A Holiday Sampler of Treasured Memories

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Come in from the cold! Childhood memories bring warmth to almost everything we do during the holidays, no matter how we choose to celebrate. As adults, we’re often in charge of enlivening the season for the children we love, as well as the child still within us. For extra inspiration, we’ve called on some favorite people with connections to Latin@ kid lit.  Here’s the question we posed to Jacqueline Jules, Margarita Engle, Danette Vigilante, Angela Cervantes, and Tracy López:

The holiday season often reflects the wide diversity within the Latin@ community. Would you share a childhood memory of your Hanukkah or Christmas past, or simply a special winter memory?

And here’s how they answered:

JACQUELINE JULES 

Menorah collage

Hanukkah, like all Jewish holidays, follows a lunar calendar. It generally occurs at least a week (if not two or three) before Christmas. As a child, not having to wait till December 25th  was a great bonus for me. I loved getting presents before everyone else at school. The year I remember most is when I received a mezuzah necklace. A mezuzah contains a parchment with the Sh’ma prayer, the central tenant of the Jewish faith. My parents gave me a small cylindrical pendant on a sterling silver chain. It was a requested gift and my first real piece of jewelry.

Growing up in a small southern town, my religion made me an outsider. But wearing a symbol of my faith was still important to me. It is an integral part of who I am. My parents raised me to treasure my own celebrations. Hanukkah is a minor holiday of far less importance than the Jewish high holidays in the fall or Passover in the spring. We gave gifts in our nuclear family, but we never tried to make it a Jewish equivalent of Christmas. After a first night with a special present, the other nights were less about gifts and more about the candle-lighting ceremony. My parents owned several Hanukkah menorahs and we would light them all, creating a beautiful row of glowing candles on our dining room table. One menorah was shaped like a bird with candle holders on two golden wings. I still have that menorah and use it in my holiday celebrations.

JJulesWebPic

Jacqueline Jules is the award-winning author of more than twenty children’s books, includes the fabulous Zapato Power series. Great news: she’s busy creating even more fun books for kids! At the bottom of this post, check out her Hanukkah-inspired titles.

 

 

 

MARGARITA ENGLE

Pretending w Text

Hermanas

Family time is the greatest gift offered by any holiday, no matter which religion or season is being celebrated. One of my fondest December memories is the way my sister and I always surprised each other with identical gifts, even though our mother took us shopping separately. Adventure stories, animal tales, and nonfiction natural history books were our inevitable choices. One year, we gave each other the same dinosaur identification chart. We saw ourselves as explorers-in-training, our shared interests a preview of lifelong curiosity about the world. Those shared interests became an even more lasting memory than baking cookies, or admiring the colorful cheer of holiday lights.

MargaritaMargarita Engle is the author of many acclaimed young adult and children’s novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received a Newbery Honor. Her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish, and more publications are in the works, including a memoir we can’t wait to read! Here’s her latest guest post for this blog.

 

 

 

DANETTE VIGILANTE

Danette CollageThe first smell of steam heat pumping and banging its way into our third-floor apartment in the Red Hook Houses served as the official announcement of fall.

The radiators in our apartment were used for more than just keeping us warm, though. Mom placed orange skins on top of their steel bones, giving the air a sweet citrus scent. When we needed to dry our winter gear after playing in the snow, to the radiator it all went. When I absolutely had to wear a certain pair of jeans soon after they had been washed, the radiator served as a quick dry cycle. They came off a bit stiff and practically able to stand on their own, but that was a small price to pay. Besides, after a few deep knee bends, all was well. My little sister had her own important use for the radiators— heating up squares of Now and Later candies until they were soft and gooey.

Every year, after the Thanksgiving dishes had been washed and dried, my best friend’s mom did something that excited the kids living in nearby buildings; she’d officially welcome Christmas by decorating her second floor windows in twinkling multicolored lights–a Christmas tree dressed in its best, standing proudly in the center of it all.

A door had been swung open, and one by one, every window from the first through sixth floors, had followed suit. Our drab brick buildings had finally come alive! The magic of the winter season, with its good cheer and best wishes, had entered our hearts, filling us with hope, gratitude and joy.

