The Cay: A Critical Analysis

The CayWritten in 1969 by Theodore Taylor, The Cay is the story of a white boy, Phillip, who gets stranded on a cay with an elderly, black West Indian stranger named Timothy after German submarines in the Caribbean torpedo their ship. Phillip is initially weary of Timothy due to prejudice instilled in him by his mother, but has to depend on Timothy and his survival experience, especially since Phillip has no vision due to a nasty head injury sustained during the shipwreck. As Timothy provides for them and teaches Phillip independence and survival skills, Phillip has a change of heart and grows to care for Timothy, despite their racial differences. When a hurricane ravishes the island, Timothy physically shields Phillip from the wrath of the storm. Timothy is severely weakened by the injuries and unable to recover. It is then up to Phillip, alone and still sightless, to orchestrate his own rescue. The book is a simple coming-of-age story, exploring prejudice and acceptance. In the fight for survival against the elements, the friendship between the characters grows and we see a transformation in Phillip as he realizes the sacrifice and selflessness that Timothy has offered.

Controversy and Racism in the Book

When Theodore Taylor wrote this novel, it was well-intentioned and initially well-received. The following year, it received the 1970 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which is awarded annually to “children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence” (Jane Addams Peace Association). In the years that followed, however, it drew criticism for being a racist novel, especially from the Council on Interracial Books for Children (also known as the CIBC), leading to Taylor’s decision in 1975 to return the prize.

Jane Addams book awardTaylor wrote the book from the perspective of a “racially programmed” 11 year-old white boy. He states that he very intentionally wrote Phillip’s racist descriptions and reactions to Timothy in order to drive the theme of change (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 286). Even Timothy’s use of the expression, “young bahss” for the first 40 pages of their relationship (Taylor, The Cay 30-72) is a deliberate use of dialect to show the social relationships between white and black people during this time period. The CIBC claims that Timothy’s characterization is harmful to children and “conforms to the traditional stereotype of the faithful slave or retainer who is happy to serve and even sacrifice his life for his ‘young bahss’” (CIBC 283). However, to be considered historically and regionally accurate, from Timothy’s Calypso dialect, taken from Taylor’s first-hand experiences in the Caribbean to the initial relationship between Phillip and Timothy, The Cay needed to unfold as written. Taylor felt that Timothy was compassionate and could patiently “cope with the mindless mouthings of a child” (Taylor, “In the Mailbag, 287). Marianne (57) cites the explanation in Pearson Education’s “Teacher Notes” on the book,

It is important in the novel that Timothy is black, and Phillip white… Like black people in many parts of the world at that time, [Timothy] would still have felt any white person to be his social superior… This is why he calls Phillip ‘young boss’ [sic]. Yet despite this, the friendship that grows between Timothy and Phillip is simply that between an old man and a young boy, not between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ or even black and white.

It would not have been realistic for Timothy to speak or act differently, even if critics think that his character is negatively stereotyped.

Instead, there are several places in the novel that we see evidence of Phillip’s growing acceptance, one being on page 72 when he asks Timothy to shed the title of “young bahss”. Taylor wanted Phillip to reach the point of symbolic color-blindness, in addition to his literal blindness (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 287). At first we hear it in Phillip’s thoughts (76): “I moved close to Timothy’s big body before I went to sleep. I remember smiling in the darkness. He felt neither white nor black” and then in his words (100): “Timothy, are you still black?” Though perhaps a perspective of a white person wishing whiteness on a person of color, the receding of Phillip’s prejudice is still a dramatic change.

Place in School Libraries and Curriculum

From an intellectual freedom standpoint, I believe that it is important to provide access to titles that might be considered to be controversial so that readers can compare and critically review them if they wish. Knowing that there has been some controversy surrounding The Cay and that readers continue to seem interested in the book (according to my “nonscientific” analysis of demand at my high school library), I would consider purchasing it for a school library. That said, I would be cautious in my recommendation for elementary school libraries because I believe the book is meant for a middle level audience.

