“Working with What We’ve Got,” by Phillip Serrato

Class Picture for PS

from “Class Picture” by Kim Holt

Volume 1, Issue 1 (February 2014)
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Abstract:  

Abstract:  This work originally appeared as a blog entry on Arte Y Loqueras, in response to a 2012 New York Times article bemoaning the absence of Latino/a culture from books for younger readers. As an informal but well-informed essay, it addresses the apparent scarcity of Latino/a representation in children’s literature by directing attention to the lack of awareness of existing Latino/a books. Serrato argues that teachers, librarians, parents, and scholars must also make more deliberate efforts to search out those books that do include these representations. By doing so, both broader appreciation and richer understandings of them become possible, which can lead to more widespread adoption and use of them in different spheres. Serrato notes the profit motive guiding publishers and booksellers away from more diverse literature, and then shifts to a greater discussion on the limitations of viewing Latino/a literature simply as “multicultural,” all the while emphasizing the multifaceted importance of extant books and the possibility of more meaningful engagement with them.

 

About the Author: Phillip Serrato is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. His teaching and research interests revolve around matters of identity, sexuality, and gender (especially masculinity) in children’s and adolescent literature as well as Chicano/a literature, film, and performance. Presently he is at work on two books, one an examination of masculinity in Chicano/a literature, film, and performance from the nineteenth century to the present day, and the other a critical survey of the emergence, history, and development of Chicano/a children’s literature.

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For decades, critics, librarians, teachers, and scholars have bemoaned the paucity of Latino/a representation in children’s literature, calling for greater diversity—and less stereotyping—for a host of reasons, chief among them the validation of the ethnic and cultural identity of Latino/a child readers. Back in 1975, for instance, in a report on extant representations of Chicanos/as in children’s texts, the Council on Interracial Books for children declared, “The books surveyed are scarcely relevant to Chicano experience or interest at all. …There is very little in these books to enable a child to recognize a way of life, a history, a set of life circumstances—a culture—with which he or she can identify” (7). Twenty years later, in an interview on the surge of books for children by Latino/a authors in the 1990s, Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón voiced the same concern, reiterating the need for more children’s books with Latino/a themes and characters. “When you don’t see your own images through the media or in books,” he is quoted as saying, “you start thinking you’re weird, and your self-esteem gets bruised” (Fernandez E1).

In late 2012, we find New York Times reporter Motoko Rich sounding the same alarm. In the opening paragraph of her 4 December article “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing,” 1 Rich introduces Mario Cortez-Pacheco, an 8-year-old boy with a fondness for the Magic Tree House and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. According to Rich, as much as Mario enjoys these and other books, a lack of diversity in what he reads bothers him. She quotes him lamenting, “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color.” The boy’s (rather precocious) observation moves Rich herself to explain/commiserate, “[N]onwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers.” Noting the concern of “education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations” that “the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements,” Rich attempts to underscore the predicament of Latino/a children by citing different studies that demonstrate the relative absence of Latino/a people and culture in books for younger readers.

To be sure, a continued lack of diversity in children’s literature is problematic. Much discussion on the matter has taken and continues to take place. Since publishers play an obvious role in determining what and how much children do and do not see, calls for them to provide more diverse offerings remain necessary. But at the same time, we must not overlook the fact that a number of excellent Latino/a texts for children (and adolescents) do already exist. The problem is that a lack of awareness of these books—amongst teachers, librarians, parents, and even scholars—has left them underappreciated and, consequently, underutilized. So long as these books remain unknown and untouched, they stand little chance of making their way into the hands of younger readers. Bearing this in mind, beyond simply reiterating calls for more diversity in children’s literature—and in no way do I mean to discredit or discard such calls—I think it is just as important that teachers, librarians, parents, and scholars attempt to work with the texts that we do have. With more deliberate efforts to search out these books, learn about them, and explore what they have to offer, both broader appreciation and richer understandings of them become possible, which can lead to more widespread adoption and use of them in different spheres.

The Problem of the Profit Motive

Now what determines whether a book stays in print is quick sales and that is more about marketing and instant gratification than quality.

