Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans–Part One

A Bibliographic Essay and Rationale

See the Annotated Bibliography here. Or, see my video presentation here.

The reason for this theme

I have specifically been working with reluctant readers in my position as a high school ESL teacher for the past four years. The majority of my students are Latinos with ties to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I have noticed that when recreationally reading very rarely are these students drawn to multicultural books that reflect their own background. Instead when these students choose young adult books, they look for the edgy ones, full of teenaged life drama: teen pregnancies, homelessness, suicide, dystopia, drugs, gangs and cyberbullying.

Sadly, it seems that much of the multicultural young adult fiction out there about Latinos doesn’t have this same edge or at least my students and I aren’t finding it. They don’t seem to be interested in reading about the conflict of being caught between two cultures or having to obey old-fashioned parents—maybe they already live those scenarios and want the escape or adventure that books can offer. Stories of exile from oppressive political regimes and tales of tough conditions on migrant worker camps before Cesar Chavez’s activism may be distant realities for today’s teens.

As I prepared this annotated bibliography about Latino young adult literature, I wanted to identify books that were about more than just Latino culture or the inclusion of expressions in Spanish. Instead, I sought books with Latino characters that had struggles due to being a teen, not just a minority. Themes of the books I selected include: divorce, friendship, LGBT issues, poverty, gang violence, baseball, cancer, bullying, post-traumatic stress, illegal immigration, runaways and rejecting tradition. Of course some of the classic Latino themes are also present, but I wanted the plots to revolve around the teen experience overall.

What is multicultural literature?

For me, multicultural literature needs to be a window into and a mirror of parallel cultures. For outsiders of that culture, the reading experience should provide enlightenment but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” For cultural insiders, readers should be able to see themselves in protagonists who have real life adventures. Not all Latinos are the same, so readers should be able to see their race and culture represented, but also as unique and diverse. If a book is primarily geared to be a window into the culture instead of a mirror reflecting the presence of diverse protagonists, we risk characterizing these Latino characters as “the other” instead of validating them as real people. In Celebrating Cuentas, Naidoo expresses it this way:

The negative images of their culture that Latino children encounter in instructional material and children’s literature serve as broken mirrors, causing these children to feel worthless, embarrassed, or alienated, and undervaluing their cultural heritage and identity (25)… Latino children, like all children, want to see reflections of themselves (their experiences, languages, and cultures) in the books they encounter, thus affirming their self-worth and presence in society (36).

Though presenting negative and stereotyped portrayals in literature might be educationally useful for criticism and comparative purposes, I tried to keep that out of this bibliography.

About the selection process

I only looked for books that could be considered contemporary and favored books written in the past ten years. For this to still be a useful bibliography for adolescents, librarians and other adults, the books need to be accessible for purchase or lending. If a book was out of print and/or not available for me to check out at my school or local libraries, I stopped considering it. Also, by choosing more recent, contemporary works the list could remain relevant for a longer period of time.

When possible, I preferred protagonists to be high school-aged, though this was not always possible. I was looking to avoid the disconnect that historical fiction sometimes presents. I also looked for books that represented several of the Latino backgrounds in the United States, instead of a list of books based only on the Mexican-American experience with a few outliers, for example. I chose three books with Mexican themes, three Cubans, one Dominican and one Cuban-Dominican, two Puerto Rican, one Central American, and one South American themed-book. The divisions were not easy to split equally, as I found out. Several of the cultures actually had very few books to chose from. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, another group that could have merited representation in the bibliography was the Salvadorans, but there are also few books with these characters (Naidoo 20). (I only found one with Salvadoran main characters written back in 1991, Journey of the Sparrows!) Earlier this week I asked four of my Dominican students that are in class with me this year if they had ever read a book that had a Dominican character in it—every one of them said no (though some knew of movies with Dominicans). I wanted to remedy this, but I’m afraid I was unable to come up with a wealth of book choices for them.

A useful chapter in Latina and Latino Voices in Literature for Children and Teenagers included a list of guidelines as a starting point for evaluating multicultural books for bias, with specific examples for Latinos. The idea of checking the storyline was especially formative for me when considering what a good multicultural Latino book is and how I should select for the teen experience over didactic cultural content (Day 6). For example, standards of success should not be just aligned with white male behavior in order for women or minorities to “make it.” Resolving problems should not require the intervention of a benevolent, able-boded white person. The achievement of female characters should not be valued based on their relationships with males. I was also very careful with how lifestyles were portrayed. I did not want to select books that lumped all Latinos together or depicted them as exotic (Day 6-7). Some of the books on my list may not live up to these considerations, but they are worth considering nonetheless.

