This week an article in the New York Times caused a stir among the Latino community over the lack of Latino children’s literature available to Latino students. Bloggers, journalists, publishers, and parents all have something to say about it, and there is a growing discontent among Latino parents who cannot easily find books that reflect their children’s faces and experience.
This lack of representation deeply impacts our children’s academic success, because if they don’t have books and stories that they can relate to during their first years in school, then learning to read becomes more difficult. My kids have never enjoyed the Dick & Jane series because they think Dick & Jane are boring. I’m not knocking the series – it has helped teach thousands of children to read. But one key doesn’t fit every lock, just like one book doesn’t fit every child.
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And it is crucial that children learn to read by the end of third grade – and learn to read well. Because starting in fourth grade, they must then use their literacy skills in a different way and start reading to learn. A child who is cannot read well by fourth grade will struggle in every other subject as a result.
This is not a new problem. About five to eight years ago, there was a mini “explosion” in the Latino children’s literature market when publishers realized there was an entire demographic that they were missing out on. It was fantastic, but then all of a sudden the economy tanked and the amount of energy and money they put into these books dried up. Today it is very difficult to find authentic bilingual or bicultural children’s literature (sorry, Dora doesn’t count) in a major bookstore chain.
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Some publishers claim that the reason they’ve stopped publishing these types of books is because there is no market – that Latino families simply don’t buy books. I look around my home at all the children’s books we have by Latino authors and I’m skeptical. Especially when I see the overwhelmingly positive response I get from parents whenever I feature a one of these titles on MommyMaestra, the Latin Baby Book Club, or one of my freelance articles.
I understand, though, that my miniature home library of Latino children’s literature is the exception to the rule. I would dare say that 90 percent of Latino households don’t have access to these books and don’t know how to get them. I’ve purchased the majority of mine online from Amazon, while the others have been provided by publishers for review purposes. But I’ve had to work hard to find many of these books to begin with, and some Latino parents may not know where to even start to find these stories reflective of their culture.
In my opinion, all major bookstore chains should offer their customers a comprehensive section on multicultural children’s literature with special emphasis on Spanish, bilingual or bicultural books. And no, not just for their Latino or Spanish-speaking customers to buy, but for other children to enjoy as well.
In addition, given the recent estimates that 6 million Latino children live in poverty, then we must all realize that books are a luxury that many of their parents can’t afford. Which is what makes it so important for these books to be made available through schools and libraries. I heard a comment from one of the publishing companies saying that the schools aren’t interested in purchasing the books because they say that they aren’t made up of Latino students and wouldn’t be interested in these types of books. There are a lot of things wrong with this statement, however, I’ll focus on the fact that they are obviously marketing to the wrong schools. The point of the New York Times article was that our children are suffering academically because they don’t see their own faces reflected in the textbooks and stories they’re reading. One would assume that these children are in schools with a large Latino student population.
And part of the problem for publishers is that we are such a diverse community both in terms of culture and language. They want to create books that all Latino families will buy, rather than investing in a diverse group of authors who can speak to Latino families of different backgrounds – Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and so on. While there are some well-established authors like Alma Flor Ada, Pat Mora, Gary Soto, F. Isabel Campoy and others who are phenomenal writers, there are many new authors who have published far fewer books and whose stories should and need to be heard. Writers like Margarita Engle, Monica Brown, Laura Lacamara, Rene Colato Laínez, and many, many others.
To be fair, there are several smaller, independent publishers who are producing quality Latino children’s literature – Arte Público, Lorito Books, Groundwood Books, and Children’s Book Press, just to name a few – but why aren’t we seeing these books on the bookshelves of major chains such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and others.
Stories are the building blocks of our societies. Latinos especially love a good story. And they are great storytellers! So what’s the problem here?
It’s time we as parents speak up and tell the publishing companies and booksellers exactly what we think and want. And it’s time for them to listen.
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM