(Photo/Getty Images )

Opinion: Why our children need to see their faces in the literature they read

As a child, I never read a single book about a Hispanic girl like me. I was a voracious reader and grew up on books by Madeleine L’Engle, Judy Bloom, Ellen Conford, and John Bellairs. Classics, mysteries, westerns, and romance all found a place on my bookshelf at one point or another. But not a single book reflected my own face or experience.

And then, when I was in high school, I took a class on multicultural literature and read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima for the first time. I remember sitting down and reading the whole thing in one sitting. It absolutely amazed me that someone had written a book that echoed my own childhood experience at home. Family members who I had so desperately loved but had now passed away were right there in print between the covers of a book. The experience was so moving, it still makes me emotional. Back then, I immediately ran out to look for more titles by Latino authors and treasured the few that I could find.

 Looking back, I think that was the moment that ultimately influenced my decision a few years later to major in English with a creative writing emphasis. And today I wonder, how many Latino children have the opportunity to see their own stories in the literature to which they have access?

Here are three reasons why it is crucial for Latino children to have access to literature written by or about Latinos.

Illiteracy is a Silent Epidemic

Latino literacy is at crisis point in this country. Time and again studies show that Latino students score the lowest when it comes to reading proficiently. A 2011 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 18 percent of Hispanic fourth graders were proficient in reading. Other studies show that Latino students consistently rank the lowest in all areas of literacy, including alphabet recognition, letter sounds, and vocabulary.

By 2030, Hispanics are projected to be the largest growing group entering the U.S. workforce, and having a future workforce that is literate is critical for our country’s success. A country with an illiterate workforce cannot maintain its world leader status. It cannot lead the way in areas of tech innovation and medical breakthroughs or successfully compete in a global market.

Parental Involvement is Crucial

A child’s primary role models are its parents. Mothers and fathers set the stage for creating a literacy-friendly home by exposing their children to print-rich environments and reading aloud to them every day. And to raise a literate child, parents don’t have to just read to them in English. They can read to them in any language. But what happens when a parent is not comfortable reading in the dominant language? Many Spanish-speaking parents are less likely to read aloud a book in English. And they are even less likely to pick up a book and read to their child when the subject matter is not familiar to them. But access to bilingual books with Latino themes can greatly improve the chances of a Spanish-speaking or bilingual parent reading aloud to their child. Books that parents can relate to may also lead to additional conversations as parents share stories of their own childhoods with their children.

Personal Validation

A few years ago, the results of a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill came out. It shows that Latino kids who grow up knowledgeable about their culture – and proud of it – are more likely to excel in school, have a strong self-esteem, and develop healthy behaviors. The study reveals that these children develop fewer social problems, and experience less hopelessness, aggression, and substance abuse. Providing Latino children with books and stories about their own culture and the role their heritage has played in U.S. history validates their own sense of self worth and instills a confidence that helps them to excel in school.

Our children deserve the chance to learn about the role their ancestors played in our nation’s history. They have the right to see their own faces and experiences in the stories they read. They need to learn that there are many ways to solve a problem and that their own dreams are important enough to become goals. They should be allowed to imagine their own future and the possibilities that it holds.

Every child should have the opportunity to read about another child just like himself…and then be allowed to write his own story.

Opinion: Why our children need to see their faces in the literature they read monica olivera nbc parenting family NBC Latino News

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.

%d bloggers like this: