Children’s and Young Adult Books on Latino Themes

Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to get advice on children’s and young adult books with Latina/o themes from your local librarian or bookstore.  Even online reviews can be unreliable, depending on who wrote them.

Fortunately, there are several awards offered each year that recognize excellence in children’s and young adult books with Latina/o characters and themes.

For example, the Pura Belpré Awards recognize Latina/o writers and illustrators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”  This year’s Pura Belpré Award winners are, as usual, an excellent group.

The 2011 Author Award Winner is Pam Muñoz Ryan, for her book The Dreamer (Scholastic, 384 pages, grades 4-9).  The Dreamer reimagines the youth of the poet Pablo Neruda, who was born in Chile with the name Neftalí Reyes. The book explores Reyes’s self-discovery as a creative force and the development of his worldview and poetic voice.  This journey of discovery is impeded by Reyes’s domineering father, who wants Neftalí to become a successful businessman instead of an artist. Muñoz Ryan has been lauded for her “lyrical, minimalistic text” and poems in the style of Neruda.

One reviewer at Amazon.com summed up the book’s themes nicely:

Though written for children, it is a story readers of all ages will find much value in: a tale of perseverance and poetry, family and power, art and identity, written in Ryan’s sure and slightly unconventional hand. She asks her audience to ponder with Neftalí questions such as, “Where is the heaven of lost stories? Who spins the elaborate web that entraps the timid spirit? What wisdom does the eagle whisper to those who are learning to fly?” Peter Sis’s drawings that accompany the tale are airy and fantastical — a perfect illustration of Neftalí’s thoughts and experiences.

The 2011 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner is Eric Velasquez, for the book he wrote and illustrated, Grandma’s Gift (Walker Publishing Company, 40 pages, grades K-3). Set in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the book traces the details of young Eric’s day as he prepares for a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas celebration with his grandmother, then moves to a trip to the museum to view the work of Diego Velázquez as part of a homework assignment.  Seeing Eric’s fascination with the artwork, Eric’s grandmother gives him a special gift: a set of colored pencils and a sketchbook.< The committee issuing the illustration award noted the way Velasquez’s use of oil on watercolor paper allows for a warmth and depth of detail, and highlighted as well how he uses color and light to mirror the moods of the book’s characters.

The runners-up for the 2011 Pura Belpré prize include the following Author Honor Books:

¡Ole! Flamenco, written and illustrated by George Ancona, (Lee and Low Books, 48 pages, grades 3-5)

This book provides an excellent introduction to Flamenco’s highly expressive form of dancing, singing, and guitar playing. In this book students learn how to move their hands, arms, bodies, and feet to the traditional rhythms of the music. Each aspect of flamenco is explored in detail, as are the origins of the art form in India, North Africa, and the Arab world.  This photo essay also takes the reader to Santa Fe’s annual Spanish Market in July, where we see younger and older dancers perform in the town plaza.

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cub , written by Margarita Engle (Henry Holt and Company, 160 pages, grades 6-12)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, women and girls in Cuba didn’t have the freedom to roam. Yet when Fredrika Bremer visits from Sweden in 1851 to learn about the people of this magical island, she is accompanied by Cecilia, a young slave who longs for her lost home in Africa. Soon Elena, the wealthy daughter of the house, sneaks out to join them. As the three women explore the lush countryside, they form a bond that breaks the barriers of language and culture.

90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis (Roaring Brook Press, 304 pages, grades 4-7)

When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami as part of Operation Pedro Pan–which moved 14,000 children between 1960 and 1962–the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves.  The book was inspired by Flores-Glabis’s own experiences as a child in Operation Pedro Pan, and features well-developed characters and a fast-moving story.

The Pura Belpré committee also honored these runners-up with Illustrator Honor Books awards:

Fiesta Babies, illustrated Amy Cordova and written by Carmen Tafolla (Tricycle Press, 24 pages, grades preK-3)

Young children will enjoy the rhythmic, rhyming text that accompanies this cheerfully illustrated book. Featured in its pages are babies and toddlers of various skin tones, as well as the material culture of Mexican-American celebrations, including serapes, sombreros, piñatas, coronas de flores made from crepe paper, and papel picado.