Danette_Vigilante_head_shot_high_resDanette Vigilante is the award-winning author of two children’s books, The Trouble with Half a Moon and Saving Baby Doe. She lives in New York with her husband, two daughters, two puppies and a cat with an attitude! Don’t miss her inspiring guest post, “Danette Vigilante on the Importance of Dream Seeds.

 

 

 

ANGELA CERVANTES

Feliz NavidadOne Christmas, my family was visiting my brother at the army base in Fort Sill. On Christmas Eve, some soldiers were making their way through the neighborhood, house-by-house, Christmas caroling. They came to our doorstep and sang a lively version of Jingle bells and then went on their merry way to the next house. A few minutes later, my sister, Rio, asked me to go out to the car with her to help bring in the rest of the gifts. As we headed to her car, parked curbside, the soldiers were standing in the middle of the street seeming unsure of where to go next. My sister and I grabbed the gifts out of the trunk and when we turned around, the soldiers were standing in front of us. They started singing “Joy to the World.” We couldn’t believe it.

 It was a real serenata!

When they finished, Rio gave me this look and I knew what we had to do. We put our gifts down. At Rio’s count of three we belted out, “Feliz Navidad” with as much glorious Jose Feliciano-ness we could muster. Rio snapped her fingers and shook her hips. I pretended that I had maracas and shimmied around. The soldiers sang along and bopped their heads. “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.” When we finished, one of the soldiers said, “That was cool. No one has sung back to us the entire night.”

What can I say? Leave it to the Cervantes girls to keep it real on Christmas Eve!

Angela CervantesAngela Cervantes is an award-winning author whose debut novel, Gaby, Lost and Found, has been named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second novel, a spin-off of Gaby, Lost and Found, will be released by Scholastic Press in 2016.  Read about what inspired Angela to write Gaby in this Latin@s in Kid Lit interview.  

 

 

TRACY LÓPEZ

Tracy's NativityOne of my favorite childhood memories is when my little sister and I used to lie on the carpet and play with the nativity my mother set up under the Christmas tree. It was a typical, simple nativity with a moss-covered manger made of wood and plastic figures representing Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, the angel, a shepherd with a lamb hefted onto his shoulders, and a few barnyard animals. The nativity scene was actually a gift to my mother from my father, who grew up in a Jewish home; my parents say he won it on a radio show when I was really little. That same nativity is still put on display each Christmas at my parents’ house. Although I’m an adult with two teenage sons, I’m always tempted to play with the little figures when I see it set up, which horrifies my husband, Carlos. He’s Salvadoran and in El Salvador the nativity (or “nacimiento”) is much more spectacular than my mother’s humble display. A Salvadoran nativity can take up an entire room and features entire villages of people, but kids are definitely not allowed to play with it!

Tracy LopezTracy López is a freelance writer, blogger and novelist. Her work has appeared in Fox News Latino, Mamiverse, SpanglishBaby and many other print and online publications. She is Owner/Editor-in-Chief of the influential blog Latinaish.com, and is a member of the team of We Need Diverse Books.

 

 

 

HOLIDAY BOOKSHELVES

We wouldn’t be doing our cheerful duty if we didn’t top off this glorious stroll down memory lane with book recommendations related to the season. Here’s a round-up of titles we think you and your young readers will relish this winter holiday.

Happy Hanukkah Lights    Christmas Makes me Think

HanukkahZiz    Kwanzaa with Boots

Celebrate Hanukkah    Twas Nochebuena

Piñata in a Pine tree    Las Navidades

Seven Candles for Kwanzaa    Green Christmas

And for older readers:

Las Christmas

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL! WE’LL SEE YOU IN 2015!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: A Bucket-load of Talk + No Action = a Bucket-Load of Nothing

By René Saldaña, Jr.

