Give Kid Lit Readers a Broad Range with Real Characters

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Ashley Hope Pérez

Like Stephanie, my personal commitment to Latin@ lit comes from my work with teens. Much of my energy as a high school English teacher in Houston went to finding ways to make reading and writing an authentic, meaningful, and empowering part of my students’ lives.

I spent a lot of time scouring our school library and talking to my reluctant readers about what they wanted in a book. No big surprise: a lot of them wanted a book that reflected their experiences in a way that would ring true. We had plenty of successes, but there were a number of students for whom it seemed that the gateway book—that critical read that would persuade them of all that words can do—was missing.

“I want a book that shows how my life really is,” I heard over and over. “Not just somebody brown, but somebody real,” one student insisted. And, “please, I can’t stand it when they make it seem like if you just get into college, you’ve got it made.” That last bit came from one of my top-performing seniors, an impressive scholar by all accounts but also a young woman who had few illusions about the conflicting demands she would be facing in the coming years.

My students—aware of my aspirations to “one day” write a novel—began to recommend (okay, insist, pester, badger) that I write the book that they were looking for, and they were both my inspiration and the first readers of What Can’t Wait. Similarly, The Knife and the Butterfly began with writing exercises I was using to give a group of freshmen in a summer school English class a way of responding to the news coverage of a deadly gang fight a few miles away. In my third novel (watch for it in 2015 from Carolrhoda Lab), I take my concern with Latin@ experiences in a new direction by bringing them to the history of my native East Texas. I explore Hispanic experiences in the primarily black-and-white world of 1930s East Texas through the story of a school explosion, family secrets, an interracial romance between a Mexican American girl and a black boy, and the pressures created by Texas’s three-fold segregation system (black, white, and “Mexican” schools existed in many places). The third novel is going to be something different from my contemporary fiction, for sure, but it’s still written with my students in mind. I like to think that it’s the kind of book that would persuade my students to think about how past experiences scar the present—and what we do to mark loss and begin healing.

It matters quite a lot to me that Latin@ lit avoid the trap of making an “issue” of ethnicity, as Zoraida pointed out. Ethnicity was a non-issue for my students, not because they lived in such a multicultural world (Zoraida’s experience) but in fact because their world was relatively homogeneous; most of the kids in the Southeast Houston neighborhood where I taught were from working class families with roots in Mexico. Even my students who weren’t bilingual regularly heard Spanish and had strategies for managing the interconnections of Spanish and English in their community.

I don’t include glossaries in my novels, as I discuss here, because my books are first and foremost for my kids—and because I believe in the resourcefulness of other readers who come along. All of that to say: writing for my kids felt urgent back when I started What Can’t Wait, and it still does today. But Latin@s in Kid Lit has a broader mission than featuring Latin@ YA: we’re about highlighting awesomeness by, for, and about Latin@s for kids of all ages, including younger readers.

When I have the chance to talk with librarians or teachers about book selection, I often beg them first to make sure their collection goes well beyond the default “diversity” titles. Book selections for younger children should go beyond portrayals of special holidays, for example. I often caution teachers about resorting too quickly to the “minority celebrity” of the hour when attempting to diversify their reading lists.

By the time my (mostly Latin@) students reached my senior English class, most of them had read The House on Mango Street—in part or in whole—a half dozen times. That was because Cisneros’ (wonderful!) and widely discussed book had become synonymous with “Latino experience” in the minds of well-meaning teachers who had little additional knowledge of Latin@ lit, and they didn’t look beyond it when making choices for their classrooms.

The absence of a broad selection of diverse titles can reinforce students’ feelings of exclusion and general disengagement from the world of books. By contrast, offering students (whatever their background) a broad range of literature can generate a lot of excitement.

I, for one, am all for excitement! In future posts, I hope to contribute to the conversation by offering my two cents on what’s happening in the world of Latin@ YA and also by highlighting some of my Latin@ kidlit reading adventures with my son, Liam Miguel.

More from me soon!

Ashley

P.S. Since I talk a lot about how I came to focus on Latin@ experiences in my fiction, I’ve cribbed some of this post from a past feature I did at STACKED , another blog that YA fans and librarians should have on their radar.

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