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.
1963, Small Town, Alabama: I’m an immigrant kid in the second grade, well in command of English by now and eighty percent Americanized. Nobody brown or trigueño whose last name isn’t Quintero lives around here. Matter of fact, we’re one of the rare foreign families in the whole of Perry County—a bit of exotica, like strange but harmless birds that show up in the chicken yard one day.
With our nearest relatives in Argentina, seven thousand miles removed, my mother’s best friend is a war bride from Italy whose nostalgia for the old country goes hand in hand with Mama’s pining for Buenos Aires. Their conversations are peppered with overlapping terms from the Romance languages of their backgrounds. My father has his own ways of navigating the cultural void. He’s no communist, but he listens to Radio Habana Cuba on the shortwave radio. Fidel’s propaganda is something to ridicule, yet nothing else on the dial delivers Spanish. And he craves Spanish. That’s what your native tongue does—transports you back to the place you sprang from.
In 1963, nobody uses the terms Latino or Hispanic. Diversity may be in the dictionary, but if anyone’s applying it to ethnic groups, it hasn’t reached these backwaters of the American South. And as far as I know, the word multicultural hasn’t been invented; for that, we’ll have to wait another twenty years.
When I, the second-grade immigrant kid, drop by the Perry County Public Library, it’s to a creaky old clapboard house whose floors sag under the weight of books. The library at my elementary school is much the same, dusty and clogged with outdated materials. Luckily, my dad’s faculty status at a local college gives me library privileges. There, a small but gleaming collection of children’s books entices me up to the second floor.
I’m a bookworm. I devour everything published for kids. The books I love best entrance me through the power of story, not by how well their characters reflect me. Even so, I can’t help but notice that none of the characters has snapping brown eyes and olive skin. The girls in the books I read have names like Cathy and Susan. No one stumbles over these girls’ surnames and their parents don’t speak accented English. The closest thing to a Latino character I come across is Ferdinand, the Bull. ¡Olé!
Thirty-eight years later, when my youngest daughter is in fifth grade, we read aloud together almost daily. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, it’s wondrous to encounter a Latina character that feels like a real girl, not a shadow puppet with easy gestures that stand in for Hispanic. Fast forward to 2013, when Dora the Explorer is almost as well known as Mickey Mouse, and authors with names like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Guadalupe Garcia McCall show up in the stacks of the local public library with regularity. Compared to the Latin@ offerings of my childhood, this feels like an embarrassment of riches.
In March 2012, just after publishing my coming-of-age graphic novel, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, I find myself at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. There, my eyes are opened. I discover that the exploding population of young Latin@ American readers is still under served. On the whole, children’s publishing favors a model that reflects the Anglo world familiar to most editors, agents, and booksellers. The terms diversity and multiculturalism roll off the tongue easily now, but books about minority kids are still not rolling off the presses in sufficient numbers to match the need.
Through this blog, together with my younger collaborators— all of whom grew up in an era far more open to diverse cultures—I have the glorious opportunity to make a difference. I can celebrate the Latin@ characters that do exist in children’s books. I can help promote authors and illustrators who incline toward such stories or whose heritage broadcasts the message to Latin@ youth that they too can write and illustrate books. I can connect parents to new offerings in the biblioteca and hunt down librarians, scholars, and teachers eager to share their expertise with a non-academic audience. That’s what I’m here for—to dig out books, authors, and experts that affirm Latin@ identity and give them a friendly shove into the limelight.