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Latino Children's Literature That Should Top Lists


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll find out how Nelson Mandela inspired a group of actors here in the U.S. to join in the struggle for a better South Africa. But first, let's talk about books. If you're interested in buying books as a gift this holiday, as many people are, especially for the kids in your life, you might want to check out the New York Times notable children's book of 2013. You will find everything on that list - a picture book about the slave trade and a modern fantasy tale about magical cats.

What you will not find are Latinos. The list does not include a single book either penned by a Latino author or featuring a Latino protagonist. So the group Latinas for Latino Literature wants to fill in that gap. The organization works to bring more attention to Latino authors and increase Hispanic literacy rates as well. And they have their own list of recommended titles for kids. Joining us now are two of the group's founders Monica Olivera, blogs at "Mommy Maestra." She joins us from her home near Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. And also with us is Viviana Hurtado. She is blogger-in-chief of "The Wise Latina Club." And she is a wise Latina. She has a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature. She's here in our D.C. studios. Welcome back to the program, both of you.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks, Celeste, for having us.

MONICA OLIVERA: Thank you for having us.

HEADLEE: So, Viviana, let's talk about this list. Why is it necessary for you to have it? Why can't you make changes, say, in the New York Times list every year?

HURTADO: Well, it's precisely because the New York Times has excluded Latina authors and illustrators from their children's list. In the last 10 years, they've only found one Latina author, one Latina illustrator that they can include in their list. And we find that to be, quite frankly, out of touch. You know, the list has been around since 1952. It seems that the selection for this year - and by the way, they're terrific tomes - seems more like it's representative of the culture of 1950s and '60s than today's changing America, which is increasingly diverse and mixed.

HEADLEE: Well, Monica, I can already hear the arguments from the editorial board already, right? I mean, saying, perhaps, the Latinos are writing fewer children's books, there's fewer to choose from, or that they simply go through the stack of books they have and choose the best ones. What's your response to that?

OLIVERA: Well, you know, there's 52 million Latinos who live in the United States, and I think that if you're going to put together a list for the nation that's inclusive, and it should be representative of all the people that exist here in the United States. And I don't think that having just one title of Latino children's lit would be out of line. I think that would be a fantastic way to appeal and represent that demographic. So, yes, we've created a list because there are quite a few actually, in fact, many that were published this year by Latino authors or about Latino characters.

HEADLEE: One that was included on your list was an author that we spoke to not too long ago on this show, "Good Night Captain Mama" by Graciela Tiscareno, a former Air Force captain. And she talked to us about the importance of writing kids books in Spanish. Take a listen.


GRACIELA TISCARENO: For me, it's about role modeling. It's about the little 5-year-old girl last week in elementary school who pulled on my sleeve at the end of the assembly and said in Spanish, I want to fly airplanes like you did.

HEADLEE: So, Viviana, should every book by a Latino author be in Spanish, or what's the balance?

HURTADO: Well, we actually have in our list titles that are all in English. And that has to do with the fact that the population is booming here in this country. And we also know that English is the language of power in the United States of America. So in order to be successful and to really go to the furthest ends of your imagination and your potential and your ambition, English is the way to go. That said, we promote Spanish, bilingual books. If you look at our different lists and author reads, author favorites, they are publishing in English, in Spanish and even bilingual books where you're able to see on one page the Spanish version and illustration, and on the other page, the exact same text but translated into English.

What we want to argue is that this approach, this inclusion is actually more accurate because so many terrific Latino authors and illustrators are publishing. Including in 2013, it's more representative of America that's more diverse and mixed. And, you know, it's also going to help - the benefit to our country is that we know the power of identification. And it could go such a long ways in helping improve literacy and education rates among Latino students, which is an area where there is still a significant lag. That's a problem for all of society if you think that this group is growing and is going to form the basis of the labor force and the tax space.

HEADLEE: And be a third of a population not too far in the future. Monica, have you spoken with the editors and managers at the New York Times? What's their response been?

OLIVERA: You know what? We actually have not had a response from the New York Times at all about this topic. So we just continue to promote our list and hope to encourage them that maybe next year they can. If they need help, they can contact us or they can take a better look at the Latino children's literature that is available.

HEADLEE: So, Viviana, who's the more important audience here for these books by Latino authors and illustrators and books with Latino protagonists? Is it the young Latino-American kid, or is it the, maybe, white or African-American kid who has no experience with Latino culture?

HURTADO: That's a great question, Celeste, because it's actually all of the above. C, all of the above. It's important that Latino children see themselves represented in books, in media, in movies because, as I said earlier, that's the power of identification and how far it can go to help a student realize their ambitions and dreams, spark imagination, want to go further with their professional and their academic goals. But it's equally important for all children - white children, African-American, Asian and all of the mixed children that are out there - to see what other kids look like and their experiences.

They go to school with many of these children. We know public schools are filled with 25 percent Latino students. And so wouldn't it be wonderful for them to see their experiences represented, which, by the way, they see likely every single day, certainly if they attend American public schools.

HEADLEE: Monica, why is the New York Times list important? I mean, obviously, people can go to their bookstore, their library and if they can find these books, does it matter what the New York Times says was a great book in 2013?

OLIVERA: Well, that's a very good point. You know, if people go to their bookstores or libraries, can they find these books? And a lot of times the collections that are carried in those institutions and those bookshops are based on lists, for example, by the New York Times, which is very representative of the publishing industry. So it's important that they are inclusive because right now when you go into a bookshop, your local bookshop, chances of finding Latino children's literature or any kind of bilingual book that isn't, you know, "Dora the Explorer" is very difficult to do. I mean, it's hard to find those titles. And if you do have a small area, it's just really very few titles that actually represent the richness and the diversity of the Latino culture.

HURTADO: And just to add, you know, there has been lots of Latino literature published, historically, throughout the years by small independent presses. And we also know the rise of self-publishing in the last five to 10 years. But the role of the New York Times is important because of the precedent, the green light that they send to mainstream publishers in New York City. And that is where Latino authors and illustrators are very underrepresented. Tying into what Monica said, they're going to take their cues from the New York Times. The ripple effect is that's the kind of books that will be stocked in our libraries and in our bookstores across the nation.

HEADLEE: But in the meantime, if people want to buy these books, they're going to have to check out your list. That, what you just heard from Viviana Hurtado. She is a blogger-in-chief at "The Wise Latina Club." And also with us, Monica Olivera from "Mommy Maestra." They're the cofounders of Latinas for Latino Literature with their own list of books from Latino authors and illustrators that were the notable books of 2013 for kids. Thanks so much for both of you.

HURTADO: Thanks, Celeste.

OLIVERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.