Latinos make up 16% of the U.S. population and almost 25% of public school students, but they are not adequately reflected in children‘s literature (one of the only growing sectors in the publishing industry) or on classroom reading lists, Motoko Rich pointed out in a New York Times article this week. Citing Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Magic Treehouse series among his favorite reads, eight year old Mario Cortez-Pacheco is quoted in Rich’s article as saying “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color.”
Not being able to personally identify with or relate to content has been linked to poor performance on standardized tests, which obviously has farther reaching ramifications on the future success of students. Writer Mona Se Queda gave a compelling example in a piece published in Persephone Magazine:
“I once saw an essay question asking children to write a persuasive essay about why fishing is fun. That seems at first glance to be a pretty innocuous question, as I was raised with a father who loves to fish. However, how many children from the inner city go fishing? How would they know if it is fun or not? A student may be able to produce a well-thought-out essay in general, but if they are not familiar with the prompt, they will not succeed according to the exam.”
There needs to be more balance. It’s not only important that kids like Mario see stories that reflect them and their experiences in the classroom setting; it’s crucial that all students be exposed to a diversity of stories. I’m not just talking race. Reading books that handle class, gender, geographical location, sexual orientation, and culture are just a few of the ways students can begin to understand and learn to empathize with experiences that are unfamiliar to their own.
Understanding and empathy are a large part of why stories are so powerful. As writers, we strive to tell our stories — stories we hope will connect across race, gender, class, etc — because we ourselves will never forget the first time we connected with a story or character in a book.
That flutter of recognition and identification validated what we were feeling and who we were/are. Likewise, we’ve been consumed with stories we couldn’t put down even though, on the surface, we had nothing in common with the characters/no familiarity with the setting or subject matter because the story transcended all the barriers to capture the human experience we all share.
We need to advocate for inclusion of more diverse stories on kids’ school reading lists, and personally expand the reading selection of the kids in our lives. With the holidays upon us, this is a good opportunity to gift a book.
Bookseller Aurora Anaya-Cerda shares her recommendation of Latino children’s titles in a companion New York Times article on the topic.
She includes one of my faves, Torrey Maldonado’s middle-grade title Secret Saturdays about a young boy struggling to define what manhood is in the absence of his incarcerated father. I also recommend:
1. Sharon Draper’s award-winning Copper Sun about a young girl ripped from her village in Ghana and shipped to America as a slave,
2. Kwame Alexander’s Indigo Blume and the Garden City about an intrepid and poetic nine-year-old girl that spearheads her neighborhood’s clean-up campaign and rooftop garden,
3. Martin Wilson’s YA novel What They Always Tell Us about a gay teen struggling to come out to his family,
4. Liza Monroy’s Mexican High about an American teenage girl who starts her senior year of high school in Mexico when her mother, an employee of the State Department, gets reassigned,
5. NeonSeon’s charming Life of Shouty picture books that adults will enjoy too,
6. and my own book, Powder Necklace, about a teenage girl whose mom ships her off from London to boarding school in Cape Coast, Ghana after she catches her entertaining a boy at home unsupervised.