More Diversity Needed in Children’s Literature
Last week, the New York Times published an article about the fact that Latino students don’t often see themselves in books. This sparked lots of discussion, with a few responses printed days later. Then, earlier today, NBC News reported that according to Census data white people will no longer be the majority in the U.S. by 2043.
Times they are a-changing. This is not “news” in the sense that these projections have been made before, but these facts about our country’s changing population have been getting more attention because of the large number of non-white voters who participated in the presidential election. Let’s focus on the reading issue…
When it comes to reading, there are some near-certainties. Children who are read to from birth to age 3 enter preschool with an advantage. Children who attend organized preschool have an advantage. By kindergarten, the literacy gap–even though students cannot yet read themselves–already exists. If a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he or she could lag in school forever. Yes, forever. I teach reading in high school, so obviously I believe it’s never too late to improve one’s reading skills. Still, while my students make gains, other students are–you guessed it–making gains, too.
With our changing population, parents, teachers, writers, and the publishing industry have a lot to consider. Parents need to read to their children every day. All subject teachers must see themselves as reading teachers and must make conscious choices in terms of reading material. And, ultimately, I hope more books by and about Latinos are published.
I believe that a child should read widely, not just about one’s own race or culture, but I also think it’s important that a child “see” himself (whether it’s because of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other personal experiences) in a book. Why? Because we live in a diverse society, and our diversity should be represented in the books we read.
Since the recent news was about Latinos, I’m going to focus on that piece. To read book after book with only white characters is simply unrealistic when, in 30 years, the majority of Americans will be non-white. With the growth of the Hispanic community, how strange would it be for children to grow up reading books that do not have Hispanic protagonists or supporting characters? How strange would it be to hardly ever read a novel written by a Latino/a? More books by and about Hispanics would be a great thing.
I also think people need to be more aware of and support current Hispanic writers. There are lots of great MG and YA books out there already! Check out this mega list. Other great places to check out are the Latina Book Club, the Hispanic Reader, and Vamos a Leer.
Anthologies often include stories from a few of the greats–Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Gary Soto, to name a few. They are amazing writers, all among my favorites, but teachers and librarians need to venture beyond these go-to authors and give props to other Hispanic writers by using their books in class or offering them to students regularly as independent reading options. My school did this exact thing recently.
Matt de la Peña came to my high school on Dec. 7. He talked to all 9th graders (not just Latinos) in the auditorium and then ran smaller sessions that were mixed in terms of grade (9-12) and race. In preparation for his visit, the school library ordered multiple copies of his novels: BALL DON’T LIE, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, WE WERE HERE, and I WILL SAVE YOU. Our students’ comments during and after his visit proved that Matt appealed to ALL of our students.
Comments from my Latino students were interesting, though. More than one asked me if he was rich. I said he has two college degrees and four published YA novels, with a fifth on the way. One was made into a movie. Is he rich? I don’t know, but he is successful, in my opinion. Another boy, who sat through both of the small sessions and talked to Matt afterward lost the book that was signed for him. He thinks someone stole it. I found him one day roaming the halls after school looking for it. The next day he said, “It’s weird, but I kind of miss him. He was cool.”
I know my students well enough to know that they saw themselves in Matt: a young Mexican-American who was a reluctant reader and the first in his family to go to college. They saw themselves in his characters and then met the author and made a connection.
It was an experience they won’t soon forget, and one that proves it is important for Latinos to see themselves in the books they read and names like theirs on the spines.