and this contributes to the pond’s receding water level. A group of citizens mobilizes to address the problem. Meanwhile, Luz learns about rain barrels and a natural system for filtering household water used for cooking and washing (gray water). One of the story’s characters converts his sod lawn into a rock garden built around indigenous plants capable of thriving in drought conditions.

The author-illustrator of Luz Makes a Splash is Chilean-Canadian. She has made her energetic, intelligent and community-minded main character a Latina. Ethnic identity doesn’t figure into the story, but what a nice way to counteract stereotypes of Latin@s.

This is a book with a message. Some readers will find fault with its didactic approach and the fact that the characters are not given a broader story, but taken as a teaching tool, it delivers solid information that can be used to launch explorations into drought, government-enforced water restrictions, and smart solutions for reducing water waste and keeping gardens green during low-water conditions.

*****

The focus of this post is Latin@ activism for earth-friendly causes, but a growing number of works on the Latin@ kid lit bookshelf celebrate the planet.

final Silver People cover-1Margarita Engle can be counted on to inject nature, naturalists, biodiversity, and environmental conservation in nearly all her books and has received recognition for her stand on these issues. Recently, Green Earth Book Awards shortlisted Silver People for its 2015 honors. Congratulations, Margarita!

 

 

 

 

 

Two of Margarita’s 2015 releases embrace the wonders of nature.

Orangutanka   Sky Painter

For more Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections, check out these additional selections:

Animals Iguazy   River Loves Me      My Brother Needs a Boa   desert-is-my-mother

Need classroom resources related to the field of environmental activism?

Click here for information on The Américas Latino Eco Festival. Don’t overlook Mujeres de la Tierra, an inspiring group of activists located in California.

For additional insights on the environmental heroes and projects featured in this post, check out these resources:

Omar Freilla is a New Yorker who appears in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s an article about his work.

Erica Fernanadez is another of the true-life characters in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s a video about her campaign for a cleaner environment:

As a follow up on Saving Birds, don’t miss this spectacular video of quetzals caring for their young.

And for young children, don’t forget Dora the Explorer’s cousin Diego, a passionate advocate for the environment!

Libros Latin@s: Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

16131067By Kimberly Mach

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: The only thing I knew for sure was that I had issues. Lots of issues. No wonder my mood ring kept changing! It went from black for tense to pink for uncertain to white for frustrated. I kept waiting to see blue, the color for calmness and peace, but no such luck. With all the craziness in my life, I couldn’t see blue if I looked at the sky.

MY TWO CENTSAsk My Mood Ring How I Feel, by Diana Lopez, is an excellent middle grade novel for a teen book group or for an individual read.

Author Diana Lopez remembers what it’s like to be a middle school girl. Rarely have I read a book that made me feel so connected to my eighth grade self. The excitement, the fear, the boys, the uncertainty of everyone’s confidence, the loyalty of friends, the changing body, Lopez gets it all. On top of that, she shows us that kids deal with real problems, too. Our kids face real problems, like having a parent with cancer.

The book opens with Erica’s (Chia’s) mom buying bathing suits before their summer vacation. Mom shows Erica and her younger sister, Carmen, nine new bikinis. Then she throws the bottoms away. Soon the girls learn their mother has breast cancer and is due to have a mastectomy. Summer vacation plans have changed.

Before the surgery, the family makes a pilgrimage to La Virgen de San Juan del Valle. Each member of the family leaves a special object as an offering, prays for God and La Virgen to help mom, and then makes a promesa.  The promesa is a thank-you promise to God and La Virgen in acknowledgment of their help and healing.

This is where I fell in love with Erica’s character. Erica takes her time deciding what her promesa, or promise, will be. While at the shrine she discovers el cuarto de Milagros, or the miracle room, “where people share stories and make offerings.” It is here where Erica sees a newspaper article and a picture of the Race for the Cure. Erica’s promesa is to walk the 5k and raise money for breast cancer research.

Erica returns to school in the fall to face many challenges in her eighth grade year. Throughout them her mood ring changes color. Erica relies on the ring to tell her what she is feeling instead of listening to her heart. Her friends, the Robins, remain a constant support throughout the story. Erica deals with boys and homework, then goes home and deals with her mother’s illness, all while trying to work on her promesa. Erica takes on the role of an adult covering most of the house chores and taking care of her younger brother as her mother recovers from surgery and then faces radiation treatment. Very quickly Erica starts missing assignments and her grades, especially in math, plummet.  When a counselor calls a meeting with the family at school, Erica finally shares what she has been struggling with. When at last her teachers and her parents are on the same page, Erica gets the help she needs.