 –Sallie Lowenstein, author and founder of Lion Stone Books

Owing to the profit motive of publishers, a general lack of diversity in children’s literature is not surprising. Back in the 1990s, the currency, and thus the profitability, of multiculturalism enabled a brief surge in the publication (and consumption) of books for children by the likes of  Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Luis Rodríguez, Gloria Anzaldúa, Julia Alvarez, and Alarcón.2 Unfortunately, this surge did not snowball into sustained support for children’s books by Latino/a authors. As Leonard Marcus points out in a Letter to the Editor in response to Rich’s article, nowadays “risk-averse” publishers see “pink princesses” and “teenage vampires” as more likely to turn a profit—or at least a greater profit—than, say, something like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy (2005) or Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found inside a Cereal Box (2005).3 In this day and age in which publishers’ insistence on quicker and bigger returns has resulted in their diminished patience or willingness to incubate the success of worthy titles, one is hard-pressed to find works like Herrera’s in many publishers’ catalogues.4

A shared commitment on the part of booksellers to that which will most readily generate the most profit adds to the difference between the accessibility and the inaccessibility of a given text. For example, over the past 4 years the only Latino/a book that I have seen at the 10 Scholastic book fairs hosted by my son’s elementary school has been Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising (2000), a book that has become the go-to “Latino/a” text for school reading lists, many college-level children’s literature courses, and, it seems, some school book fairs. Lego Star Wars, juvenile paranormal, and tediously generic picture books have otherwise filled the shelves of the book fair year after year. Of course, such a stagnant, “risk-averse” menu precludes any opportunity for readers to chance upon and explore something new, something different, something out of the ordinary that, like Downtown Boy or Cinnamon Girl, might prove to be extraordinary.

At the local Barnes & Noble, Latino/a children’s books have not fared much better. Granted, I have at least managed, over the years, to locate picture books like Herrera’s The Upside Down Boy (2000), Alarcón’s From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems (1998), and Amada Irma Pérez’s My Very Own Room (2000). Unfortunately, I have yet to see these texts featured in any kind of prominent display that could inspire curiosity or interest in a book shopper. In fact, perhaps because they feature bilingual content, more often than not the few books that I have found have been relegated to the out-of-the way Libros en Español section of the children’s area. Such a shelving practice does not bode well for the likelihood of these books catching the attention of the broadest possible spectrum of book browsers.

The Trap of the “Multicultural” Tag

On top of the different obstacles associated with the publishing and marketing of Latino/a children’s literature, popular conceptualizations of “multicultural literature” have narrowed and ossified into a constrained perspective of Latino/a (and other “multicultural”) children’s texts. The result has been the foreclosure of some adults’ interest in these texts along with an attendant curbing of their willingness to pick them up and share them with younger readers. Consider, for instance, the effects of figurations of multicultural literature such as the following:

Reading literature about people from other cultures has been proven to have positive developmental [effects] on children of all backgrounds. For the children of a specific ethnic minority, reading positive stories about their own ethnic group can increase self-esteem and make them feel part of a larger society. For children of a “majority” group, reading stories about other cultures can increase their sensitivity to those who are different from themselves, improve their knowledge of the world, and help them realize that although people have many differences, they also share many similarities (de la Iglesia).

Generally speaking, the concept of multicultural literature provides a convenient principle for organizing efforts to diversify students’ reading experiences. In turn, it provides both a philosophy and a strategy for broadening children’s knowledge, perspective, and understanding, all of which must be fostered if we are to approach what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes as the ability “to live fearlessly with and within difference(s)” (84). But if teachers and parents only see, approach, or present Latino/a children’s texts under the auspices of “multicultural literature,” which is to say as anthropological samplings of what it is like to “be Latino,” 5 or as books that allow Latino/a children to “[see] themselves reflected in their reading,” they are seriously shortchanging and pigeonholing these texts. Such a perspective effectively reduces/restricts the utility or worth of these texts to token encounters with “diversity” (which is to say, otherness). Ultimately, as “multicultural literature,” Latino/a children’s literature becomes/remains for many consumers a potentially intimidating or estranged “other” kind of literature (which is to say, literature by, about, and for “others”).6

Transcending Tokenism, Transcending Otherness

What parents, teachers, prospective teachers, architects of the Common Core, curriculum committees, scholars, booksellers, and, yes, publishers ought to realize and explore is the splendidly polyvalent potential of Latino/a children’s literature to inspire, educate, illuminate, and connect with any and all child readers. Only with such a realization can Latino/a children’s literature be integrated more organically into K-12 curricula, library reading lists, college syllabi, scholarly conversations, school book fairs, and children’s reading habits more generally. For instance, Alarcón’s poetry provides an excellent opportunity for nurturing children’s ability to read, analyze, understand, and, ultimately, more profoundly enjoy poetry. Through collections such as Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems (1997), Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems (1999), and Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems (2001), children can explore (and thus learn about) word choice, line breaks, and imagery, and they can discover (and practice) how, as Alarcón says in Laughing Tomatoes, “A Poem makes us see everything for the first time.” With some guidance children can even get from Alarcón’s books (and I firmly believe this is possible) a primer on Imagism if not a corollary introduction to Ezra Pound (or at least select aspects of his work).

