Bilingual is Better

Photo credit: Antwerpen R

April 30th marks the celebration of Día del Niño/Día del Libro, an annual celebration of children, families and reading held at libraries nationwide.  Here at SpanglishBaby, we’re wrapping up a week-long exploration into the world of bilingual homeschooling and the families who are living it.  We’ve emphasized this week that one of the biggest hurdles for bilingual homeschoolers is the lack of resources and curriculums available to them.  A library with a decent collection of Spanish material can be a treasure for the homeschooling family.

To celebrate Día, libraries and bilingual homeschooling we decided to focus on one librarian who has dedicated her career to making libraries a welcoming place to people of all backgrounds and, especially, for Spanish-speaking families and the bilingual community.  Katie Cunningham, raised in a small town in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio, began studying Spanish in college and admits not really enjoying it at first. After learning Spanish while studying and traveling abroad, she found her niche in libraries.

By being able to speak Spanish, she was immediately struck by the fact that Latinos—a huge and growing community of diverse people—are being under-served by many libraries.  Katie believes that her experiences abroad made her especially sensitive to the experiences of the new immigrants she was encountering at the library.  She realized she wanted to work to make the library a place that felt welcoming.

After finding her blog, Es Divertido Hablar Dos Idiomas,  and seeing that she’s developed a presentation to bring Bilingual Storytime into libraries, I contacted her wanting to share her story and applaud her work for our bilingual kids.

Katie Cunningham

Katie: I am the Children’s Librarian at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library in Lexington, KY.  The Village Branch is a very special and unique place to work because all of our staff are bilingual (English/Spanish).  We serve a diverse neighborhood, and the people who walk through our doors know they will be able to find friendly, helpful service inside from all of our staff.  As the Children’s Librarian, I get to do the fun work!  My greatest passion is working with families of young children and sharing with parents ways that they (as their child’s first and most important teacher) can use books and other resources to help their children learn the early skills that they need in order to be successful when the time comes to learn to read.  One of the ways I do this is through our weekly Bilingual Family Storytime, in which we share stories, songs and activities in both English and Spanish, all intentionally selected to celebrate bilingualism and build early literacy skills.

SB:  Today is the last day of the month-long celebration of Día del Niño/Día del Libro.  How did your library celebrate it and why do you think it’s important to do so?

Katie: Our celebration will be on Saturday, May 1 in order to be more convenient for families to attend.  We are hosting a celebration of reading, culture and information throughout the day.  We will be having several programs and performances for children of various ages, including a payaso, bilingual storytelling and African drumming.  Children will be able to make cultural and literacy based crafts, such as bookmarks and papel picado.  Something special and new that we are doing this year is bringing in information for parents as well by hosting a Community Information Fair.  Several agencies serving families in our neighborhood  are bringing activities or giveaways for children, as well as bilingual information about their services for the families.  We will have high school and college volunteers available to translate for any agencies unable to bring bilingual staff.  And of course, possibly the most exciting piece of all, every child who attends our event will get to choose his or her very own, brand new book to keep.

Día is important to celebrate for so many reasons.  Most importantly, it is an opportunity to celebrate the joy of reading in all languages! It is a chance to welcome large groups of families into their library to socialize and connect around themes of literacy of books.  It also brings diverse groups of people together.  At our event this year, high school volunteers will be serving as role models by reading with young children, agencies serving the same community will be together in one place, library staff across different locations are coming to be a part of our event, working with a community they may not ordinarily have the opportunity to serve.  Only an event as special and important as Dia can accomplish so much in one day.

SB:  We are also celebrating you for the work you do to promote bilingualism with your Bilingual Storytimes and through your effort to teach other librarians to incorporate it. Why did you start this?  Why is it important?

Katie: I really kind of fell into my career by accident, and I am so grateful for all the things that have led me to this place because I cannot imagine doing anything else.  When I first began working in libraries, it became immediately obvious that there is a tremendous need for bilingual staff and services, yet libraries (like other organizations) struggle to hire and retain bilingual staff.  I learned how to do early literacy-based storytimes, and had the opportunity to incorporate Spanish and develop a Bilingual Storytime program.  The results were incredible!  Children’s faces would light up hearing and sharing in the blend of English and Spanish.  One of my favorite memories is sharing Let’s Eat / A comer by Pat Mora and hearing a boy call out, “we eat frijoles at my house!” Bilingual storytime is a wonderful way to celebrate diversity, culture and language, and I believe all of those things are important for libraries to embrace.  We must reflect the communities we serve.

However, in discussing my work, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work of so many others who have come before me.  I am extremely fortunate to be working in a completely bilingual library at a time when publishers are finally making available high-quality bilingual books for children.  None of this could have come to be without the passion, vision and perseverance of others.  A great many librarians, authors and advocates have done tremendous work to make it possible to celebrate bilingualism and multiculturalism in our libraries today.

SB:  We find that libraries are treasure troves for parents raising bilinguals, but even a more special resource for those who are homeschooling their children bilingually.  How can homeschoolers take full advantage of the library and its bilingual programs?

Katie: Talk with your librarian!  One of the reasons why I love this field is that we are a profession of people who believe in sharing!  If there is something you need but cannot find, just ask!  Most libraries participate in inter-library loan or consortium projects, which means that we can find and get for you nearly any book you want, even if we don’t own it.  Or, if you suggest us a title, we may even be able to add it to our collection!  Also, in this day and age, libraries are not just about books.  Librarians are seekers of information in all its forms.  Need an article, a website, or a database?  We’ll find it for you!  And if we can’t, we will put you in touch with someone who can.

SB:  What tips can you give parents who don’t have these special bilingual programs in their local libraries to get them started?

Katie: Again, talk with your librarian.  Keep in mind, that it is entirely possible that your library has wanted to begin a bilingual program of some sort, but has felt unable to do so because they do not have bilingual staff.  This is a tough issue for libraries.  So, if you are interested in having bilingual programs, consider sharing your skills and ideas as a volunteer.  Many libraries across the country utilize community volunteers to offer bilingual programs they do not have staff resources to provide.  Examples include:

  • The Kenton County Public Library in northern Kentucky which has partnered with community volunteers to offer bilingual cultural celebrations for years.
  • Betsy Diamant-Cohen out of Baltimore has developed an early literacy based lapsit program for babies that is available to do bilingually, called “Mother Goose on the Loose en Espanol.”  By partnering with Spanish speaking community volunteers, Children’s Librarians who do not speak Spanish can offer this program.
  • The Seattle Public Library also partners with community volunteers whom they train to offer storytime programs in many world languages.

Recent Posts