In the process of promoting my series for middle-grade kids, Scary School, I’ve discovered that at least half of my readership has turned out to be Latino kids and parents. I think Latino youth are the most voracious readers out there and yet remain under-represented in the works themselves.
I’ll start off by confessing I am not of any Latino heritage, but growing up in Los Angeles, it has always felt like a part of my culture. My mother was an art teacher at the mostly Latino San Fernando High School for over ten years, where she founded LA Mural Project and helped get hundreds of students into college on art scholarships. I studied Spanish in school and later dated a lovely Nicaraguan girl, who ended up becoming the translator for my picture book El Perro Con Sombrero.
The beginning of my journey takes place when the first Scary School book was released in 2011. I was eager to spread the word about it. I formed a fantastic partnership with a Barnes and Noble in Redlands, California, who hosted book fairs at almost every school in the San Bernardino region. Most of these schools were predominantly Latino or dual immersion.
I also worked with After-School All-Stars and performed my Scary School show for dozens of schools all over Southern California in low-income areas, where book sales were never part of the agenda. It was purely about inspiring the kids to love reading and writing and give them a chance to meet a real author.
I cannot begin to describe the enthusiasm and joy from the kids when I made these visits. Perhaps a big part of the reason they were so enthralled was because I was a children’s horror author and they were already fans of books like Goosebumps. During my shows, kids got to scream and make monster noises, as well as ask me questions.
The response of the kids in the Latino-populated schools was always the most enthusiastic and joyful. They LOVED scary stories and monsters! At other schools, just the mention of werewolves, ghosts, and vampires might send nine-year-olds scurrying out of the room in fear, but my Latino audiences challenged me to scare them every time and I had a great time doing it.
One of my most memorable experiences was when a class of students started peppering me with questions about what monsters they would find in the books. One kid named Pedro asked if there was a Cyclops in the book. When I told him there wasn’t, he put on the saddest expression I’d ever seen. He really loved Cyclopes! I assured him that I would write a Cyclops into Scary School #3 if he promised to read the series. He became so happy he screamed “YES!” and we both fulfilled our ends of the bargain.
Over the last five years, I estimate that at least 50% of my readership is from the Latino audience. One of the main characters of the Scary School series is named Ramon the zombie kid. I don’t make a big deal about his background in the books or even during the shows, but I always notice smiles from the kids when, just because of the name, they know there’s a character they can relate to. (He’s the zombie on the cover of Book 1.)
In Scary School #4, which will release this fall, Ramon plays his biggest part yet, which fits with the title Scary School #4: Zillions of Zombies.
Despite the enthusiastic Latino audiences that I’ve witnessed, there are still relatively few U.S. published books that focus on the Latino experience or have Latino main characters, especially in the middle-grade and YA categories.
I want to encourage Latino writers to consider writing stories designed for 7-12 year olds and teens. While it’s easy for young kids to become excited about books, grabbing the attention of older kids is more challenging. Books centered on their experiences would go a long way toward increasing readership.
Parents can encourage their kids’ reading by making regular and fun-filled trips to the bookstore or library. Allowing kids to find books that excite them means they’ll be more likely to read them. For reluctant readers, setting up a reward system at home can be very beneficial, especially if this includes not only the books they read on their own, but also those that parents read with them. Reading is like exercise for the brain, and just like with sports, the more practice the brain gets, the more success kids will have in school and throughout their lives.
Derek Taylor Kent is also known as Derek the Ghost. He is the author of the middle-grade book series Scary School. His bilingual picture book El Perro Con Sombrero is new this year. It’s about a street dog named Pepe who happens upon a lucky sombrero that turns his life around. For more information about Derek’s books and projects, please visit DerekTaylorKent.com. At a special site for kids, ScarySchool.com, visitors can tour Scary School, read a secret chapter, and play video games.