The book concludes with Erica and many of her friends completing her promesa. She trusts herself to know and understand her own feelings. She does not rely on her mood ring anymore to tell her how she feels.

TEACHING TIPS: The two most beneficial ways this book could be used are through book talks and book clubs. If a teacher or librarian book talks this book, students will gravitate toward it. Most of the readers will be girls, but I think that’s what it’s designed to do. Even as an adult reading it, I felt the same kinship and recognition I had felt when I read Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret when I was eleven years old. It’s about a girl growing and changing and dealing with the trials of middle school. The only difference is that students will also recognize the struggle of a family dealing with cancer, and we get characters from diverse backgrounds, which all our children need.

The second way I see this book being effective is for a teen girl book club. Again, the driving force for me was the honesty with which Erica (Chia) looked at her friends, her family, and her challenges with school. All girls will recognize this. They will see themselves and their friends in this book.

In a Social Studies and Language Arts classes, teachers can use the book as a launching point for their own students’ service projects as well as a geographic study of San Antonio. You may visit the church of La Virgen de San Juan del Valle on line at http://www.olsjbasilica.org/  There are links to the history of the church, as well as information on pilgrimages and pictures of the basilica – including the mural that Erica describes seeing.

Teachers may even create math problems from the book. How much money did Erica raise? How much do local teams in Race for the Cure raise? Was Erica’s achievement similar to this or greater?

An awareness of breast cancer and the organizations that raise money for research may also be used in an extension of science curriculum.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: You may visit the author website for Diana Lopez at http://www.dianalopezbooks.com/Home_Page.html She does have teacher resource links for her middle grade novel Confetti Girl and her young adult novel Choke. (None were listed for Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel at the time of this writing.) A talented writer living in Texas, Lopez has two writing awards under her belt. She spent time teaching at the middle school level and currently teaches at the university level. She continues to find stories in the pages of life and we look forward to reading more!

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out IndieBound.orgWorldCat.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Kimberly Mach (2)Kimberly Mach has been teaching for sixteen years and holds two teaching certificates in elementary and secondary education. Her teaching experience ranges from grades five to twelve, but she currently teaches Language Arts to middle school students. It is a job she loves. The opportunity to share good books with students is one that every teacher should have. She feels privileged to be able to share them on a daily basis.

Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Angie Manfredi

By Sujei Lugo 

The Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library series focuses on interviews with children’s librarians, youth services librarians, and school librarians, where they share their experiences, knowledge, and challenges using Latino children’s literature in their libraries. In this third installment of this series, I interview a great supporter of diverse books and an awesome booktalker, Angie Manfredi.

Angie ManfrediAngie Manfredi blogs at www.fatgirlreading.com and tweets constantly as @misskubelik. She is currently serving on the Stonewall Awards Committee. She has presented nationally on library issues from diversity to building teen services. She still can’t believe they pay her to be a librarian.

Talk a little bit about yourself and your library.
I am a born and raised New Mexican and proud of it. I am ethnically Italian, but my maternal great-mother was Latina and my maternal grandmother never let me forget it, “You’re not ALL Italian, after all.”

I’m Head of Youth Services at the Los Alamos County Library System in New Mexico. My library serves a large international population but, like most of New Mexico, also serves a Hispanic community. I work with ages 0-18 and can’t ever pick a favorite demographic.

What are your library’s selection and acquisition processes regarding Latino children’s books? Do you have any input in these processes?
Yes, as the Head of Youth Services, I am the final selector. I make sure to read widely from a variety of sources, both online and in print (For example, I love and use this blog). I ask my professional learning network on Twitter, publishers and small and regional publishers as well. University of New Mexico Press has some great regional titles like The Eyes of the Weaver/Los Ojos del Tejedor by Cristina Ortega, about the weaving tradition in the local Chimayó Valley and Amadito and the Hero Children/Amadito y los Niños Héroes by Enrique R. Lamadrid, about a flu epidemic and a pioneering New Mexican physician. These are local and bilingual titles a major publisher might never carry but are relevant to our region and our community. (I really recommend UNM Press. Check them out!)

