Latinx Representation at the 2016 Children’s Literature Association Conference


By Cris Rhodes

gene luen yang

Gene Luen Yang is the current Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

At this year’s Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) Conference, hosted by the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, featured speaker Gene Luen Yang, author of Printz Award-winning American Born Chinese, presented conference attendees with a challenge—to read without walls. To do so, readers must read a book with characters unlike themselves, topics with which they are unfamiliar, and in a new format. As I listened to Yang’s challenge, I was thinking of ways I could encourage my colleagues to fulfill this challenge by reading Latinx children’s or young adult (YA) texts.

Certainly Latinx representation is starting to gain a foothold in the realm of children’s books. Examples including  the Latinx representation in main character Noami, from Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness, which was a Printz Award honor book. Pérez also gave a reading of Out of Darkness at this year’s ChLA conference, followed by a fascinating question and answer time, wherein scholars of all backgrounds engaged with Pérez’s text critically and discussed the writing and research processes.

Despite these productive conversations about important books like Out of Darkness, more needs to be done to gain visibility for diverse populations within the field of critical children’s literature studies. Inside the children’s literature community, diversity is slowly becoming more prominent, but Latinxs are still vastly underrepresented. Were more scholars to devote their time and talents to the study of Latinx literature or other diverse children’s literature, our field would be much more inclusive, and challenges like Yang’s would slowly become unnecessary.

However, as it stands, the ChLA conference is still in need of a liberal dose of diversity. Though ChLA is actively working to make its organization more inclusive, research on marginalized populations remains scarce. Just for a point of reference, there were six papers about the Harry Potter series alone, whereas there were only seven papers about Latinxs during the whole conference. This year, only two panels were entirely devoted to Latinx children’s literature and media—“Gender, Privilege, and Politics in Latino/a Texts and Media,” containing papers by Mauricio Espinoza and Domino Pérez, and “Brazilian Children’s Literature: from Illustration to Animation,” with papers by Renata Junqueira De Souza, Edgar Roberto Kirchof, and Rosa Maria Silveira. Individual scholars included Stacey Alex, Patricia Enciso and Ashley Hope Pérez, as well as Ann González, who was unable to present.

But, perhaps the most important panel of the entire conference was the career panel: “Needs of Minority Scholars.” Presented by four diverse scholars, including Laura Jiménez and Marilisa Jiménez Garcia, as well as Sarah Park Dahlen and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, this panel fearlessly presented the truth about being a minority scholar in the field of children’s literature studies, education, and library science. After the panelists spoke, the room was opened up to questions, and quickly scholars of all backgrounds were sharing their experiences of heartbreak and triumph. While attending Ashley Hope Pérez’s reading the day before, I’d been thinking on and discussing representations of race-based trauma in literature, but little did I know that I’d bear witness to tales of trauma the very next day at the career panel. While many of the scholars attending the career panel spoke of the pitfalls of micro-aggression and exclusion in academia, there were also stories of hope, of scholars who felt supported despite great opposition. Through tears, many scholars, most of them women of color, bravely recounted their experiences to a room filled with love and support. As I listened to my colleagues speak, I, too, was fighting back tears. I’ve grown accustomed to being one of the only Latinas in a room of other children’s literature scholars; yet what this panel demonstrated was that I, and others like me, are not alone.

It is my deepest wish that we continue to encourage and nurture diverse scholars, particularly Latinxs. In order to gain the visibility that we so desperately need, we need to continue speaking up even if we’re afraid of the consequences. Afterward, I spoke to many panelists and participants in the minority scholars panel and the sentiment was much the same: they were afraid to share their experiences because to do so meant speaking out against the established ideologies of ChLA. Commenting later, Marilisa Jiménez Garcia explained that the panel was “one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had with an academic audience.” However, the positive outcomes of this discussion can and should outweigh the negative consequences.