At a cozy dinner attended recently by children’s book writers and illustrators, I listened to two conversations happening simultaneously. On the one side of me, my left, folks were talking about Daniel Handler’s blatantly stupid remarks at the National Book Award ceremony (really, in what world would anyone ever feel entitled to bring up such vile imagery, and worse, to do so in such a cavalier fashion?). Yes, these writers and artists agreed, the remarks were dumb and insensitive at best, racist at worst. But, he did offer an apology (via Twitter, of all places; how much more impersonal can a person get! It seems to be the norm though). He also donated $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books, with the promise to match whatever amount came into WNDB in the next 24 hours, up to $100,000. He apologized, went the logic, and he did give, and to such a worthy organization who is sure to do miracles with these funds (visit this organization’s web site for more information: http://weneeddiversebooks.org). And, so, reluctantly but never the less, most of the authors and illustrators that evening gave Handler the benefit of the doubt. An easy pass, in my opinion.

On the other side of me, my right, others were talking about GOP aide Elizabeth Lauten who, on her Facebook page, wrote some pretty vile material of her own about President Obama’s daughters. A conservative, I categorically disagree with her statements. They were uncalled for. I disavow them, and what consequences she suffers she brought on herself. You see, it’s one thing to attack the politics of the man, even the man himself (as happened with Bush and Palin both and with the same ferocity), but to go after a president’s children, who had no say in his pursuit of the presidency, is uncalled for.

Lauten, my table mates continued, after some soul searching (she’d written that she prayed about her situation, spoke with family who advised her to admit her wrong-doing) apologized and, furthermore, quit her post. Despite Lauten’s behavior after the fact, there was an unwillingness to the right of me, it seemed, to afford her the same “easy way out” as was being given to Handler on the opposite end of the table.

At the hotel room later than night, I couldn’t help but wonder why folks in the industry were able to find it within themselves to forgive the one but not the other? I recalled how my table mates had spoken about Jacqueline Woodson’s very touching response in the New York Times. How much class she had displayed. One or two may have asked if his donation was nothing more than Handler trying to buy his way out of a very bad situation. A token payment, so to speak. Ten thousand little tokens, and then some. A lot of then some. Others responded that no matter, the money went to a great cause, that the amount of money raised in a day’s time was enormous, and imagine all the good that can come of it. Etc., etc.

Cynical like I am, the contrasting reactions at the table that night and from across the nation, boil down to politics for me. Who is given a pass for belonging to one party or the other, and who is not because he or she is a member of the opposite one? Best I can tell, Handler is likely left-leaning, as seems to be the majority of the publishing industry. He, like President Obama, has permission to evolve. He comes, as Woodson writes, from a place of ignorance, but his intent was never to hurt surely. He made a mistake, and hasn’t he already paid for it? (Literally?) He has learned his lesson, right? He has recognized the error of his way? And he’s dealt with it, no?

Lauten, on the other hand, is a Republican; therefore, her apology and action thereafter mean little. They are proof of her and the party’s hypocritical stance on diversity. Their lack of sympathy for the downtrodden. A heartless bunch, those conservatives. After all, once a racist, always a racist. And so she can’t possibly be sincere in her request for forgiveness. Her motives questionable.

In his reaction following the Eric Garner grand jury decision refusing to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, President Obama stated, “…this is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for too long, and it’s time for us to make more progress than we’ve made. And I’m not interested in talk, I’m interested in action.” The president was speaking, obviously, about violence against Black men at the hands of the police and a similar violence against the Black community at the hands of those charged with finding justice for the disenfranchised: the grand jury. A jury of any kind. Our peers, impartial, truth-seekers, supposedly. But who fail, sometimes more miserably than at others.

President Obama’s words can also be applied to our quest for diversity in the publishing and education worlds. We can talk the talk all day long and not get one single solitary thing done. Talk is cheap, after all. We’ve been doing nothing but talking for far too long.

The alternative is to walk the walk. This means taking hard stances some times. This is one of those times, an occasion that matters more than we can imagine. Those affected for better or worse are those for whom we claim to work. Yes, Handler apologized, but it cannot be that easy for us to wave away his brand of racism because he gives to a good cause. We can’t let Handler off the hook, I don’t care how much money he donated and helped raise.