What types of children and youth programming does your library offer using Latino children’s literature?
Nothing regularly, but we make an effort to include Latino children’s books in our storytimes, displays, and recommended book lists, so that they are a fully integrated part of our library services. We also create displays and booklists for National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Can you talk about community outreach and promoting library events?
I’ve been in this position almost eight years, so I’m lucky I’ve met lots of people! That’s a big part of what we do, I try to get my face out there. We have booths at community events, I contact school librarians with info about programs, and I’ve connected with our community educators group. If people know you’re willing to collaborate or help, even on a low level (making a booklist for an event even if you can’t attend), they are more likely to think of you or ask you.

What is the reaction of kids, teens, and families regarding Latino children’s books?
I’m lucky, everyone is receptive. That’s one of the best parts of living in New Mexico, though the Latino/a experience and the New Mexican experience are often so closely intertwined.

I love when parents and grandparents ask for books in Spanish or I get to show them our Spanish-language collection and they marvel at how many we have. Besides the books in English with Latino/a characters, we have everything from pictures to The Hunger Games in Spanish. They all circulate, which the entire staff takes pride in. We are always looking for more materials!

Any challenges regarding the acquisition of Latino children’s books or programming? What programs would you like to offer?
We’ve worked hard to refresh the Spanish-language collection with new materials. I found some motivated parent volunteers (that’s why we get out and mingle with patrons!) and they helped with the selection.

I’d love to have a Spanish-language storytime at least once a month. We had one when I first started, but our volunteer that was doing it got a full-time job. I’m definitely still interested in that. After our success participating in the African American Read-In, I also plan to expand our National Hispanic Heritage Month programming this year to have a read-in and a week full of themed storytimes. I’m excited about that.

Do you address issues of prejudice, oppression and inaccuracy in your library and in children’s books?
I hope I have weeded most of the books with inaccurate and outdated information. But I try, instead, to guide patrons to the books with positive and accurate portrayals. I say: “I really love this one!” or “This one really gets it right!” or “This one won an award, let me tell you about it!” That’s the kind of situation when patrons can really benefit from our guidance and enthusiasm, so it’s on us to be informed and proactive about the promotion.

Any advice for other librarians and educators who would like to use and incorporate Latino children’s literature into their programming?
Do it! If you feel unsure about where to start, dig into the Pura Belpré Award, the Tomás Rivera Award, and the Américas Award winners to give you a good start. Find one or two books you feel confident booktalking or reading in storytime and build from there, integrating those titles into your repertoire. There are families and kids in your community who will see themselves in these stories, and their cousins, and grandmothers, and friends.

Which are the most popular Latino children’s books in your library?
Our patrons love text where the Spanish is integrated through the text, so some favorite picture books are anything by Pat Mora and Yuyi Morales. Pam Muñoz Ryan is one of our most popular middle grade authors, Esperanza Rising is often assigned in schools and kids genuinely love it. The Tía Lola stories by Julia Alvarez are popular here too. Our teens love ANYTHING by Matt de la Peña. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina was a very popular book here too. And, of course, I can’t keep Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero on the shelf.

And finally, which Latino children’s books do you recommend?

      
I love everything by Duncan Tonatiuh. I can’t wait to see what Guadalupe García McCall writes next. The Living by Matt de la Peña is perfection (I reviewed it on Guy’s LitWire). I think every middle schooler should be required to read The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano. It’s an amazing book about finding who YOU are and what YOU will stand for. Similarly, Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velásquez made me cry the first time I read it and I think elementary school kids should all be taught it. It does a great job discussing how having someone support your dreams can change you and so can seeing someone who looks like you in art and media.

Oh, and Bless Me Última by Rudolfo Anaya. A required high school read for me and for thousands of other New Mexican students over the years. It helped me see that everyone has a story and it’s OUR job to listen.

 

Libros Latin@s: Super Cilantro Girl

 

1016493By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.

MY TWO CENTS: Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda Sinfronteras transforms into a superhero to rescue her mother from ICE. She uses the power of cilantro to grow taller than a house, with hair longer than a bus, and skin so green it could have only come from cilantro. Super Cilantro Girl flies to the border, climbs the dark and dreary detention center to her mother’s window, and simply picks her up and puts her in her pocket and they fly home.  The ICE agents are so mesmerized by the power of cilantro that they do not notice or prevent Super Cilantro Girl from rescuing her mother.  The next morning, Esmeralda makes a huge discovery about her and her mother.

