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.
Our house was an oasis in the Chicago neighborhood crumbling around us. The house on the left was torn down after Old Man Louie died. The building on the right was bulldozed after some kids set it on fire. Inside our little haven, my parents encouraged me to read. Through books, I left that neighborhood to meet interesting characters in beautiful places who were struggling with life, love, and purpose, and who were trying to become free mentally, physically, or spiritually.
My parents moved us into better neighborhoods. Books moved me into a broader world of ideas and possibilities. A love for literature has made all the difference in my life. Now, I teach and write because I want children from all kinds of backgrounds to realize that, through literacy, anything is possible.
This may sound naïve, simplistic, or overly optimistic, but I honestly believe it.
I understand the challenges young people face because I’ve worked with middle and high school students for thirteen years. I’ve met the tattooed freshman girl whose education was interrupted because her mom had to move from place to place. At age fourteen, she had the reading level of a sixth grader. But guess what? She earned all As and Bs, joined a sport, and quickly became a leader in our school.
I’ve met the sixteen-year-old freshman boy who earned an in-school suspension for verbally and physically confronting a female teacher during the first week of school. He continued to struggle, earning Ds and Fs in his classes. But guess what? He read a book independently for the first time ever. He said he knew the teachers cared about him, and once he came to talk to me, tears streaming down his face after his girlfriend broke up with him via text message. He had made a collage with movie tickets and other mementos for their one-year anniversary that would never happen.
I’ve also met the jaded seventh-grade boy who asked me straight-out one day, “Why are you the only minority teacher in our school?”
All of these students are young Latin@s. They need safe places, trusted people to talk to, and answers to their questions. As a teacher who sees them for forty-five minutes a day, I do my best, and one of the most significant things I can do is encourage them to read. I can’t solve their problems at home or with their friends, but I can pass along my belief—given to me by my parents—that literacy is important and life-changing.
I want my students to develop the skills needed for academic and professional success. I also want them to enjoy a lifetime of beautiful places and interesting characters. I want them to have access to lots and lots of books with characters who look, speak, and act like them. Previous posts have outlined why it’s crucial for readers to “see themselves” in literature. But I also want them to see beyond their current selves. I want them to see realistic and fantastical futures. I want them to realize anything is possible.
Yes, you can be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Here, read a picture book about Sonia Sotomayor.
Yes, you can “escape” for a while and travel through the depths of the afterlife to save your best friend’s soul. Here, read Sanctum by Sarah Fine.
Yes, you can be a civil rights activist. Here, read biographies about César Chávez and Delores Huerta.
In the very distant future, if you discover you are a clone created to keep someone else alive, remember this: you will still have an identity and choices. For now, though, question whether science fiction will someday become nonfiction. Here, read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.
Yes, you will survive your teen years. More than that, you will thrive. You’ll learn about love and family and friendship and acceptance and perseverance and integrity. Here, read Margarita Engle, Alex Sanchez, René Saldaña, Jr., Gary Soto, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall.
I’m involved with Latin@s In Kid Lit because I believe all children should have books in their hands, even when they’re too young to turn the pages, and they should all be told again and again, “Oh, the places you’ll go.”