Marilisa Jiménez-Garcia

As many of the panelists and participants lunched and fellowshipped following the emotionally-charged conversation in the minority scholars panel, we received perhaps the greatest news of the weekend, that Marilisa Jiménez Garcia’s proposed panel on “The Rise of Latino/a Literature for Youth” for the 2018 Modern Languages Association’s conference, to be held in New York City, had been approved as ChLA’s one guaranteed session during that conference. What this acceptance demonstrates is that ChLA isn’t just saying that they value diversity and the study of Latinx children’s and YA literature, but they are actively promoting it and its study. I spoke with Jiménez Garcia following the conference and she explained, “It means a lot that this panel will be representing a vibrant part of children’s literature to the Modern Language Association,” because “Latinx Lit as a whole is underrepresented at MLA and English Lit conferences, so it makes the panel that much more significant.” Jiménez Garcia also spoke about her own personal connection to this research and the upcoming MLA conference location, stating: “In terms of New York, it is my research home, and a significant part of my childhood and life as an adult—-and you can’t talk about New York City without including the rich Latinx literary figures who wrote for young people here, including Jose Martí and Pura Belpré. Indeed, young Latinxs revolutionized the literary landscape in spaces like the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe and Broadway, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary hip hop musical, Hamilton. Latinxs have been writing and rewriting the history of America through poetry and prose for generations in NYC.”

Reflecting on my experience at this year’s conference, I cannot help but feel a little vulnerable and still overwhelmed. I am scared that as we come down from the tense emotions of the weekend, we will lose the fervor to make change within our organization. But I am also happy and very hopeful that change is on the horizon. I think the inclusion of more and more Latinx scholars each year, and the addition of Ashley Hope Pérez’s amazing reading of her equally amazing book, are steps in the right direction. What becomes most important then, is that we keep up this momentum—that we make sure our voices are heard both within the organization and outside of it to demonstrate to other scholars that ChLA benefits from our perspectives. We need to open the door for other Latinxs and other marginalized peoples to ensure that there are always diverse scholars in the room.

CrisRhodesCris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.


The Pura Belpré Award: Continuing Belpré’s Legacy of Lighting the Storyteller’s Candle–Part 1


Portrait by Robert Liu-Trujillo. Read more about the portrait and his projects at Permission to post given by artist.

Portrait by Robert Liu-Trujillo. Read more about the portrait and his projects at Permission to post given by artist.


By Sujei Lugo & Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez

By now, we are all familiar with the various conversations about the need for children of color and Native children to see themselves represented in the stories they read. However, not many know that these discussions, as they pertain to Latinx children, have been taking place since the early 1920s when Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system. Clearly, the context for dialogues around diversity were different because it was a different time; however, the urgency surrounding issues of representation, advocacy, and empowerment as they relate to Latinx children have many similarities.

Unfortunately, Belpré’s legacy is not one that is well known. Robert Liu-Trujillo, illustrator of the beautiful Belpré portrait on this post, says “I didn’t hear anything about Ms. Belpré until I was in my 30s. Once I realized that there was a really interesting person behind the award, I was really surprised that I’d never heard of her before. From what I’ve read about her and seen through my research, she was a revolutionary figure in children’s education and storytelling.” Trujillo is right to call Belpré a “revolutionary figure” because she indeed was.

Her innovative use of Puerto Rican folklore to reach predominantly Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican children in New York City revolutionized the role of public libraries in the life of these children. Through her storytimes, her puppeteering, and her written works, Belpré set a high standard for how libraries should tailor their programs and services for the communities and peoples in which they’re located. Her commitment and advocacy to bridge her Puerto Rican community to the library, and vice versa, showcases the roots of critical children’s librarianship and inclusion, and not assimilation, of marginalized voices into the field. Much work still needs to be done to bring Belpré’s legacy to the front and highlight the many ways she’s revolutionized storytelling, librarianship, and children’s books for Latinx children.

The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales    Juan Bobo and the Queen's Necklace: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale    7380556

In “Pura Belpré Lights the Storyteller’s Candle: Reframing the Legacy of a Legend and What it Means for the Fields of Latina/o Studies and Children’s Literature,” Marilisa Jiménez-García discusses the various roles Belpré inhabited and the ways her contributions as a librarian and a writer, for example, can be read as subversive political acts. Jiménez-García says of Belpré as a storyteller, “she occupied as a kind of weaver of history, [she] encouraged children to defy assimilation along with the textual and national boundaries created by the dominant culture” (Jimenez-Garcia 113). In other words, through her use of Puerto Rican folklore, Belpré was teaching young Puerto Rican children to embrace their cultural identity and to challenge dominant narratives that depicted them as less than.

Jiménez-García further argues that “Belpré’s interventions within U.S. children’s literature constitute an attempt at cultural preservation, and even further, as an attempt to establish historical memory within the U.S. for Puerto Rican children” (115). In this way, Belpré used her writing to bring to the forefront a Puerto Rican heritage necessary for the identity construction of Puerto Rican children in the U.S. In The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and the New York Pubic Librarian (2013) Lisa Sánchez González writes, “In all of her work—including her work as a public librarian–she aimed to ensure that working-class bilingual and bicultural children had rightful access to what is still too often a privilege: Literacy, and with it, free and public access to good books” (17).