Author Juan Felipe Herrera and illustrator Honorario Robledo Tapia have created a magnificent children’s book about the transformative power of imagination. Esmeralda is emblematic of the many children who have been separated from their families due to unjust and xenophobic immigration laws. Herrera and Tapia go beyond common debates about immigration to give a face and a voice to the children impacted. Esmeralda gains the power and courage she needs to confront ICE from the environment around her. Her grandmother and the land serve as vessels for alternative knowledge that guide Esmeralda through her journey. Furthermore, Herrera’s and Tapia’s reclamation of the color green juxtaposes Esmeralda’s power with the cultural and social power of the “green card.”  In Esmeralda’s imagination, her power is much stronger than anything ICE or a green card could ever have.

There are several ways to read race, gender, and class into this story in order to come up with a thorough analysis of how immigration impacts Latina/o children and their families. What I appreciate most about Herrera’s children’s book is that hope and empowerment are central to the narrative. Giving Esmeralda superpowers reveals the possibility for change that manifests from a child’s imagination. Super Cilantro Girl encourages children to dream, hope, and fight for their rights even if it means going against an entire state apparatus like ICE.

TEACHING TIPS: Super Cilantro Girl can be taught thematically by focusing on issues of (im)migration.  The story’s emphasis on alternative healing methods is resonant of Gloria Anzaldua’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman and Friends from the Other Side. All three texts pay particular attention to holistic healing methods that include using nature as a resource. This is especially important because it allows the children protagonists to gain empowerment from their environments—much in the same way that Esmeralda finds power in cilantro.

Focusing on the superhero theme presents an opportunity to connect art activities with reading. Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World prompted the creation of Niño masks to accompany the story—something similar can be done with Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl.  The relationship between social justice and superheroes in this story can be addressed by asking students to draw and imagine their own superhero. Students can imagine what a superhero in or from their community might look like or students can find inspiration from their community to create a superhero. Xavier Garza’s Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid is another excellent example of a child protagonist using his culture and community to be heroic.

There are several Latino kid’s books that focus on lucha libre that will pair wonderfully with Super Cilantro Girl. Lucha libre connects superhero-like characters with fantasy and reality and that can generate a powerful conversation about superheroes in our communities and culture as well as how children and youth can be their own heroes. Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World and Xavier Garza’s Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask are a few examples that tell stories about children and luchadores.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Super Cilantro Girl,  visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

 

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Juventud Press, a New Indie Publisher, Will Focus on Latin@ MG & YA

cropped-fcoverAs a reader of this blog, you know what we’re up against. Nearly 5,000 children’s and YA books were published in 2012, but only 1.5% of those titles featured Latin@s. Given the historical inequities our community has faced—which have resulted in our kids’ educational struggles, low average reading level, and high drop-out rate—it is more important than ever that children of diverse cultural backgrounds have access to books in which they see themselves reflected.

Since 2011, the 501(c)(3) non-profit Valley Artist Outreach has worked to promote the artistic expression of disaffected youth in the colonias of South Texas and of artists whose work touches on issues of import to the community. As part of that work, VAO’s publishing wing has released several anthologies, notably ¡Juventud! Growing up  on the Border, a collection of YA stories and poems edited by René Saldaña, Jr. and Erika Garza-Johnson that features the work of David Rice, Xavier Garza, Jan Seale, Guadalupe García McCall, Diana Gonzales Bertrand and many others.

Stemming from the success of that book, VAO is proud to announce Juventud Press, an exciting new imprint seeking to bring diverse books to young readers often marginalized by traditional publishing. Juventud Press will release three to four middle-grade and young-adult titles a year, with an eye toward expanding into children’s literature in the near future. Written by and/or featuring Latin@ characters and settings, these books will help contribute to the recent surge in diversity in kid lit.

Heartbeat coverOur first title will be Heartbeat of the Soul of the World, a new short-story collection by René Saldaña, Jr., author of books such as The Jumping Tree and The Whole Sky Full of Stars. A vital book that explores the ins and outs of Latin@ adolescence along the border, Heartbeat is a flagship publication that encapsulates the values and mission of Juventud Press.

In addition, we seek to promote the voices of up-and-coming writers of diverse YA literature by establishing the Nueva Voz Award, which will select a winner each summer from among manuscripts submitted by unsigned, un-agented writers. The winner of the award will receive a $500 advance and standard publishing contract, and her/his book will be published in the fall of that same year.

To be competitive even in the field of independent small presses, we need the initial capital to produce high quality, visually engaging books.

We are asking for pledges through Kickstarter. Each one comes with a fantastic reward, so please take a look: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1780116159/juventud-press-launch

These start-up funds will secure the visual artists needed for covers, underwrite website design, cover the deployment of the Nueva Voz Award, and purchase initial publicity for the imprint.