Me, Frida, illustrated by David Diaz and written by Amy Novesky (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, grades K-3)

Like a tiny bird in a big city, Frida Kahlo feels lost and lonely when she arrives in San Francisco with her husband, the famous artist Diego Rivera, who was painting murals for the Pacific Stock Exchange. It is the first time she has left her home in Mexico. And Frida wants to be a painter too. However, as Frida begins to explore San Francisco on her own, she discovers more than the beauty, diversity, and exuberance of America. She finds the inspiration she needs to become one of the most celebrated artists of all time.  Booklist described the book’s charcoal and acrylic paintings as “glowing with warm, vibrant colors” that combine to “create distinctive, statuesque people within imaginatively conceived landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors.”

Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, grades K-3)

If you know the story comparing the city mouse and country mouse, this book will be familiar to you, but it has a delightful and educational twist: we see the parallel yet contrasting lives of cousins living in the U.S. and Mexico. So, while Charlies takes the subway, plays in fallen leaves, and eats pizza, Carlitos rides his bike, plays among cacti, and makes quesadillas. Tonatiuh incorporates stylized forms of ancient art from the Mixtecs and other cultures of Mexico.

Sesame Street and radical acceptance

I grew up with Sesame Street.  As a child, I loved the colorful sketches and songs, and pretty much any scene that had a Muppet in it, but especially if it featured my then-favorite, lovable, furry old Grover.  (Today I’m more of a Cookie Monster fan.)

These days, when I watch Sesame Street with my 5-year-old, I enjoy it for a completely different reason: its gospel of radical acceptance.  Long before Lady Gaga had her hit “Born This Way,” Sesame Street preached both self-acceptance and acceptance of others, no matter what their attributes or quirks.

I think this is, at heart, what troubles conservative critics of the show. Here’s the latest attack on Sesame Street; it’s expressed during a panel moderated by Sean Hannity, and it aired on FOX on June 1:

Ben Shapiro comments on Sesame Street

I was especially interested in these bits of the conversation:

Ben Shapiro, author of Primetime Propaganda: I talked to one of the guys who was originally at Children’s Television Workshop originally, and he said that the whole purpose of Sesame Street was to cater to black and Hispanic youths who don’t have reading literature in the house.  There’s kind of this soft bigotry of low expectations that’s automatically associated with Sesame Street.  If you go on the Sesame Street website, it talked about ‘when you’re bringing up your child, make sure that you use gender neutral language. Make sure that you give your boys dolls and make sure that you give your girls firetrucks.

Ah, there’s so much to unpack here, isn’t there?  First, it’s too easy to dismiss a desire to cater to underprivileged children of color as a “soft bigotry of low expectations.” If we look at the actual history of Sesame Street‘s founding, we find the show was the first to be structured entirely on sound educational research.

Sesame Street was (and is) driven by data, not sentiment

For anyone interested in the history of television, in children’s informal learning, or just in the story of how the first children’s educational television developed, I highly recommend G is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street.*  In the first essay in the book, Edward Palmer (an early member of the Children’s Television Workshop staff) and Shalom Fisch tell the story of how CTW and Sesame Street came to be, and they emphasize how thoroughly the show relied on research rather than on some liberal agenda or sentiment:

What distinguished Sesame Street (and, to a lesser degree, the contemporaneous Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) was the combination of narrowly focused and expertly planned educational curriculum, its attempt to forge the most effective possible methods of televised teaching, and its accountability to bring about rigorously measured educational results.

That isn’t to say that Sesame Street isn’t a product of a particular historical era; it very much is, and Palmer and Fisch explain how the confluence of the Civil Rights movement, greater government interest in and funding of education, and the rapid growth of public broadcasting led to the development of the first show of its kind.  Specifically, they write,

CTW’s sole initial mandate was to create, broadcast, promote, and evaluate an experimental educational television series of 130 hour-long programs that would seek to advance the school readiness of 3- to 5-year-old children, with special emphasis on the needs of youngsters from low-income and minority backgrounds.

Palmer and Fisch cite research studies of the era, including those by Benjamin Bloom (1964), Carl Bereiter (1966), and Martin Deutch (1965), which taken together showed that:

  • greater than fifty percent of “a child’s lifetime intellectual capacity” is formed by age 5;
  • beginning in first grade, low-income children of color tested substantially lower than their white, middle-class peers;
  • this education deficit continued to grow after first grade; and
  • upon achievement of a basic level of literacy, children’s and adults’ opportunities for employment, as well as other opportunities, are vastly expanded.