Jiménez-García’s and Sánchez González’s research inform us that Belpré was telling, writing, and performing stories that centered Puerto Rican culture and folklore, that she created a space at the NYPL and made Puerto Rican children the center of it, and that she was committed to making books available to children. In this way, Belpré led her own revolution.

Belpré’s legacy is incomparable, and 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the children’s literary award named after her–the Pura Belpré Award. The award was established in 1996 by co-founders Oralia Garza de Cortés and Sandra Rios Balderrama. According to the award website, the Pura Belpré Award is “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” By establishing an award that highlights Latina/o writers and illustrators creating works about Latina/o experiences, Garza de Cortés and Rios Balderrama carved a space dedicated to the empowerment and the future of Latinx children. Belpré’s legacy as a librarian, a writer, and a puppeteer demonstrate the importance of storytelling as a means of resisting and challenging oppressive dominant narratives. The Pura Belpré Award allows us to continue this revolution and give Latinx children and youth an opportunity to transform the world around them.

REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) along with the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) are joining efforts to hold a special celebration for the Pura Belpré 20th Anniversary Celebración at this year, ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. The event will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré Award medal and honor winning authors and illustrators, David Bowles, Antonio Castro L., Angela Dominguez, Margarita Engle, Rafael López, Meg Medina, and Duncan Tonatiuh. It will also include book signing, a silent auction of original art by Latinx children’s illustrators, a new commemorative book for sale, The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a keynote by author and storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy.

Final Save the Date-1

The event promises to be a well-rounded celebración to recognize the award that lay ground to the recognition of Latinx children’s books creators within the youth literature field and the trajectory of the award, its past winners and honors, and the constant supporters of Latinx children’s literature.

For Part 2 of this post, which will run tomorrow, we spoke to members of the Pura Belpré Award Committee to get their insight on the momentous occasion that is the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré Award. Their interviews provide us with an insight to their motivations for creating the award, to the need of an award dedicated to Latinx children’s books written and illustrated by Latinx, the future of the award, and a look back at favorite award moments from the last 20 years. Tomorrow, read extensive interviews with Co-founder Oralia Garza de Cortés, Co-founder Sandra Rios Balderrama, and past committee member Celia C. Pérez.


SujeiLugoSujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on Latino librarianship and identity. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member ofREFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. She is the editor of Litwin Books/Library Juice Press series on Critical Race Studies and Multiculturalism in LIS. Sujei can also be found on Twitter, Letterboxd and Goodreads.

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit

Reflections on the Children’s Literature Association’s Annual Conference


By Marilisa Jiménez García, Ph.D.

The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) meets for its annual conference every June. Founded in 1973, ChLA seeks to advance scholarship and criticism of children’s and young adult literature, particularly as a field of literary study. Academic associations, journals, and conferences provide scholars with an opportunity to organize and disseminate research. They also provide spaces for rethinking the purpose of a field more broadly with established and up and coming scholars. After years of attending ethnic studies and general literature and literacy conferences, I was invited to form part of a Latin American Children’s Literature panel chaired by Ann González at ChLA 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.

I arrived at ChLA 2015 hoping to reconnect with a group of scholars and educators that inspired my intellectual pursuit of children’s and young adult literature. ChLA 2009 was the first conference I attended as a University of Florida graduate student in Charlotte, North Carolina. My colleagues and professors said I would find a supportive and friendly scholarly community, something I immediately confirmed. I was thrilled to find others who valued the artistic, creative, and historical value of children’s and young adult texts and media, something which might be hard to find in English departments. Yet, from the outset, I also noticed I was one of the only, if not the only, Latino/as at the conference. I was on a panel about language in children’s literature chaired by my dissertation director, Kenneth B. Kidd. By that point, I had found my dissertation research on Puerto Rican children’s literature and its representations of U.S. colonialism, nationalism, race, and gender. After I delivered my paper, “Language Borders and the Case of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature,” which was later published, several people in the audience waited to speak to me about my research. I felt a sense of validation. This was also one of the first times people referred to my research as “brave.” I still wrestle with seeing this as a compliment in terms of the work I do, whether I was brave for presenting Latino/a culture and Spanglish as belonging in a tradition of American writing or if my presence as an underrepresented minority seemed somehow exceptional. Even considering the underrepresentation of Latino/as in American children’s literature and the overall sparse numbers of Latino/a faculty, was I brave for presenting what I knew?