How many times have we said of kids of all ages “Oh, they know more than we realize”? It’s true. And this moment is no different, except in terms of the context of the times: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and several other instances our kids are hyper-aware of. There are protests across our nation fighting racism. They will hear what happened, what he said, how he laughed it off. How we let him off easy. They will see through our hypocrisy. It either matters, or it doesn’t. Just let that sink into your mind.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m overjoyed at what Ellen Oh, et al. will be able to do for young readers from the various diverse populations. These folks are walking the walk. They are taking action.

I, like our president, though, am tired of talk. Our children’s literacy success rests largely in our hands. And talk isn’t going to improve anything. It hasn’t thus far. Proof is Handler’s imagery from that evening’s speech. Isn’t he supposed to be from amongst our more enlightened class? If he hasn’t gleaned from all this talk over decades that there are lines drawn for a reason, then all this talk hasn’t accomplished much, has it?

Talk and talk and talk about what can possibly be done to make change happen is okay, but it’s got to lead somewhere. So far, it hasn’t on a grand scale. Rukhsana Khan explained more poignantly than I can ever do the harm a lack of action on our parts can do to an already-disenfranchised child. During her opening remarks at this year’s NCTE Friday morning General Session, she described the setting: a house, which implies an indoors and an outdoors; indoors a warm fire, comfortable chairs; outside, a porch, the cruel elements; inside, people with the means to turn the world of literature and literacy on its head, but who instead sit by the fire warming themselves; outside, the marginalized looking in, freezing, invisible, worthless. One looking in dreaming of the warmth, a place at the fire; the other looking at one’s reflection in the window produced by that darkness without.

I can’t tell you what to do to begin to right the wrong, or how. I won’t. That’s entirely up to you. What I will tell you is that the matter is urgent. These kids cannot be disappeared, and we—writers, illustrators, poets, literacy advocates, educators, publishers—cannot let them be disappeared. Handler gave; Lauten resigned. Both took action to try to fix things. Most of us don’t have the kind of cash Handler does, nor can we give up our livelihoods. But we can DO. Something. And something is better than nothing.

Our children’s lives depend on it.

 

Rene SaldanaRené Saldaña, Jr., is the author of the bilingual picture book Dale, dale, dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. He’s an associate professor of Language and Literature in the College of Education at Texas Tech University in West Texas. He’s also the author of several books for young readers, among them The Jumping Tree, Finding Our Way: Stories, The Whole Sky Full of Stars, A Good Long Way, and the bilingual Mickey Rangel detective series. He can be reached at rene.saldana@sbcglobal.net.

Black Girl with a Spanish Name

 

By Libertad Araceli Thomas

“Do you know what your name means?”

This was a question that made me hate name tags since the second grade. “Libertad? You know it means ‘Freedom’ in Spanish, right?” Of course, I knew what my name meant. I knew what it meant when I was old enough to talk, I knew what it meant before I ever entered school, and I knew what it meant at 18 years old when I took my first job as a barista at a local coffee shop and was again subjected to wearing the name tags I so dreaded as a kid. At home, I was Libertad, but to the world I was a Black girl with a Spanish name.

From first glance, loads of people tell me I don’t “look” Latina. And what’s devastating is that for a while, I believed them. You see, a darker skinned girl with kinky hair like me never made it to my TV screen when “La Familia” parked our butts down to watch Spanish language programs.

Afro-Latinas like me rarely, if ever, showed up in any history lessons. In fact, I hadn’t even known that any Black Latinas made contributions to Latin American societies until I was well out of college and half way into my 20’s. But the thing that hurt the most for a kid who liked to lose herself in books was that a girl like me, Black and Cuban with an unusual name that almost no one can say, was never in any works of fiction.

I tell people all the time being a Black Latina has to be the equivalent to seeing a unicorn in real life. No matter how real you appear to be, standing there in front of them, they have to question your existence and blink a million times at the mere sight of you. I’ve always felt too black to be Latina and too foreign to feel completely African-American. Worst of all, I felt invisible. I can’t help thinking maybe it would have been different if more Afro-Latin@s were in books.

