Bilingual is Better

An article published earlier this week in The New York Times titled “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing” has created a flurry of commentary about the dire need for more children’s books with which our Latino kids can identify. In other words, more children’s books with characters that look like them and with storylines that speak to them.

While I would love nothing more than to see all Latino authors been given the opportunity to be published, I’m having a hard time accepting that to boost reading skills among Latino children the characters in the books available to them need to look like them, as implied by the article.

First of all, what does a Latino child look like? I thought that the recent brouhaha with Disney’s Princess Sofia reminded us that Latinos come in all shades and colors. At least that’s what we were trying to prove when we asked you to share a photo of your princesa with us. If you visit our #LatinaPrincess Pinterest board, you’ll see that, in effect, our children come from all races, backgrounds and heritages. So, to say that there are not enough books out there for our Latino children to identify with is a lie because there are plenty of books with light-skinned, light-eyed, light-haired protagonists that look just like many Latino children I know — including Camila, Ana’s daughter.

Same thing goes for the Latino experience. What exactly is that? Well, it depends on whom you ask. My Puerto Rican husband’s Latino experience as an American citizen who grew up in La Isla del Encanto is nothing like my Latino experience as a Peruvian citizen who was raised in four countries in three continents before moving to the United States as a teenager. Nor is it anything like that of our own two children who were born and are being raised in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. With that I’m trying to say that if my 6-year-old daughter reads a story about a Mexican-American child making tortillas with her abuelita, she won’t be able to relate to that at all because she’s not Mexican-American and her abuelita doesn’t even know how to boil water! That, however, doesn’t mean she won’t enjoy the book.

Secondly, whoever thinks children’s love of reading comes solely from whether or not they see themselves reflected in the books they’re reading is completely delusional. As a bookworm who grew up to be a journalist in part because of my love of reading, I can tell you first hand that one thing has very little to do with the other. Let me explain why. I fell in love with books at a very young age because I felt transported to other worlds without having to leave my room. Later on, my love of books continued growing when I saw myself in the characters I read about, not because they looked like me, but rather because I identified with their stories, their hardships, their triumphs. In the end, it’s not about the color of the characters’ skins or their ethnicities, but about the authenticity of their experiences.

Truth be told, though, most of what I’ve always enjoyed reading is stuff I don’t identify with at all. Stories that enrich me and open up my mind to possibilities I didn’t even know existed. Books that teach me about the world around me and expose me to experiences I would not be privy to otherwise.

Now, a lot of people would say I’m lucky — and even unusual — because I grew up in a household full of book lovers, and they’re probably right. I honestly don’t know one single person who loved to read more than my own father who had a book or some other reading material in his hands at all times. I know for a fact that my own love of reading and literary curiosity comes directly from him, which brings me to my next and final point.

While there should definitely be more children’s books written by Latino authors, we should be more worried about whether we’re leading by example when it comes to instilling a love of reading in our children and whether we’re exposing them to all kinds of literature — not just the kind with characters that look like them.

The reason why SpanglishBaby exists today is because more than four years ago, as we were looking for bilingual and Spanish children’s books for our daughters, we realized there weren’t a lot of options. Or those that existed weren’t readily available. We weren’t necessarily looking only for books with characters our children could relate to, but rather for quality bilingual and Spanish-language ones we could enjoy with our girls to help them in their bilingual journey.

While there are not a tons of those out there, we have made it our mission to go in search for them so we can share them with all of you. Hopefully, you can help us spread the word and children’s books by publishing houses like Cinco Puntos Press, Arte Público and Children’s Book Press (now an imprint of Lew & Low) can make kids’ bookshelves more diverse — regardless of their own background and ethnicity.

{Photo by cesarastudillo}

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