Me and Kenneth Kidd, photo by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Me and Kenneth Kidd, photo by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Being the only Latina in an academic environment was not a new experience for me, but as someone who studied Victorian and American children’s literature, what was new was my realization of how often the depictions of Anglo-British and Anglo-American children and childhood are presented as central, and even universal. The terms “the child” and “children’s literature” seemed reserved for these portrayals. Progressing into my doctoral career, within the context of groups such as ChLA, I found that my work was often greeted with questions such as, “What does this have to do with children’s literature?” or “How is this about childhood?” In part, my dissertation in 2012, which won an award in Puerto Rican Studies, addressed the centrality of Anglo culture in children’s literature. I now realize that even in my position as a very junior scholar, I was perhaps one of the first to begin probing at the systemic diversity issue in kid lit, which today, though certainly not new predicament, has reached the forefront. Realistically, it was not until Robin Bernstein’s important study Racial Innocence (2013) that the field more holistically and publicly began to underline how representations of childhood and innocence are coded white.

My movement into ethnic studies and organizations like the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) provided a space for me to develop the kinds of conversations I wanted to have about race, nationality, and the study of children’s literature in the academy, including its branches into education and library science. Truthfully, those of us who work in Latino/a children’s literature owe a great debt to education scholars, such as Sonia Nieto, whose foundational work on the subject in the 1970s and 1980s parallels with the work of Rudine Sims Bishop in African American children’s literature. Yet, I always kept my eye on ChLA, and was excited to hear that diversity and the lack of minority representation in children’s books would be the theme of ChLA 2014 (“Diverging Diversities: Plurality in Children’s and Young Adult Literature”). I could not attend ChLA 14, though my paper on Latino/a young adult (YA) literature was read by Kidd.

Thursday morning at ChLA 2015 found me a bit anxious. Walking into the Omni Hotel Richmond on the first day of the conference, I was still attempting to process the tragic shooting at a Charleston church the night before. As someone who spent quite a bit of my life in the context of the South and the sway of the Confederate flag, the grim headlines seemed to frame everything I saw, even the 2015 conference theme: “Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death.” Once in the reception area, I met a Twitter friend, master’s student, Cristiana Rhodes of Texas A&M University, Corpus Christie, who approaches children’s literature through Chicano/a epistemologies. We discussed our work and perspective on being Latino/a in a field which sometimes struggles to see us as part of “English.” I was so encouraged to see a young Latina chairing a panel at ChLA and presenting her research on resisting stereotypical depictions of the Day of the Dead. Rhodes shared similar feelings to what mine had been as a graduate student. Later on, she said, “As a Latina, one of my primary goals in presenting at any academic conference is visibility–to let other academics know that we’re here and we’re doing good, valuable research. I think our place in ChLA, in particular, is to further solidify that diversity is an integral part of children’s literature, and without diverse perspectives the field would lose something.

“I think children’s lit scholars are beginning to understand that the field shouldn’t just be dominated by (white) hegemonic perspectives, and that’s really encouraging for someone like me who is new to the field. However, I still firmly believe that diversity shouldn’t be tokenized by the association (and I feel it often is) and I feel like the only thing we can do to remedy this is to stay visible and keep our research relevant. That’s my goal as a member of ChLA.”

Rhodes, who plans to pursue a doctorate, also said, “I think, as a whole, the children’s literature community [and ChLA] is really welcoming for new scholars regardless of their race, gender, education-level, etc. I’m always sort of constantly afraid that my age, coupled with my race, will inevitably exclude me from certain spaces within academia, but I’ve never felt left out or ignored because of these things while in the company of other children’s literature scholars.”

Rhodes’ comments continued to impress me as I had lunch with Casey Alane Wilson, Rebekah Fitzsimmons, and Mariko Turk, doctoral students from the University of Florida. Wilson and Fitzsimmons, who presented a paper on the construction of the YA genre, including how YA is used as a platform for diverse writers, helped me see that our field is at a moment of transition and restructuring, a moment in which those of us entering the academy are also questioning the history, structures, and key terms which formed and continue to guide our fields. This urge to question is something we were nurtured as scholars to do. My doctoral training under Kenneth Kidd in particular placed me in a position to think about how children’s literature developed as a field and how it is valued by the different branches, in part because of Kidd’s own against the grain perspective on kid lit. Kidd, a founding member of ChLA’s diversity committee, encouraged me to participate in the membership meeting and the coming year’s diversity committee.