The thing that’s missing here is a little thing called representation. We don’t only need Latin@ characters; we need intersectionality.

In a bright future, I want to pick up a book that goes above and beyond to highlight just how diverse and multifaceted Latino culture can be. I want to read about Latin@s of Asian ancestry like the ones I knew growing up in Miami. Queer Latin@s who are brown, black, mixed, and indigenous. Latin@s who speak Portuguese instead of Spanish, because far too often Brazilians get left out of the conversation, and most of all I’d love to see more Black Latin@s as lead protagonists.

It took me 20+ years to stop feeling like just a Black girl with a Spanish name. Girls after me deserve different. Most of all, they deserve better.

About the Blogger/Aspiring writer:

Libertad ThomasLibertad Araceli Thomas is part one of the Twinjas of Diversity @ Twinja Book Reviews. When she’s not reading stories featuring multicultural lead protagonists, she’s busy improving her no hand aerials and working on getting her Blue Belt in Tang Soo Do and Purple in Shaolin Kempo. She writes under the pen name “GL Tomas.”

During my blog’s Black Speculative Fiction Month I dedicated a Top Ten list of Afro Latinos in Speculative Fiction because I just looove Spec Fic, Please check it out and comment with any additions I could add to the list!

 

 

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Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library: Interviews with Fellow Librarians

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 second entry of this series, I interview Crystal Brunelle.

Crystal is a library media specialist from Wisconsin. In times when schools and their libraries are impacted by budget cuts, closings, and lack of institutional and government support, there are still school librarians and media specialists striving to support their students, teachers and community.

crystalinterview
Crystal Brunelle
Library Media Specialist, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin
Blogger for richincolor.com (co-founder) and readingtl.blogspot.com (personal blog)

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your identity, and your library.
I am a white mid-westerner with German ancestors. My family moved many times, so my childhood years were spent in various cities in both Texas and California. I was an elementary school teacher and a certified ESL teacher for eleven years before coming to live in the Midwest.

I started working in libraries when we moved to Wisconsin and have loved making that transition. When we came here, it was clear that some of my students had a rather limited view of the world and though our library had some diverse titles, there weren’t nearly enough. I want our students to have plenty of books available so they can see other ways of living, and I want to make sure that all of our students have books that are mirrors reflecting their lives. 12-15% of our student population is Hmong, so the first author visit was with a woman who had written a book featuring a Hmong family and was written in English but also had Hmong text alongside. As I prepared the classes for her visit, what surprised me was that the word bilingual was virtually unknown for most of my students. That’s when I also started acquiring more bilingual materials in a variety of languages. I shared about that experience in more detail at the Nerdybookclub blog.

What process does your library take to select and acquire Latino children’s books for the collection? Do you have any input in this process?
As the Library Media Specialist, I have the responsibility of choosing all of the materials in the collection. Before Latin@s in Kid Lit came on the scene, I relied on the Pura Belpré Award, The Tomás Rivera Award, and The Américas Award for titles. More recently, I’ve been participating in the Latin@s in Kid Lit Reading Challenge which has provided me with a lot of more book titles. I’ve also had the opportunity to review several books published by Piñata Books for Children, a division of Arte Público Press.

What type of children and youth programming does your library offer using Latino children’s literature? How frequently?
I focus on Latino children’s literature during Hispanic American Heritage Month and in the past two years, I have also added El Día de los Niños to our activities. Beyond these two major events, I have many lessons that center around Latino works. A few examples are our first grade author study of Yuyi Morales, our second grade biography lesson using the book Tito Puente, Mambo King/Rey Del Mambo by Monica Brown and Rafael López, and a poetry lesson in fifth grade that includes poetry from Francisco X. Alarcón. I generally try to infuse Latino lit throughout many lessons and activities, though, so we see it all year long. An example of this is when we have a lesson about giving thanks and I share Pat Mora’s Gracias/Thanks along with Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message and Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

In terms of promoting events and community outreach, what does your library do?
This is an area that I am working on and have begun to make some progress. I oversee the fifth grade students as they create video announcements for the school. They’re posted on our school YouTube channel for parents and the community to view. This past summer was exciting because I asked for and received funding to have the library open during the summer. I only had two hours every other week, but it meant that students in walking distance (we are a neighborhood school) could come get library materials all summer. It wasn’t as well attended as I had hoped, but it was a start and something that I will publicize more in the future.

