Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Patricia Toney

By Sujei Lugo

Long overdue is the need of a myriad of children’s books that embody the diversity of our communities and society. Children and adults of all backgrounds should have the opportunity to be exposed to historically untold and misrepresented stories in children’s literature. For years, educators, authors, librarians, illustrators, scholars, parents, and other community members have challenged and critiqued the gaps and invisibility of diverse populations, as well as stereotypes and inaccuracies present in children’s books. Although there have been several efforts to expand the availability of diverse children’s literature (The We Need Diverse Books campaign comes to mind as a recent example), the percentage of diverse titles still doesn’t reflect the world around us in terms of numbers and cultural experiences. But despite these problems, flourishing from this serious gap (and misrepresentation) inside the children’s literature world, we have encountered great titles that portray the Latino experience and Latinos/as in the United States.

Organizations like REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) and initiatives like Día de los Niños/Día de los Libros and the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference are constantly advocating and promoting the incorporation of Latino children’s literature in library collections and programming. Several awards such as the Pura Belpré Award, Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, International Latino Book Awards, and Américas Awards, also play a role in acknowledging Latino children’s literature. All these initiatives help in raising a much-needed awareness of the existence of Latino children’s books, but, in addition to celebrating and promoting them, an urgent need exists to incorporate and use  these books in our classrooms and libraries.

We need to keep in mind that two pivotal places where children constantly interact with books and stories are schools and libraries. How are librarians bringing Latino children’s books to children? How are they incorporating them into their collections, school curriculum, and programming? In a bid to try to answer these questions I decided to develop a series of interviews with children’s librarians, youth services librarians, and school librarians, where they can  share their experiences, knowledge, and challenges dealing with Latino children’s literature. Although there are great resources and literature that can serve as guides to Latino children’s librarianship (Celebrating cuentos: promoting Latino children’s literature and literacy in classrooms and libraries, 25 Latino craft projects, Programming with Latino children’s materials: a how-to-do-it manual for librarians, and Serving Latino communities: a how-to-do-it manual for librarians), the communities that libraries serve are different and constantly evolving. Librarians are met with the ongoing challenge to stay up-to-date and relevant to their needs.

In this first post of our Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library series, I’m honored to interview Patricia Toney, a fellow librarian and REFORMA member and great advocate of diversity in children’s librarianship.

Pat Toney Librarian

Patricia Toney, Bilingual Children’s Services Librarian
San Francisco Public Library

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your identity, and your library.
As the offspring of parents who immigrated from Guyana and Costa Rica, I identify as Afribbean. I’m a native of Southern California who grew up in a working class Spanish speaking community, and who later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend University of California, Berkeley. I have a master’s in Counseling Psychology and a second master’s in Library Science. I started my professional career in International Student Services, then I worked in Student Counseling, and now I’m in my third career as a librarian.

I’ve been working at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) for three years; moving up from temporary, to part-time, and finally, to full-time a year ago. SFPL serves a linguistically diverse community. I work at the Main Library and I’m in charge of providing Spanish language children’s services to families in Tenderloin, San Francisco, an economically challenged and densely populated part of the city.

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?
We have a dedicated Spanish language collection development committee and individual selectors for specific genres. My position as a Bilingual Children’s Services Librarian holds a provisional seat on the Spanish language selection committee, so my input on children’s material selection is welcomed.  Committee members regularly attend book fairs such as FIL (Guadalajara International Book Fair) and I annually attend the Bibliotecas Para La Gente Book Fair.

What type of children and youth programming does your library offer using Latino children’s literature?
I conduct a weekly bilingual family storytime and system wide we host five Spanish and Bilingual (English-Spanish) storytimes a week. We also have a ¡Viva! Latino Heritage Month Celebration, which includes music, dance, crafts, food, and films. This year, I hosted a Zumba program at my location and a Día de los Muertos altar. Also, at the end of our summer reading program, I hosted an afternoon of Lotería.

In terms of promoting events and community outreach, what does your library do?
In addition to word of mouth, social media, and printed announcements, we have four bookmobiles which traverse the city. The library recently took part in Sunday Streets-San Francisco (open street event), the Friday Night Market and Litquake (San Francisco Literary Festival). The San Francisco Public Library, Mission Branch (located in a historically Spanish speaking neighborhood) hosted a memorial reading in honor of Gabriel García Márquez during Litquake.

What is the reaction of kids, teens and families regarding Latino children’s books and programming? And the reaction of the library staff?
Children spark up when they hear or see something that is familiar to them. Parents appreciate the opportunity to share their home language with others in the community.  Colleagues and library staff are generally supportive of diversity in action. One of the library’s strategic priorities is to have “collections, services and programs that reflect diversity and inclusion.

What would you like to do in terms of programming that you haven’t been able to?
I would ideally like to hold monthly evening programs for Spanish speaking families. Tenderloin, San Francisco is a socially-oriented rich community, so there’s a lot of competition for evening programming. So not a lot of families come to the San Francisco urban civic center area for evening programs.

Do you address issues of prejudice and oppression in your library through and in Latino children’s books?
As a member of the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California, these issues are always addressed. SFPL has a commitment to diversity and the book selection committee takes racism and oppression into consideration before buying a book. With the population I serve, I tend to address sexism and ableism more than racism. I am always open to discussing these issues when children ask and point out opposing viewpoints and when I hear biased language. I like to give patrons the option to think for themselves.

Any advice for other librarians who would like to use and incorporate Latino children’s literature into their programming?
Latino children’s literature isn’t just for Latinos. One can incorporate Latino children’s books into book displays, class visits, and recommended reading lists.

Which are the most popular Latino children’s books at your library?
I have to say that most of our popular titles are the Spanish language translations.

And finally, which Latino children’s books do you recommend?
Anything written by Monica Brown, Yuyi Morales, or Gary Soto; Anything illustrated by Rafael López or Jose Ramírez; Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan; The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano and I’m currently reading Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

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