By Lila Quintero Weaver
Let me float down to earth, grab a keyboard and pound out a report about the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. That was my self-talk on March 15. The two-day conference, held at the University of Alabama and headed by mover-and-shaker Dr. Jamie Naidoo, had wrapped up at 4 pm the previous day.
Sixteen hours later, my whole being still felt tingly with the residual vibrations of what we’d experienced: great dialogue, stimulating talks, and warm connections with people passionate about the same thing, increasing diversity in children’s books. And it’s amazing how many presentations referenced last year’s incendiary New York Times article on minority characters in kid lit. The conference stirred my juices, but before I could touch my keyboard to write about it, Marianne Snow posted a great recap on her blog. There’s no way that I could improve on her account.
That’s not the end of the story. Over the same weekend, The New York Times published a pair of essays from prize-winning YA author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher, an author-illustrator of note, on the scarcity of characters of color in children’s books. Spine tingling, timely, and powerful. Clearly, diversity in children’s books is a topic on fire!
And now, back to the conference. Since Marianne’s recap covers only the second day, here are select quotes and highlights from the first day:
Literary agent Adriana Dominguez outlined some of the challenges facing Latin@ children’s literature: “Many editors think about Latino books as niche or institutional.” Neither of these spells the huge sales figures that the industry has become hungry for. She pointed to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a watershed moment in children’s publishing. Previously, marketing departments targeted libraries and schools, but the commercial success of Harry Potter and other blockbusters has shifted the dynamics.
Members of the audience asked how to best advocate for Latin@ children’s literature. Librarians can push these books, Dominguez said. She cited the late Rose Treviño as a personal mentor and a role model in the field of library services to children. Ms. Treviño was a beloved Houston public librarian who served the local Latin@ community and brought Latin@ books to the attention of a wider audience. Her passionate advocacy was captured in this extensive interview by Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Someone else asked, would more Latinos on the “inside” of publishing help to balance the equation? Yes, Dominguez said, because “you’re a stronger advocate for something you truly believe in.” She pointed out that graduate programs in publishing are recruiting zones for the “big five.”
In her keynote, recent Pura Belpré winner Meg Medina raised the topic of universal themes, those that address the experiences of all children, regardless of demographic labels. She reminded us that “Latino” is a uniquely American concept. Many Latin@ children grapple with the additional challenges of biculturalism. She shared that in her work, she strives to present a range of Latin@ characters, a “whole tapestry,” not merely those that the public has come to expect. (In her Monday post, Meg offered a terrific conference recap of her own.)
Author-illustrator Laura Lacámara gave the day’s final keynote. Her journey into publishing has taken some interesting turns. She was first an illustrator of children’s books. Then came her debut as a writer, Floating on Mama’s Song, a story inspired by her mother’s devotion to opera. But Laura didn’t illustrate it; Yuyi Morales did. Now, hot off the presses is Laura’s newest book, her first to write and illustrate, the delightful Dalia’s Wondrous Hair (see the conference poster image, above). Count on a book talk in the near future!
The variety of breakout sessions boggled the mind. Thursday, I sat in on Lettycia Terrones’s illuminating talk on image-making in Latin@ children’s literature, followed by Araceli Esparza’s “Roots of Race in Chicano/Latino Picture Books,” another enriching experience. The next day, I heard an expert presentation by Catalina Lara on the Latin@ child and language.
Social media is an excellent tool, but let’s not forget the value of face-to-face meetings. They spark connections like nothing else. Next time you hear about a conference that addresses diversity or Latin@ children’s books, consider attending.