What is the reaction of kids, teens, and families regarding Latino children’s books and programming? And the reaction of your co-workers and library staff?
I have had very positive reactions to the inclusion of more Latino children’s materials. One of the families that came in during the summer library times (they speak Spanish at home) checked out a pile of books and were happy to even find a wonderful bilingual board book, Global Babies. The mother said she was happy to have that one (Global Babies) because that way the father could read to the baby in Spanish.

I know our English Language teacher has also been very happy to have the materials available. We don’t have many students with Spanish as their first language, but it helps so much with the few that are here and especially when we have a newcomer in the district. I love seeing the eyes of my Latino students light up when they hear or see Latino materials being featured in class. In addition, students who only know English enjoy experiencing other languages. They also seem to like seeing me working a little harder when I read aloud a book that includes Spanish text.

Any challenges regarding the acquisition of Latino children’s books or your programming? What would you like to do in terms of programming that you haven’t been able to?
There is nothing preventing me from buying more except budget limitations. I would like to expand our El Día de los Niños celebration beyond the school day with a family event. We’re going through a major building renovation so that isn’t a reasonable task for this coming spring due to space constraints, but it is something I will strive for in the future.

Do you address issues of prejudice and oppression in your library through and in children’s books?
Yes, this is something I address specifically in the fourth and fifth grade classes, but at a more subtle level in the younger grades. In line with the common core standards, I’m working to help students learn to read critically and to ask questions such as: who is telling the story, what is their perspective, is there a voice or perspective that is missing, and do we see evidence of bias or stereotypes? I could just tell them which books have issues, but I won’t always be with them and I want them to be able to spot problems on their own.

Any advice for other librarians/educators who would like to use and incorporate Latino children’s literature into their programming?
There is a lot of fantastic Latino children’s literature out there (see this SLJ post about that) and it isn’t just for Latino children. Even if your demographic doesn’t include many Latino patrons/students, these books can be a wonderful addition to your library. We have to move away from the idea that Latino literature is only created for Latinos. Latino literature can and should be present in book displays throughout the year and featured in story times or lessons across all kinds of topics. We have a small number of Latino students at our school, but I don’t just purchase Latino children’s materials for them – they’re beneficial to all staff and students.

Which are the most popular Latino children’s books at your library?
The most popular Latino books in my library are Niño Wrestles the World, Just a Minute, Gracias, Mi Familia Calaca, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair, Dora the Explorer books, Maximillian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel, and in non-fiction, the series Superstars of Soccer: Mexico.

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And finally, which Latino children’s books do you recommend?
To increase the amount of books I can recommend, I’m listing authors. If I only listed my recommendations from Yuyi Morales, the list would already be lengthy.

Picture Books by: Francisco X. Alarcón (poetry), George Ancona (non-fiction), Monica Brown, Laura Lacámara, Yuyi Morales, Pat Mora, Gary Soto, and Duncan Tonatiuh

Middle Grade by: Alma Flor Ada, Julia Álvarez, Margarita Engle, Jack Gantos, Xavier Garza, Meg Medina

Young Adult by: Matt de la Peña, Patrick Flores-Scott, Sonia Manzano, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Meg Medina, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Alex Sánchez, and Francisco X. Stork.

From STEM to STEAM, Latino-Style

By Margarita Engle

Children are natural scientists. They ask, “Why?” They poke, peer, dissect, observe, and marvel. Sometimes they reach conclusions. Since children are also natural storytellers, the conclusions might be imaginative, rather than verifiable. That’s okay. For both children and adults, curiosity and a spirit of wonder are just the starting places for learning about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). Skills, information, and experience must follow. Without a suitable educational background, Latinos will be left behind in the twenty-first century rush toward jobs that require specialization.

