All it takes is a smile on a student’s face while reading to make Pat Mora happy.
“It’s always a pleasure when students hear something familiar to them, and it is transforming to see that quiet little smile,” she says.
Mora is a Chicana children’s book author who actively works to bring her culture and heritage into her writing.
“We are all too smart to believe that the only group in this country who has wonderful stories to tell and wonderful illustrators happens to be people of European descent,” Mora says. “In such a diverse country, I want all of those voices available to these next generations.”
According to a recent report by the New York Times, while Hispanics make up around a quarter of the country’s public school population, they aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the literature in their classrooms. Many popular books feature white protagonists and seldom include Latinos, opting only to depict them in supporting or peripheral roles. Just 3 percent of children’s books published in 2011 were written by or about Latinos.
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It is this lack of Latinos present in children’s books that motivates Mora to write children’s books.
“It wasn’t until after I began writing that I fully realized that I had never had the pleasure of seeing someone like me or families like mine or seeing my own experience in books,” Mora recalls.
Representing Latinos in literature
One question persists among children’s book authors and illustrators: just what does it mean to depict the Latino experience? For Mora, including Latinos means more than just including Latino names in a story.
“Simply having character’s names like Maria and Raul won’t make that story culturally relevant. Students have to really be able to see their personal experience reflected in the story,” she explains. “Whether it’s seeing homes like yours or hearing descriptions of families like yours creates a different kind of literacy.”
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Pam Muñoz Ryan is the award-winning author of bestselling books Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi León. She identifies as an American writer who happens to be half-Mexican with a background that seeps into her work. For Muñoz Ryan, there are no preconceived notions about what a Latino looks like.
“Maybe because my own family runs the gamut from extremely fair to dark-skinned, who is to say? That is why each story must be about each character’s truth,” she says. “We can’t look at a person’s eyes, hair or skin and know him or her. We must look into each person’s story.”
Children’s book author and illustrator Maya Christina Smith-Gonzalez says that it’s important for books to remain tactful in depicting Latino culture and not solely show stereotypical images. She quickly grew tired of the “fiesta and tamale books” and sought to bring up identity in more subtle ways.
“One of the first books I wrote was about a girl discovering colors in her own world,” she says. “People who have that unspoken experience may understand it differently. The cultural piece is not always something you can pinpoint.”
The notion that Latino stories cannot be pinned down is pervasive through Muñoz Ryan’s work as well. When she sits down to write, she doesn’t do so with the intent of writing with a Latina slant.
“I sit down to tell a story with one ardent goal. And that is for the reader to want to turn the page. If my story includes a Latino perspective, it is because the culture or the character was rooted, authentically, to that particular story,” Ryan says.
Bringing books into the mainstream
“Only some newer books that I have from a particular publishing company represent Latino students and show them positively. However, that is only some books from one company,” says Madeline Ferrer, a teacher at a New York City public school with a nearly 80 percent Latino student body.
While works by and featuring Hispanics do exist, they face a much harder time actually making it into classrooms. One issue of concern is that these books are not part of the selection made available to them through their approved school book vendors.
“The books must then be purchased by schools and libraries to reach students. At the same time, the school’s hands are often tied by budgets, committee approvals and whether or not a title now fits into their standards,” Muñoz Ryan explains.
Latino authors have the Pura Belpré Awards, named after the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Awards are presented each year to the Latino/a writer and illustrator whose work best portrays and celebrates the Latino experience. There are also the Américas Awards, which recognize works of fiction, poetry, folklore or selected non-fiction that portray Latinos in the United States or Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ryan believes that parents, teachers and librarians can use the awards as a resource for diversifying their child’s reading experience. But the awards are not enough for all authors. According to Smith-Gonzalez, the lack of Latino literature may be rooted in recognition of the existing literature.
“We have awards like the Pura Bulpré awards, but even that gets complicated because you can become pigeonholed,” Smith-Gonzalez says, speaking of the awards that recognize Latino/a children’s book writers and illustrators that celebrates the Hispanic experience. She won a Pura Bulpré award for My Colors, My World.
While Mora echoes Smith-Gonzalez’s concerns, she is more preoccupied with diversity on awards panels.
“Sometimes those companies don’t add those books because they have not been reviewed. If award committees aren’t really diverse, some books are going to have less of a chance of being read and of surviving,” she says.
Mora says there needs to be more support for Latino children’s books’ authors and illustrators.
“The challenge is not only that Latinos write and illustrate books – that is being done and has been done for years. The problem is that it isn’t submitted,” Mora says.
Aside from individual efforts from teachers and parents to get more books that reflect the Latino experience into the classroom, there is the potential for broader change with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The initiative is an effort to align diverse state curricula with standardized principles of education reform.
One of the seven broad English Language Arts statements is that students “come to understand other perspectives and cultures.” Some teachers and educators believe that the inclusion of this provision in the standards may cause sch0ols to seek out literature reflecting a broader spectrum of cultures.
“For struggling readers, books with characters they identify with can be the catalyst for a successful and meaningful reading experience,” Muñoz Ryan says.
One fact is obvious for many authors: getting more books featuring Latinos in the hands of students benefits all students, not just Hispanics.
“I think what the lack of diverse characters does is it cues kids’ view of our national reality and our national identity. Kids are curious,” Mora said. “They want to know about other people, as well as other places and things, and I think it deprives them of that experience.”