CTW, Palmer and Fisch explain, “could not determine which group of children would cross that line [of literacy achievement] first, [but] it could—and did—aim to ensure that the maximum number possible would do so.”  With 97 percent of households in the U.S. owning a TV, and most of them within the broadcast range of a public television station, CTW had the opportunity to improve the educational levels of millions of preschool children.

Sesame Street was not founded, as Ben Shapiro claims in his book and in his interview with Hannity, on low expectations and bigotry.  It was founded, rather, on sound research into children’s learning, and its charge was to improve the educational readiness of all children (since children of all backgrounds would be in the broadcast area of the show), but with a special interest in providing additional support to children whose parents were unable, for whatever reason, to provide them with a first-class preschool education.  The long-term goal was to help people rise out of poverty by giving children the early start they needed to develop as much intellectual capacity as they could by age 5.

But wait. . . there’s more

From the Hannity interview:

Sean Hannity: The values of young people today scare me.  Cause we’re robbing them at easrlier and earlier ages of their childhood.  They know more, they do more.

Kirsten Haglund: It’s very concerning.  They have an access to more media at a younger age than at any other time of our nation’s history.  And what you’re also seeing is more parents at work, away from their children, not monitoring what they look at. . .

Hannity: I grew up watching Green Acres and Andy Griffith.

Shapiro: Yeah, before the shift.  That was before the shift.

“The shift”?  The shift from portrayals of an era that existed only in white American nostalgia to. . . what?  Television diversified its content and practices so quickly during the four decades following the first broadcast of Sesame Street that I’m not really sure what “the shift” signifies, other than “not rural or suburban whiteness.”

The interview continued with comments about how artists (including those involved in television production) are more liberal than the rest of a society.  (I don’t buy that, but I’ll let it stand.)  I immediately thought of how totalitarian regimes try to purge intellectuals and artists from their states.  Ken Blackwell, however, identified a different target of such governments.

Ken Blackwell: If you look at any big government regime, any authoritarian, totalitarian regime, they attack two basic intermediary institutions–the family and the church.  And that’s what’s happening in our culture right now.  And it sets up an appetite for governmental largesse, government becomes the family. . .

Yes, because helping 3- to 5-year-old children establish greater intellectual capacity, with the long-term goal of ending cycles of urban poverty, is clearly an attempt to replace the child’s actual family with Big Brother.

The next couple of excerpts, however, deliver the coup de grâce:

Hannity: Liberals. . .feel like they can circumvent the values of parents when they go to school, teaching ‘em things that they themselves are teaching the opposite of.  They don’t do the basics, reading, writing, and math. . .

If liberals don’t like the basics–reading, writing, and math–why has the Obama administration embraced so much of No Child Left Behind, which focuses on reading and math?  Why is the administration, along with conservative congresspeople, trying to defund programs like the Teaching American History grants that strengthen the teaching of history in K-12?  Apparently Hannity thinks teachers are having kids watch video productions of the Communist Manifesto and whatever Judith Butler has written lately.

Haglund: But it’s a basic difference in worldview, in that usually liberals and people on the left, secular humanists, believe that human nature is ultimately good.  Whereas conservatives believe it’s not. . .

Did you catch that last bit?  Let me quote Haglund again: It’s a basic difference in worldview, in that usually liberals and people on the left, secular humanists, believe that human nature is ultimately good.  Whereas conservatives believe it’s not. . .

I would go further and say that, in my observations of television pundits, bloggers, newspaper columnists, conservatives believe that humans who are unlike themselves are especially possessed of a nature that is ultimately not good.  These pundits are not going to accept as moral or worthy of a broadcast platform anyone whose vision of the U.S. differs from their own.  These unacceptable people clearly are the ones who are responsible for “the shift” in television, for the move away from Andy Griffith and toward Sesame Street.  (Never mind all the corporations that conservatives court are the ones putting the real crap on TV.)

