The power of identification: Latinos in picture books
Almost 25% of American children are Latino, but books that depict Latinos comprise fewer than 3% of total books published for children. And out of that 3%, what images are we seeing? And who is creating these images?
Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner (Dutton Children’s Books, 2003) has been the focus of many heated debates; he's a cat who fantasizes about being a Chihuahua and speaks in a made-up pidgin Spanish that could be described as mocking Mexican people in the tradition of characters such as Speedy Gonzalez, the Frito Bandito, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
"Oh, my name is Skippito Friskito (clap-clap) / And I hunt for the dinosaur-ito (clap-clap) / With gigantico ears / That’s been buried for years / Under layers of sediment-ito.” (clap-clap)"
Speaking English in an accent borrowed directly from Charo, Skippyjon sings about banditos, rice and beans, fiestas and siestas. This is what the white world of publishing has to offer? Books that depict Latino culture with stereotypical images and tell us that Mexican accents are hilarious?We can do better.
Jalapeno Bagels by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Robert Casilla (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996) does a nice job of depicting a mixed-race (Latino/Jewish) child who is not tortured by his ethnic background. Many books about racially mixed children show the child as teased by others, not fitting into either group, wishing he were one race or the other. Pablo is doing just fine, speaking Spanish and Yiddish and baking breads and pastries from both the Mexican and Jewish cultures that his parents bring to the family. Jalapeno Bagels has real recipes from the Los Bagels Bakery & Cafe in Arcata, California in the back and a wonderful glossary for all of the Spanish and Yiddish words used in the book. The illustrations are a bit staid for my taste, indicating to the reader that this is a serious topic. I would prefer something lighter and more celebratory, as the text is not about conflict, but about happily embracing the richness of the two cultures Pablo comes from.
A much more joyful and celebratory book is Tito Puente: Mambo King by Monica Brown, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013). A gorgeous bilingual story about musician Tito Puente, Tito Puente: Mambo King truly exemplifies the mirror and window that a thoughtfully created Latino picture book can be.
No one is being mocked or belittled, it's just a pure and beautiful story about a talented musician who followed his dream of leading his own band.
Dream Drum Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
is another incredibly beautiful book about a little Cuban girl who challenged the gender roles in 1930s Cuba and became the first female drummer in Cuba's first all-girl dance band.
Stunning illustrations in acrylic paint on wood board show us the beauty of Cuba and the beauty of having a dream. Books like Dream Drum Girl show us that Latino stories are strong and beautiful and valuable and that we all have dreams. Mocking a race and a language dehumanizes and firmly places Latinos in the category of "other," while celebrating the dreams that all people have shows us that we share so much in common with each other.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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