Wilson, who is writing her dissertation on the dynamics of young adult literature, commented on her assurance that ChLA has evolved as a space for confronting these issues, conversations that she said “we, as scholars, have a responsibility to have…But I would also say that I’d like to see more of these conversations that aren’t limited specifically to panels about race — these questions should come up and be discussed in so-called ‘regular’ panels, too.”

The panel I presented on in Latin American children’s literature was well-attended. My panel chair, Gonzalez wrote Resistance and Survival (2011), an important study on Latin American and Caribbean children’s literature, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the roots of Latin American cultures and kid lit, including Latino/a. During my presentation on race and nationality in Puerto Rican textbooks, which were used in Puerto Rico and New York City schools during the 1950s, I understood why it was important for me to continue attending ChLA. The research and perspective I brought to ChLA meant that even if Latino/as and people of color in general were underrepresented, my presentation and any conversations it inspired, raised the visibility of these groups in the field. In particular, by retracing the history of Latino/as in children’s literature, I hope to present how people of color form part of the foundation of children’s literature, and not the margins.

In terms of diversity, one of the conference highlights was a panel on Black Lives Matter featuring Katherine Capshaw Smith of the University of Connecticut, Michelle Martin of the University of South Carolina, and Myisha Priest of New York University, and chaired by Richard Flynn of Georgia Southern University, who drew a parallel to the Charleston shooting in his introduction. Together, these scholars underlined the importance of children’s literature and the tensions between innocence and criminality in terms of narrating the public deaths of black children, including Emmit Till, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, and Kalief Browder. Another panel, “Illustrating African American history,” focused on how race and racism is depicted in children’s literature, and there was a panel titled “American Indians and Indianness,” which I was unable to attend.

Rhodes, Sonia Rodríguez (who could not attend), and I were the only scholars focusing solely on Latino/a children’s literature. Lilian B.W. Feitosa read one paper on Brazilian children’s literature and Renee Lathman read on poverty and marginality in Puerto Rican children’s literature. Also, Rhonda Brock-Servais and Aslyn Kemp from Longwood University delivered a great presentation on gender in Meg Medina’s work. The panel I presented on encompassed my perspective of Latin American and Latino/a children’s literature. In the future, I hope to organize a panel on Latino/a kid lit and hope it will not be seen as a an international panel since Latino/a is indeed a U.S. formation. The international panels at ChLA provide a great opportunity for diverse perspectives on children’s literature, but some scholars, such as Wilson, note that scheduling the international panels concurrently limits the opportunities for exchanges.

ChLA is an organization which has historically been committed to social justice. Overall, I think it would benefit from relationships with scholars doing ethnic studies and education research, an initiative listed in their Diversity Committee Plan 2009-2013. Collaboration with these fields would enable exchanges from the perspective of theories such as critical race theory (CRT) and Latino critical theory (LatCrit). I would also encourage children’s illustrators and authors to attend the conference to see how their work is impacting future frameworks and interpretations. ChLA is still a smaller and more manageable conference than meetings such as American Library Association (ALA), Modern Language Association (MLA), and/or National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). It’s smaller, welcoming environment perhaps makes it more suitable for increasing the participation of scholars of color through mentoring events or spaces designed to nurture the needs of future faculty. Katherine Slater of Rowan University and chair of the Membership Committee said that ChLA plans to incorporate activities, including panels, speakers, and discussion groups that nurture diversity.

After Saturday’s membership meeting, I spoke to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania and Kidd about my intentions to return to ChLA and get more involved in the planning and leadership. I felt incredibly supported during my conversations with Kidd, Thomas, Martin, and Capshaw, and by the ChLA community. Given the social movements and narratives of race overlapping with the narratives of the academy, I also felt that change was impossible to avoid. While preparing this reflection, I spoke with other scholars of color about how entering these spaces where we are the only ones makes us feel overwhelmed at times. Because for us, “diversity” is a term used to describe our lives and very beings, and not a theme. Perhaps, that is why when we choose to come to these places, and in my case return, we seem brave.



Marilisa Jiménez García is a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. She works at the intersections of Latino/a Studies and childhood and children’s literature studies. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the history of Latino/a children’s and young adult literature and an essay on the Latino/a “YA” tradition. She is conducting a survey of NYC teachers on teacher education and the use of diverse lit. in the classroom.