Meanwhile, Pat Mora’s Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart (2005) can be part of an introduction to tall tales as well as an inspiring, empowering example of how writers might at once work within yet also change from within a particular literary tradition. And Herrera’s aforementioned Downtown Boy is a meticulously crafted verse novel that provides a dazzling rendering of a child’s subjectivity. Among many other things, Downtown Boy lends itself to the exploration of the correlation between literary form and subject matter; discussion about the formation of the self vis-à-vis the influence of the other; and the development in younger readers of aesthetic appreciation and pleasure. That texts such as Laughing Tomatoes, Doña Flor, and Downtown Boy do what they do in ways that are not only accessible to younger readers, but that also might resonate in especially personal ways for Latino/a readers makes them that much more powerful.

Since academia can play a leading role in devising and modeling new, progressive ways of thinking, it occurs to me that children’s literature scholars can help effect a shift in how Latino/a children’s literature is regarded and handled. As professors, we work with large groups of students, many of whom are considering a career in teaching. In this role, we have a ripe opportunity both to expand how people perceive Latino/a children’s books more generally and, more particularly, to broaden prospective teachers’ understanding of the kinds of reading, writing, and thinking experiences that are possible with these books. Outside of the classroom, in our brown bag presentations, conference talks, and scholarly publications, we can explore, innovate, test out, flesh out, and demonstrate diverse methodologies for working with these texts. Presently, not a lot of scholarship exists on Latino/a children’s literature. Of the work that does exist, there seems to be a tendency toward matters of immigration and immigrant experiences in this literature. Such matters are certainly important and worthy of attention, but there is more to Latino/ children’s literature than just immigration.7 With more adventurous, more playful, more exploratory, and more aggressive scholarly attention to this literature, the formulation of new terms for understanding it that transcend the confines instituted and maintained by the tag of “multicultural literature” become possible.

Overall, then, while the relative lack of diversity in children’s literature remains a concern, we would do well to remember (or realize) that much can be done with—and gained from—the many excellent Latino/a children’s books that already do exist. If publishers and booksellers won’t promote these books or make more of them more available, teachers, librarians, parents, scholars, and other concerned parties can search them out themselves and see to it that readers of all backgrounds have not just access to these books, but meaningful, multifaceted, productive engagement with them.

A Different (But No Less Important) Matter

In the concluding paragraphs of her overview of the lack of Latino/a representation in children’s literature, Rich mentions that “a new study…by pediatricians and sociologists at the University of California shows that Latino children start school seven months behind their white peers, on average, in oral language and preliteracy skills.”  Rich then quotes a Harvard Education professor who suggests (somewhat offensively) that Latino/a children’s deficiencies in oral language and preliteracy skills mean that “what might seem like simple and accessible text for a standard English speaker might be puzzling for [some Latino/a] kids.” Through recourse to the study and the quote, Rich implies that beyond providing the recognition and validation that kids like Mario Cortez-Pacheco need, more children’s books with Latino/a themes, characters, and bodies could redress the problem of Latino/a children’s readiness for school. I cannot help but think, however, that neither the UC study nor the Harvard professor’s statement are as related to the principal subject of the article (the lack of representation of Latinos/as in children’s literature) as Rich would like her reader to believe. An assortment of social, economic, and individual factors account for Latino/a children’s underpreparedness for school.. Now, might a picture book with brown bodies or culturally recognizable elements help in the endeavor of sending Latino/a children to school better prepared? Perhaps. Perhaps this is why today we could use books similar to the series of “mini libros” that Ernesto Galarza published in the late 1960s and early 1970s (or why, if no one today will write or publish books such as these, we should go dig out Galarza’s mini libros and make them available to children).8 But to insinuate a correlation between a relative lack of such books and dismal statistics about Latino/a children’s readiness for school is a fraught move. Frankly, Latino/a children’s unpreparedness for school has more to do with (and so demands immediate action from) those of us raising Latino/a children than it does with the publishing industry.

Notes

[1] My thanks to my colleague, June Cummins, for bringing this article to my attention.

[2] Mind, with this statement I in no way mean to say that these authors were themselves merely opportunists capitalizing on market trends of the time. The turn of so many authors, especially established ones, to children’s literature at this time was actually a logical development in Latino/a literary history for various reasons. Among other things, Latino/a writers’ increased interest in writing for children reflects the exciting spirit of experimentation and activism that distinguished the time. But it is true that multicultural children’s literature constituted a lucrative sector of the marketplace for publishers in the 1990s. Consequently, the surge of published books for children by Latino/a authors in the 1990s might be seen as the result of a convergence of market realities, publishers’ opportunism, and experimentation amongst Latino/a cultural workers.

[3] These books by Herrera are beautiful, challenging, award-winning literary accomplishments that, unfortunately, are already out of print. Shortly after their publication, I mentioned to Herrera that their respective publishers did not seem to be doing much to “push” them. With a mix of resignation and disappointment, he responded that the publishers “just gave up” on them. On one hand, they did not see profit potential, or at least not enough to their liking, and so they did not put forth much of an effort to celebrate them and otherwise put them on the radar of younger readers, their parents, and/or their teachers. On the other hand, the publishers did not quite “know what to do” with these distinctive books. Rather than formulate a strategy for facilitating and encouraging readers’ interest in and engagement with Herrera’s books, his publishers allowed them to wither, focusing their energies on more easily marketable and consumable titles.