I am not a specialist. Despite my training as an agronomist and botanist, I still love simple nature walks, with plenty of aha moments of amazement. That’s why I’m so thrilled that poetry and other creative approaches are being introduced into the teaching of science, especially at the elementary level, creating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Medicine).

Poetry, after all, springs from the same sense of wonder as science, and is rooted in the same combination of observation and wonder. The arts allow us to learn with all five senses. Doesn’t it make sense to let children read, write, paint, sing, and have fun, while studying facts?

Fortunately, educators are already introducing the arts into STEM teaching. The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Pomelo Books) includes many bilingual poems about a wide variety of concepts. Taking the lead among Latinos, Pat Mora made sure that Día de los Niños offered mini-grants to libraries planning STEAM events in April, 2015. Other grassroots programs have sprung up in recent years, including the Americas Latino Eco-Festival, which promotes environmental activism for Latinos, and AZUL, which invites Latinos to become coastal and ocean stewards.

For someone like me, with a deep love of nature, and my own odd combination of scientific and creative training, STEAM education offers a chance to write new kinds of books for children and young adults.

  final Silver People cover-1  MountainDog.highrescvr  OrangutankaFrontCvr

In my verse novel, Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal (Harcourt, 2014), I blended history with rain forest biology. In two forthcoming picture books, Orangutanka, a Story in Poems (Holt, 2015), and The Sky Painter, Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (Two Lions, fall, 2015), I’ve been thrilled by the opportunity to show animal and human interactions. In Mountain Dog, winner of the first ALBA (Americas Latino Book Award), I incorporated hiking safety and outdoor skills into a middle grade adventure story.

As STEAM efforts grow, I hope that educators, librarians, parents, scientists, environmentalists, writers, and illustrators can all join together to make sure that teaching methods honor the natural curiosity of children.

 

Margarita Engle, hiding so search and rescue dogs can practice finding a lost hikerMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lighting Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, the Jane Addams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, and MANA Las Primeras Awards.

Margarita grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, a Memoir (Atheneum, August, 2015) tells the story of those childhood visits, leading up to the loss of travel rights after the Missile Crisis. Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist, before studying creative writing with Tomás Rivera. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.

“A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere”: Healing & Latin@ Children’s Literature

By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

As a child what I desired most was to be rescued from the violence I experienced at home. I was undocumented and domestic violence was far too common. While I now know that these are real experiences for many Latino homes, these were secrets that I walked around with for fear that my family would be separated if I said anything. Retrospectively, what I probably needed, aside from the violence to stop, was to understand why the violence was happening in the first place. There was nothing or no one around to explain my feelings of anxiety, fear, and/or self-hate around the violence I witnessed and then internalized. At the time, shows like “Boy Meets World,” “Saved by the Bell,” and “Full House” only reaffirmed for me that my family was different, did not belong, or that there was something wrong us. I was reading a lot, too, but I only got more and more frustrated that the books I read did not speak to my reality. I was obsessed with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona because she was everything I wanted to be—free, adventurous, and happy. And while characters like Ramona fueled my imagination they explained nothing about the violence I endured.

My investment in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature stems from my desire to explain why violence is more prevalent in certain communities than it is in others. But it is also driven by what I have seen is the genre’s potential to provide paths toward healing for Latina/o children and young adults. Recent conversations about the need for diversity in children’s literature have discussed at length the impact that being or not being represented in books can have on a child’s self-esteem and where they see themselves positioned in society. These conversations have made visible the discrimination within publishing industries and the ways that children of color stand to lose the most. Diversity is important to my project simply because stories about children of color can save their lives.