Please consider backing this worthwhile project that will add to the flowering of diversity in publishing for our youth.

Thanks!

The Editorial Board of Juventud Press

José Mélendez, René Saldaña, Jr., and David Bowles

Happiness as a Social Justice Issue in Latin@ Kid Lit

By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

In the years that I’ve been researching and writing about Latina/o kid’s literature, I’ve gone back and forth about the impact that “happy endings” have on the stories and young readers. Because I focus specifically on realistic fiction, narratives that capture lived experiences, I found the happy endings to be a bit misleading. Real stories on deportation and family separation, for example, do not always get a happy ending and especially not as immediately as books make it seem. In general, happy endings are an essential component of children’s illustrated texts. That is, picture books for children tend to have happy endings because a book that tells children, for example, that “life sucks” and encourages them to give up would probably not fare well in the industry. Within this genre, happy endings also function as a way to preserve a child’s innocence. There is something both beautiful and problematic about the genre’s desire to protect children from “growing up too fast,” from the “dangers of the real world,” and whatnot. In this way, the happy ending allows children to explore the world through books with the guarantee that they will be safe, that everything will work out, and that they will be protected. However, not all children are seen as inherently innocent and therefore their access to protection and safety is limited and certainly not guaranteed.

Because Latina/o kid’s lit as a genre has done an exceptional job at pointing out the marginality, discrimination, and uncertainty that Latina/o children face in this country I had often found the happy endings in some of these texts disconcerting. The reconciliation between the oppressions experienced by a Latino child protagonist and the happy ending was too simple. I was afraid that those endings would mislead or further discourage real children who were undergoing similar situations as those portrayed in the books but who were not experiencing the happy endings. My concern was also that the happy endings minimized the urgency of the topics being discussed.

I have found that the most beneficial way to understand happiness in Latina/o kid’s books is to read it as part of the story rather than the ending. In other words, happiness is a piece of a much larger story and not just the end. This understanding is particularly important when teaching Latina/o kid’s books dealing with social justice issues. It is significant to note that the happy endings do not suggest that the oppressions the characters experience have also ended. Furthermore, characters’ happiness does not suggest that they are not being oppressed. These caveats on happy endings may seem unnecessary and a bit of a downer; however, happy endings in kid’s picture books assume that children access happiness equally when, in fact, this is not the case. Because of this, happy endings in children’s picture books with social justice themes further present an opportunity to discuss happiness as a social justice issue.

1016493As important as it is to contest happy endings, it is also important to protect Latino children’s right to happiness. I became more aware of this significance upon giving a presentation on Juan Felipe Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl where I was asked if the story’s ending undermined Esmeralda’s agency. Super Cilantro Girl tells the story of Esmeralda Sinfronteras and her transformation into a giant green superhero set to rescue her mother from an ICE detention center. Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda taps into the power of cilantro and gradually changes into Super Cilantro Girl. Bigger than a bus, taller than a house, and with the power of cilantro and flight, Esmeralda breaks her mother out of the detention center and brings her home. Super Cilantro Girl disrupts the anti-immigration policies that seek to separate her family by becoming bigger, stronger, and more heroic than the system. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that Esmeralda was dreaming and did not change into Super Cilantro Girl nor did she rescue her mother. Despite that, though, Esmeralda’s mother returns. In my presentation, I claimed that Esmeralda’s transformation exemplified how the body can be a site of healing. What does the ending then suggest about Esmeralda’s healing process and agency if her transformation into a superhero was just a dream? It was then suggested that I’d have a more productive reading of Super Cilantro Girl if I talked about it as magical realism and/or science fiction.

While an argument can be made to read Super Cilantro Girl as magical realism and/or science fiction, I choose not to because there is something difficult about reading Esmeralda’s dream of rescuing her mother from ICE as fantastical. Despite having been a dream, there is agency and power in Esmeralda’s ability to see herself as a superhero with the strength to fight ICE and reunite her family. Regardless of ICE’s threat, Esmeralda can imagine herself as powerful and, ultimately, happy. Esmeralda’s happiness upon rescuing her mother is an important part of her healing process. Again, happiness needs to be understood as part of the narrative and not the end point. Super Cilantro Girl demonstrates how happiness and imagination function to promote hope and resilience despite the systemic oppressions that hinder Esmeralda’s life. Challenging happy endings and reading happiness as a social justice issue present opportunities to further understand how childhood in the United States is racialized and how Latina/o kid’s lit creates alternative narratives.

 

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.