These folks could benefit from a good dose of radical acceptance, and particularly acceptance of the people whose lives have been made better by Sesame Street, who relied on the program to give them a crucial intellectual start in life.  It’s time to sit Shapiro, Hannity, Haglund, Blackwell, and others of their ilk down in front of a season of Sesame Street.  They need to learn to listen, to trust, and to have empathy.  And I suspect Elmo, Abby Cadaby, Grover, Cookie Monster, Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Telly, Rosita, Snuffie, Baby Bear, Oscar, Zoe, Alan, Chris, Maria, Luis, Leela, Bob, and all the other cast and crew of Sesame Street could help them learn the kind of empathy and radical acceptance of others that might make for a more productive civil discourse.

* The Kindle Edition of the book is less expensive, and you don’t need a Kindle to read it; just download the free Kindle software for computers or mobile devices.

How to talk to your kids about [whatever]

Photo by Tommy Wong, and used under a Creative Commons license

Our five-year-old son has become increasingly interested in what’s going on in the world, and since I have a habit of listening to NPR whenever we’re driving around, he hears a bit of news each morning and afternoon.  (We also have always watched The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in front of him, so he’s already fairly savvy about the ways TV news shows, and particularly those on FOX, try to manipulate their viewers.)  In the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard news about a major earthquake, mass uprisings across the Middle East, labor protests and social unrest in the U.S., and Qaddafi firing on his own people.  We do shield the boy from many news stories, but as my husband works in the news industry, there’s often some kind of news lingering in the background—be it televised, on our computer screens, above the fold of the morning newspaper, or emanating from the radio.

My husband is far better at explaining humanity’s moral failings than I am–I’m better with the natural disasters because I can get all sciencey.  I’ve been learning a lot from the spouse, but I decided recently that I should also see what the experts are saying about talking to kids about disaster, turmoil, and tragedy.  Here’s what I found:

Do what you can to make kids feel safe.  Comfort all kids, but be aware that school-age kids might be wondering if the tragedy will happen to them, regardless of whether it’s a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

Allow your children to talk about their fears.  Don’t dismiss their feelings, and make it clear that you’re listening to what they’re saying—and really hearing their concerns.

If your child is emotionally distraught, help him calm down.  Kids are better listeners when they’re calm.

Listen to your child, and respond to her concerns with phrases like “I understand” and “How can I help?”

Physically put your face on a level with your child’s and make eye contact.

When explaining natural disasters, simplify scientific explanations so they’re age-appropriate.

Be truthful but not too explicit.  You don’t need to provide a ton of detail to most kids, as it may only serve to inflame their imaginations in unproductive ways.

Explain that disasters like the one your child is worried about are rare in your city/state/country.

Repeat your message for preschoolers and other young children.  If you think it’s appropriate, have them repeat the main message back to you.  (For example, you might ask, “Are we safe?” and encourage your child to say aloud, “We’re safe.”)

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” (If appropriate, follow up with “. . .but I’ll find out.”)

Take steps to help remediate the tragedy or disaster, even if it’s remote from you geographically or culturally.  Give your child space to respond; you might ask elementary-age or older kids “What should we do to help?”  (Depending on the disaster, possibilities might include assembling hygiene kits, donating to reputable charities, or conducting a canned food drive.)

Some of these tips may seem like common sense, but the list has reminded me of several tactics I already know but don’t employ frequently enough.

Not surprisingly, most of these tips could be used to open communication with your child about racism, mental illness, homophobia, poverty, pollution, and all manner of social ills.

Want more?  I recommend Children Now’s resource page on Talking with Kids About Tough Issues.  Topics include:

Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

Public history

Prior to today, it had been several months since I had updated this blog because I’ve embarked on a new and (to me, at least) exciting project: working as a history professor and public historian.  It’s a demanding and challenging choice of career, and I’m thrilled to have landed this position in such a competitive job market for folks with humanities Ph.D.s.

What does this mean for The Multicultural Toybox?

Aside from the aforementioned hiatus, not much.  You can expect more posts soon on a variety of topics, but because history—and particularly U.S. and women’s history, which is what I’ve been hired to teach—is on my mind, chances are you’ll be seeing a more historical flavor to the site.

That said, my new job does mean I spend a good deal of time thinking about what it means to understand history, how average Americans come to know (or fail to know) U.S. history, and what we can do to get history (as well as the other arts and humanities) back into K-12 classrooms in an era of budget cuts and high-stakes testing for reading and math.  I’m revisiting my ideas for projects for Learning Trails Media, so if you have any requests for historically-themed lessons for your students (including home-schooled students), I’d love to hear them.