Nearly all the authors I selected are cultural insiders, adding to their authority, though some do write about a Latino group different than their own background. There were two who were outsiders but have close connections (through marriage/residence/job experience) that I decided to include anyway because the quality of content merited the inclusion. Interestingly, these two authors represented two of the groups for which I struggled most to find books: the South Americans and the Dominicans. I know of several Latino authors that are prolific writers of historical fiction, for example on Cuba’s “Peter Pan” refugee children or escaping Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. It seemed very unfortunate that such groups do not have many authors writing contemporary realistic fiction in the United States.

Since I was looking for specific cultures to be represented in my annotated bibliography, I did not start with the lists of the major awards for Latino children’s literature, such as the Pura Belpré award, the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature or the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. Instead, I wanted to be able to search by culture and then narrow the results according to their reviews and awards. I used the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD) to begin this process. I have become proficient with this database through my employment at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) and find it to be an effective way to get an impression of the quality of a book. It is also a powerful tool for searching books included in CCBC Choices, but fall outside of the themes of the librarian-created bibliographies on the CCBC website. At the CCBC, I am responsible for maintaining the records of awards and distinctions for the books in our collection; in this way, I have become familiar with several of the bigger literature awards. For example, even if a book was not awarded or commended by one of the three above-named Latino book awards, but I noticed it was honored by CCBC Choices, listed in publications by similar peer-institutions like Bank Street College of Education or the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB), or is part of several of the quick picks lists compiled by the American Library Association, I made sure to consider it.

Once I had a short list of candidates for representing each Latino group, my next steps were to identify what the major themes of the books were and what the gender of the main character was to determine if I had a decent balance. I tried not to repeat any major themes and had to reject a couple books because of this. If a major theme occurred in two books, but the main characters had different genders, I tried to select accordingly to maintain a balance of male and female characters. I ended with five male protagonists and seven females.

I identified a few holes, namely in Puerto Rican, Dominican and South American titles. From there, I started searching other organizations’ lists and websites, such as Diversity in YA, Rich in Color, ¡Colorín Colorado! and AdLit.com. I also consulted with the school librarian I work with and one of the librarians at the CCBC. Some of the recommendations offered by these librarians were contenders, but a couple did not work out when I could not locate a copy to borrow. Some books like Red Hot Salsa, edited by Lori Marie Carlson, though highly reviewed, I suspect appeal more to adults than to adolescents (at least without prodding). I also rejected books that seemed a little too young for this list. There are a few titles, however, that are probably aimed at middle level readers, such as The Color of My Words and Heat, but their theme (or lack of better choices) made them worth keeping.

As I alluded to above, not all books were exactly a fit with the philosophy I have described. For example, Enrique’s Journey is nonfiction, unlike the other fiction titles, but merits a place because of Nazario’s vivid descriptions of the situation and her artful articulation of research into a plot. Gringolandia questionably does not have a contemporary setting, being that it takes place in 1986, but the real-life aspect of dealing with a resentful family member makes for a very powerful story. I also hesitated to include two books by the same author, Judith Ortiz Cofer, but I found very few contemporary Puerto Rican stories and she seemed to be the most prolific author with quality work.

My realizations

Young adult literature can be edgy and even controversial, but it seems that it is exactly this that teens are drawn to. I did not shy away from tough topics in multicultural Latino literature because edginess seemed to be the best way to really explore the Latino adolescent experience in an authentic way. The most frustrating part for me was discovering the lack of Dominican and Puerto Rican works. After all, Puerto Rico is part of this country and the biggest Latino group in the United States after Mexico (Naidoo 20), so it’s hard to understand how this could be possible. In this respect, it is additional evidence of how people of color continue to not be adequately represented or included in children’s literature.

References

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. Accessed April 1, 2014. http://www.clcd.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/

¡Colorín Colorado! Accessed April 3, 2014. http://www.colorincolorado.org/

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Advanced Book Search.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Accessed April 1, 2014. http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/booksearch/advanced.asp

Day, Frances Ann. “Evaluating Books for Bias.” Latina and Latino Voices in Literature for Children and Teenagers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

“Hispanic Heritage.” All About Adolescent Literacy: Resources for Parents and Educators of Kids in Grades 4-12. http://www.adlit.org/books/c819/

“Hispanic Heritage Month.” Rich in Color. Last modified September 24, 2013. http://richincolor.com/2013/09/hispanic-heritage-month/

Naidoo, Jamie Campbell, ed. Celebrating Cuentos: Promoting Latino Children’s Literature and Literacy in Classrooms and Libraries. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011.

Pon, Cindy, and Malinda Lo. Diversity in YA. http://www.diversityinya.com/ Accessed April 3, 2014.

Schliesman, Megan, Kathleen T. Horning and Merri V. Lindgren. “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Last modified 2012. http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/detailListBooks.asp?idBookLists=253

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