696056I was first introduced to Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name as a graduate student and it was the first children’s book I read with a Latina protagonist. I was a taken aback that a kid’s book actually talked about immigration and included scenes of violence. Mainstream children’s literature is no stranger to violence, gruesomeness, monsters, and the like; however, it is out of the ordinary to see a story about immigration, gang violence, and abuse at home that does not depend on stereotypes or is read as ethnography. América Soliz, the protagonist, is a recent immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico to Pilsen, Illinois— one of Chicago’s predominantly Mexican communities— who struggles to find a voice in a place that seeks to silence her. Throughout the text, the reader is privy to the discrimination she faces in the classroom, the violence in her community, and the patriarchal oppression in her home. What I found most powerful about the book was that América is given a tool to challenge the oppressions around her. Poetry becomes her outlet, and it allows her to process the violence she witnesses and experiences. In this way, the violence does not overwhelm her, but instead, she is able to find strength despite it. Rodriguez’s book opened a new world of children’s books for me, and it allowed me to see this genre as having the potential to create social change.

One of the biggest personal challenges that América faces is feeling like she does not belong. As an undocumented student in an ESL classroom, her fear is reaffirmed by her teachers:

Yesterday as [América] passed Miss Gable and Miss Williams in the hallway, she heard Miss Gable whisper, “She’s an illegal.” How can that be—how can anyone be illegal! She is Mixteco, an ancient tribe that was here before the Spanish, before the blue-eyed, even before this government that now calls her “illegal.” How can a girl called América not belong in America? (n.p)

América’s genuine question signals a history of systemic oppression demarcating who gets to belong and who is excluded from the American imaginary. By tracing her indigenous roots, América seeks to challenge who can lay claim to the land her teachers wish to erase her from. Upon first reading Rodríguez’s book, I found América’s question rather painful. Even though América is a child, her teachers have no qualms about criminalizing and excluding her. At nine years old, there is very little that América can do to challenge her teachers’ ignorance and discrimination; however, the tension in the classroom shifts when Mr. Aponte, a Puerto Rican poet, visits America’s class. Mr. Aponte encourages the class to write poetry about what they know and in whatever language they feel comfortable. América writes about Oaxaca and shares her poetry with her family. Eventually, her mother and younger siblings take part in writing. At the end of the book, Ms. Gable gives América a high mark on one of her poems, which brings great joy to América and her family.

While América remains undocumented at the end of the story, she finds that her poetry gives her a sense of belonging that she did not feel at the beginning. She says: “A real poet. That sounds good to the Mixteca girl, who some people say doesn’t belong here. A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere” (n.p.). Writing has given America a way to challenge and transform the oppressions around her. Her poetry serves as a voice and power that she lacked and has since shared with her family. When I teach this book, I am very careful about talking about the conclusion as the “happy ending.” Instead, I encourage my students to read this moment as part of América’s healing process. Leaving the book with the assumption that everything works out for América is a disservice to the book and those like it. The fears and perils of immigration do not go away because América learned to write poetry. Instead, what she has learned is a set of skills that will help her express how immigration impacts her identity and will help her challenge a system that seeks to exclude her. Reading the ending as a moment in a much larger healing process instead of a resolution further allows me to demonstrate how Latina/o kids lit can transform the lives of Latina/o children and young adults.

If a book like América is Her Name had been available to me as a child, I can imagine it having made a real difference. Feeling excluded or not belonging is a very common theme within traditional coming-of-age stories. However, those feelings become rationalized as “growing pains” or generalized as “everyone feels left out,” or they become a lesson on “not everyone is going to like you.” These motifs often learned in mainstream coming of age stories and in common (mis)understandings of American childhood do not capture América’s experience. América is excluded for specific political and historical reasons. If she were a real child, she will probably be excluded her entire life because she is an (im)migrant. Even if she were to gain legal citizenship, someone will someday ask her “where are you from?” and assume that she does not belong. When I talk about Latina/o children’s books as having the potential to heal, I mean it in reference to these specific moments of exclusion and violence that unfortunately are a reality for Latina/o children. How do we teach our children to answer questions like “where are you from?” or to respond to comments like “you don’t look American”? How do we make them feel like they belong when the world around them may be telling them otherwise? Latina/o children’s literature does not have all of the answers but it is creating conversations on the topics that still require much attention.

Other Latina/o children’s books with immigration as a theme:

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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.