“Washington” is America’s “blackest name”

Booker T. Washington

As I write this, in the U.S. we’ve just celebrated Presidents’ Day and we’re concluding Black History month. Accordingly, I found this article about how 90 percent of Americans with the surname “Washington” are African American. As author Jesse Washington explains,

The story of how Washington became the “blackest name” begins with slavery and takes a sharp turn after the Civil War, when all blacks were allowed the dignity of a surname. 

Even before Emancipation, many enslaved black people chose their own surnames to establish their identities. Afterward, some historians theorize, large numbers of blacks chose the name Washington in the process of asserting their freedom.

(Apparently only a small number of George Washington’s slaves bore his last name.)

I’m curious what George Washington and his family would think of this turn of events.

The second blackest name by percentage? Jefferson.

It’s an interesting article–definitely click through to read it.

Multicultural markers, crayons, and pencils

I’m loving these “multicultural markers” from Crayola. (Tip: If you have Amazon Prime, buy these instead, as although they cost more, you’ll be eligible for that free shipping.)

If, as we do in my house, you go through a lot of markers, you might consider buying a class set, which costs considerably less per pen than the individual pack of markers.

If you prefer pencils or crayons in a variety of skin tones, you might check out these instead:

Groovy Girls multicultural dolls

I’m liking both the look and the affordability of the Groovy Girls dolls.

Check out, for example, Dela:

She has a really cute face:

And here’s Latasha:

Connor is advertised as a boy, but I like that s/he has kind of a lesbian vibe:

And then there’s Lycia:

Check out all the Groovy Girls, and let me know which one is your favorite.

Finding an Asian rag doll

A friend writes,

i can’t believe this but i’ve been searching for a asian rag dog for [my son] and i came across a site called the multicultural toybox. when i clicked on the about tab, guess whose name is there?? you’re awesome!! now help me find an asian rag doll for [him] that doesn’t have slanty eyes and wear oriental clothing!! :)

My response (which I’ve expanded a bit for this blog entry):

This is indeed a frustrating search. You have my sympathies!

Your best place to look might be Etsy, though of course there are a ton of stereotypical Asian dolls there, too. You’re going to pay a bit more than in a chain store, but if you see a doll you like there–of any ethnicity–you might be able to get the creator to make a custom doll for you with the characteristics you want. It’s very common for Etsy sellers to make custom items. Definitely do a search for “Waldorf dolls” because I’ve seen those in all kinds of skin tones, hair types, and clothing styles. They tend to have this general shape:

photo by Céline, and used under a Creative Commons license

I also like this Etsy shop a lot — – though of course you’re going to want to be sure to get a doll w/o any detachable parts like buttons.  If you like her style, but you’re crafty yourself, you definitely need to check out Hillary Lang’s Wee Wonderfuls: 24 Dolls to Sew and Love. Lang also offers relatively easy-to-sew–and very cute–doll patterns on her website.

If you’re looking for a baby rag doll, Amazon offers this Rosy Cheeks Baby:

Amazon also sells a girl version of the same doll:

Multicultural Toybox readers, what would you recommend to my friend or to others looking for similar dolls?

Little Red Riding Hood

I’m loving this doll at Etsy by henandchick:

It ties in nicely with my most recent post: why can’t we more easily reimagine characters in other ethnicities?

If she’s still available, you can purchase her for $45.

Where are the toys of color in Toy Story 3?

Some might argue a kids’ movie packed with white characters is too easy a target in this multicultural age.  I beg to differ.

My complaint about Toy Story 3 doesn’t stem just from a desire to see more diverse characters represented in a box office winner (and quality movie).  Rather, my dissatisfaction has another dimension: merchandising.  We all know how poorly represented people of color are in the mainstream toy market, and Pixar has missed a significant opportunity to address that gap in representation.

Critics of this idea might argue that including a toy of color in the film–and then creating an actual toy from the character–would be a losing proposition for Pixar, as toys of color are less popular than white character toys, even sometimes among children of color.  I argue that Pixar has a large enough media platform and merchandising empire to influence the attitudes of all kinds of children toward multicultural play.

In this age, why must Jessie be a redhead?  Or solely a redhead?  Why can’t she be, say, Latina?  Couldn’t Pixar’s merchandising division offer variations on characters so that children can see themselves represented in their everyday play, if not in the movie?

What are your thoughts?