The protagonist may only be a couple years older than some elementary students and the reading level may also be a fit—elements that can indicate age-appropriateness. Many librarians and teachers are comfortable with encouraging readers to shoot high and read books meant for older readers as a way to increase reading skill. However, when a book is challenged and criticized for racial stereotyping, for example, as in the case of The Cay, it is important to consider the critical thinking abilities of the readers. Without guidance, younger children may not identify content as problematic and it would be a disservice to include such titles as multicultural literature for recreational reading. This is not to say that elementary readers couldn’t handle this text in language arts or social studies curriculum under the tutelage of an experience teacher. Placement in middle school and high school libraries makes more sense to me. These readers are more likely to be able to identify critical material outside of classroom instruction. Though high school students will be slightly older than the main character, the plot is still engaging.

In the case of curriculum, elementary teachers might find ways to pair this book with another book, perhaps something more contemporary, written about similar themes such as cross-cultural acceptance or personal transformation. In this way, teachers can provide students with another reference point and discourage the acceptance of a text at face value without using a critical lens to examine its weaknesses. Ideally, however, this book fits better in the curriculum of older students. High schoolers may find The Cay to be a quality specimen of multicultural work that came out of the 1960s and interesting in the context of that social climate. For example, Taylor’s book dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King is an example of evidence that students might consider in their analysis. A unit associated with a 10th grade U.S. History course (perhaps collaboratively with a 10th grade English Language Arts course) would work really well with The Cay, given the abilities and course content involved. I could see middle school language arts and social studies curriculum approaching this book with either (or both) of my elementary and high school suggestions. Similar to several of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (60), the primary goals of including The Cay in curriculum would be to use the text in a critical way that asks students to analyze how themes develop and assess how the author’s background shapes the content.

Informing My Recommendations

In my analysis, I looked for critical reviews of The Cay from the period when it was published, as well as more contemporary reviews. I found primary sources written by Theodore Taylor and a main detractor, the CIBC, in the “In the Mailbag” column of the American Library Association’s Top of the News publication. It was important to me to hear the author explain his rationale and defend his work in his own words. I also needed to find alternative views that conflicted with my own so that I was confident in my rationale.

I tried to only consult sources by those considered to be authorities in the field of multicultural and children’s literature. For example, Horn Book and its writers have a well-respected reputation among librarians. A blog article I found was also written by a former contributor to Horn Book and in the comments section of the post, I noticed that Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (and someone whom I respect very much), had participated in the discussion.

It was useful to examine the historical context of the book and our country at the time it was published (and criticized). By referencing the Common Core State Standards, the criteria for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Materials Selection Policy of the school district where I work, I was able to consider core values common to teachers and librarians choosing books and driving curriculum.

Place in Multicultural Literature

Multicultural literature includes books that serve as windows into and mirrors of parallel cultures. The reading experience should provide enlightenment for cultural outsiders but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” Cultural insiders should be able to see themselves, as if in a mirror, in characters experiencing real life adventures, triumphs, and failures. We need multicultural literature because all children in a democratic society deserve representation in the social and academic culture of that society. If we expect to grow as a society, we need to hear everyone’s voice. It is difficult to hear those who cannot be heard on a larger scale and are absent from our media. Multicultural books can be that equalizer though.

It is perhaps not as simple as Taylor suggests—that the example of Phillip’s change of heart might inspire a white audience to be more accepting of racial differences. However, the CIBC’s attempts to keep this book out of recommended lists, schools, and libraries could actually be considered censorship (Bader 663). Instead, as Susan Griffith suggests in her article, ““So the Very Young Understand”: Reframing Discussion of The Cay” (31) that these criticisms brought up in the 1970s can push readers to evaluate what we can learn from the racism in the book. Even Beryle Banfield, former President of the CIBC, suggests that controversial portrayals of African Americans in literature is likely a long-term dilemma that is best handled by creating an education that develops understandings between people and cultures (22).

By teaching students how to read critically and consistently providing multicultural texts written by cultural insiders and outsiders, we as educators and librarians can promote positive change in the identity formation and understanding of our youth. Books such as The Cay were formative in helping the dominant culture see multiple perspectives. The discussion and controversy around books like this can also have the positive effect of challenging the status quo and encouraging analytical thinking.



Bader, Barbara. “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children’s Literature.” The Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November 2002): 657-673.

