Give Kid Lit Readers a Broad Range with Real Characters


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.

By Ashley Hope Pérez

Like Stephanie, my personal commitment to Latin@ lit comes from my work with teens. Much of my energy as a high school English teacher in Houston went to finding ways to make reading and writing an authentic, meaningful, and empowering part of my students’ lives.

I spent a lot of time scouring our school library and talking to my reluctant readers about what they wanted in a book. No big surprise: a lot of them wanted a book that reflected their experiences in a way that would ring true. We had plenty of successes, but there were a number of students for whom it seemed that the gateway book—that critical read that would persuade them of all that words can do—was missing.

“I want a book that shows how my life really is,” I heard over and over. “Not just somebody brown, but somebody real,” one student insisted. And, “please, I can’t stand it when they make it seem like if you just get into college, you’ve got it made.” That last bit came from one of my top-performing seniors, an impressive scholar by all accounts but also a young woman who had few illusions about the conflicting demands she would be facing in the coming years.

My students—aware of my aspirations to “one day” write a novel—began to recommend (okay, insist, pester, badger) that I write the book that they were looking for, and they were both my inspiration and the first readers of What Can’t Wait. Similarly, The Knife and the Butterfly began with writing exercises I was using to give a group of freshmen in a summer school English class a way of responding to the news coverage of a deadly gang fight a few miles away. In my third novel (watch for it in 2015 from Carolrhoda Lab), I take my concern with Latin@ experiences in a new direction by bringing them to the history of my native East Texas. I explore Hispanic experiences in the primarily black-and-white world of 1930s East Texas through the story of a school explosion, family secrets, an interracial romance between a Mexican American girl and a black boy, and the pressures created by Texas’s three-fold segregation system (black, white, and “Mexican” schools existed in many places). The third novel is going to be something different from my contemporary fiction, for sure, but it’s still written with my students in mind. I like to think that it’s the kind of book that would persuade my students to think about how past experiences scar the present—and what we do to mark loss and begin healing.

It matters quite a lot to me that Latin@ lit avoid the trap of making an “issue” of ethnicity, as Zoraida pointed out. Ethnicity was a non-issue for my students, not because they lived in such a multicultural world (Zoraida’s experience) but in fact because their world was relatively homogeneous; most of the kids in the Southeast Houston neighborhood where I taught were from working class families with roots in Mexico. Even my students who weren’t bilingual regularly heard Spanish and had strategies for managing the interconnections of Spanish and English in their community.

I don’t include glossaries in my novels, as I discuss here, because my books are first and foremost for my kids—and because I believe in the resourcefulness of other readers who come along. All of that to say: writing for my kids felt urgent back when I started What Can’t Wait, and it still does today. But Latin@s in Kid Lit has a broader mission than featuring Latin@ YA: we’re about highlighting awesomeness by, for, and about Latin@s for kids of all ages, including younger readers.

When I have the chance to talk with librarians or teachers about book selection, I often beg them first to make sure their collection goes well beyond the default “diversity” titles. Book selections for younger children should go beyond portrayals of special holidays, for example. I often caution teachers about resorting too quickly to the “minority celebrity” of the hour when attempting to diversify their reading lists.

By the time my (mostly Latin@) students reached my senior English class, most of them had read The House on Mango Street—in part or in whole—a half dozen times. That was because Cisneros’ (wonderful!) and widely discussed book had become synonymous with “Latino experience” in the minds of well-meaning teachers who had little additional knowledge of Latin@ lit, and they didn’t look beyond it when making choices for their classrooms.

The absence of a broad selection of diverse titles can reinforce students’ feelings of exclusion and general disengagement from the world of books. By contrast, offering students (whatever their background) a broad range of literature can generate a lot of excitement.

I, for one, am all for excitement! In future posts, I hope to contribute to the conversation by offering my two cents on what’s happening in the world of Latin@ YA and also by highlighting some of my Latin@ kidlit reading adventures with my son, Liam Miguel.

More from me soon!


P.S. Since I talk a lot about how I came to focus on Latin@ experiences in my fiction, I’ve cribbed some of this post from a past feature I did at STACKED , another blog that YA fans and librarians should have on their radar.

Future of Latino/a Lit Is Being Written Now

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.

By Zoraida Córdova

Why Latin@ Kid Lit?

Well, why not?

Growing up in Hollis, Queens, I never thought of myself as a minority. Personally, I think that word is crap. Are we minor things? Less-than things? Not at all, but this is what they (the proverbial they) call it.

I had my friends, some fourth-generation Irish, some Filipino immigrants, some Guyanese, Jamaican, Mexican, Mexican-Haitian, and the list goes on and on. But this is NYC and diversity is not foreign to us.

This same diversity was not reflected in the television I watched or books I read. My favorite shows were Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dawson’s Creek. My favorite books were by Sarah Dessen. I was a freshman in high school and I had encountered zero characters who look like me, as I recently noted over at Diversity in YA.

The House on Mango StreetI’d like to think that Latino Lit has come in waves. First, THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros and HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS by Julia Alvarez, and while those stories are still relevant, they might not pertain to the kids who have already assimilated. I moved to New York when I was six; this Fall I will be celebrating 20 years here. While I most definitely know where I come from, my identity very much belongs to New York.

I want to see myself in the books I read.

Junot Diaz says, “Every single immigrant we have, undocumented or documented, is a future American. That’s just the truth of it.” And he’s 100% right. The future of Latin@ Lit is being written right now. I believe that not every book with a Hispanic or Latin@ character has to be an “issue” book. Not all of us have issues with our heritage. We just are.

Some good examples of this are GOING BOVINE by Libbra Bray,  SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD by Lindsay Leavitt,  and YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina. Each of these novels has Latin@ characters, but the story is not centered on being Latin@.

Going BovineSean Griswold's HeadYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

In GOING BOVINE, Paul Ignacio “Gonzo” Gonzales is a video-game-playing hypochondriac who has an overbearing Mexican mother. He’s dealing with lots of issues, but being Latino doesn’t seem to be one of them. The MC in SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, Payton Gritas, is half-Colombian. Hers is a story of family and first love. Along the way, her ethnicity is mentioned, but it’s not the center of the narrative. In Medina’s novel, the MC is a Cuban-American–the new girl in school who is bullied by another Latina. Of course, the story includes plenty of background and action that touches upon Latin@ culture, but the central issue is not about racial or ethnic discovery.

We need stories that are as diverse as the Latin@ community, stories about Latin@s like me who are as American as they are Latin@. This is one of the things I want to explore in this blog with wonderful writers and readers like yourself.

Happy reading,