[4] In a talk delivered at San Diego State University, author and founder of Lion Stone Books, Sallie Lowenstein, provided chilling insight into the impatience that characterizes the publishing industry nowadays. Whereas in the past titles might have had 12-16 months to “be noticed and develop a following,” now, she noted, “most books have only 6 weeks to 3 months to make an impact.”

[5] One of the more egregiously tacky, unaware examples of this strand of multiculturalism is Kathleen Krull’s The Other Side: How Kids Live in a California Latino Neighborhood (1994).

[6] For this reason, I have noticed amongst some of my own students (many of whom are preparing to become teachers) an initial reticence to feel authorized to talk about a text that represents an ethnic or cultural identity, perspective, or experience that they do not share. In response, I stress to them that the potentially different subject position of an author or the potentially unfamiliar ethnic or cultural content of a text should not cause them to feel alienated from or intimidated by a given text. In this manner I hope to nurture a comfort with reading across subject positions that will enable rewarding experiences working with diverse kinds of literatures. Ideally, my prospective teachers will become not only more aware of some of the diverse kinds of literatures that are “out there,” but also unafraid of undertaking the task of guiding their own students into and through engagement with such texts. For more on the matter of multicultural literature in a college-level children’s literature course, see Robin Calland’s “It’s Not Un-American to Have One’s Feet and Tongues in Different Worlds: Overcoming Resistance to Multicultural Literature in My Children’s Literature Classroom,” an essay in which Calland discusses the outright resistance that many of her own students have expressed in response to multicultural literatures in her own courses.

[7] Along these lines, we also need from publishers support for books by Latino/a authors that feature content that does more than just provide sociological insight.

[8] As suggested by the series name, Galarza’s mini libros were endearing picture booklets intended for very young children. The first, Zoo Risa, appeared in 1968 and featured an assortment of playful verses about different zoo animals. Accompanied by black and white photographs of the animals themselves, the poems in this book introduce no less than 48 different animals. Later volumes include Historia verdadera de una botella de leche [The True Story of a Bottle of Milk] (1972) and Historia verdadera de una gota de miel [The True Story of a Drop of Honey] (1971). For an introduction to the mini libros and the transcript of an interview with Galarza about them, see Morris and Beard.

Works Cited

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Project Gutenberg EBook. Web. 11 March 2012.

Alarcón, Francisco. Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 1999.

—. From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 1998.

—. Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 2001.

—. Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 1997.

Calland, Robin. “It’s Not Un-American to Have One’s Feet and Tongues in Different Worlds: Overcoming Resistance to Multicultural Literature in My Children’s Literature Classroom.” Con-Textos: Revista de Semiótica Literaria 22.45 (2010): 63-72.

Council on Interracial Books for Children. “Chicano Culture in Children’s Literature: Stereotypes, Distortions, and Omissions.” CIBC Bulletin. 5.7-8 (1975). 7-14.

de la Iglesia, Michele. “Multicultural Literature for Children.” Ipl2. 3 Jan 2013.

Fernandez, Maria Elena. “A New Chapter on Cultural Pride.” Los Angeles Times 24 September 2000. E1+.

Galarza, Ernesto. Historia verdadera de una botella de leche. San Jose, CA: Editorial Almadén, 1972.

—. Historia verdadera de una gota de miel. San Jose, CA: Editorial Almadén, 1971.

—. Zoo Risa. Santa Barbara, CA: McNally and Loftin, 1968.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box. New York : HarperCollins, 2005.

—. Downtown Boy. New York: Scholastic, 2005.

—.The Upside Down Boy/El niño de cabeza. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 2000.

Krull, Kathleen. The Other Side: How Kids Live in a California Latino Neighborhood. New York: Lodestar, 1994.

Lowenstein, Sallie. Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series. San Diego State University, San Diego, CA. March 2013. Lecture/reading.

Marcus, Leonard. Letter. The New York Times. 10 December 2012. 10 December 2012.

Minh-ha, Trinh. Woman Native Other. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Mora, Pat. Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Morris, Gabrielle and Timothy Beard. “Evolution of the Mini Libros.” Ernesto Galarza: The Burning Light: Action and Organizing in the Mexican Community in California. 1982. 30 December 2012.

Pérez, Amada Irma. My Very Own Room/Mi Propio Cuartito. San Francisco: Children’s Book P, 2000.

Rich, Motoko. “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing.” The New York Times. 4 December 2012. 6 December 2012.

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Esperanza Rising. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

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