Banfield, Beryle. “Commitment to Change: The Council on Interracial Books for Children and the World of Children’s Books.” African American Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 17-22.

Council on Interracial Books for Children. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3 (April 1975): 282-284.

Griffith, Susan C. ““So the Very Young Know and Understand”: Reframing Discussion of the Cay.” The Horn Book Magazine 88, no. 5 (September 2012): 27-31.

Jane Addams Peace Association. “What are the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards?” Jane Addams Peace Association. Accessed May 11, 2014.

Marianne. “A Comparative Analysis of Racism in the Original and Modified Texts of The Cay.” Reading in a Foreign Language 19, no. 1 (April 2007): 56-68.

Sieruta, Peter D. “Collecting Children’s Books: This One Really Did Happen.” Collecting Children’s Books (blog), April 7, 2009,

Taylor, Theodore. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3(April 1975): 284-288.

Taylor, Theodore. The Cay. 1969. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2002.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading.” Common Core State Standards for Literacy in All Subjects. Last modified September 2011.

Yaqui Delgado Kicks Ass

A Book Talk: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans

Here is a screencast of my presentation of my annotated bibliography and a featured book: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. (I used Screencast-o-Matic, because it’s an alternative to Jing I’ve been meaning to try. Decent results! It doesn’t have the 5-minute time limit–which I didn’t need to worry about this time. Generally it doesn’t have to be installed either because it’s web-based, though its Java doesn’t cooperate with Chrome on a Mac.)

P.S. Sorry about my yet-again congested voice. (I was on something like round 8-gazillion of 2013-2014 illnesses when this was recorded!)

This “book-talk” is a highlighted in my annotated bibliography entitled, “Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans.” (Also, see my Bibliographic Essay and Rationale here.) I was looking for YA books whose primary theme was the teen experience (like “life drama”), inside of focusing only on the Latino experience. I also wanted a relatively equal representation of the Latino groups in the U.S.

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

An Annotated Bibliography

See the Bibliographic Essay and Rationale here. Or, see my video presentation here.

Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Call Me María. 2004. Reprint, New York: Scholastic, 2006.

Worried about her father’s depressive state, María decides to move with him to a barrio in New York to look after him and seek an education, leaving her mother behind in Puerto Rico. María tries to fit in, get used to English (and Spanish) and stay neutral as she witnesses her parents’ marriage deteriorating. Perceptive and introspective María expresses herself in a mix of poems, prose, and letters home to her mother. More than just an immigration story, Call Me María is a collage of emotions and strength that reads easily. Ages 12 and up.

If I Could FlyCofer, Judith Ortiz. If I Could Fly. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

When Doris’ mother abruptly leaves for Puerto Rico after a health scare, Doris anxiously hopes she will return. Two months later, her mother confirms that she will not be coming back to New Jersey and her life with Doris’ father as a salsero singer. Doris feels alienated by her father’s move to get a new girlfriend and tries to fend for herself. She turns to her friends, Arturo, Yolanda, her elderly neighbor Doña Iris, and the homing pigeons on the roof. Misfortune strikes them too and Doris wishes she could just escape. After a visit to her mother in Puerto Rico, though, she realizes it’s better to confront your problems than to run from them. Full of life-drama, this book will appeal to adolescents dealing with the grief of divorce and tragedy. Ages 13 and up.

Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. New York: HarperTeen, 2008.

Laura gets expelled from Catholic school and, subsequently, her house when the nuns and her Cuban mother discover that she is a lesbian, also known as a “tortillera” in the Miami Latino community. Her girlfriend, Marlena’s family reacts by sending her back to Puerto Rico to marry a man. Thankfully, Laura is not completely alone and is taken in by her best friend Soli and her mother Vivi. Laura attempts to find herself through several experiments with relationships, all the while maintaining her optimism. Teens will relish the dichotomy of the humor and pain in Laura’s story. Ages 14 and up.

Color of My WordsJoseph, Lynn. The Color of My Words. New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 2000.

Ana Rosa is a dreamer who longs to become a writer, always stealing away scraps of paper to write her poems and stories on. Her impoverished life in the Dominican Republic leaves little hope, especially after she witnesses her brother’s death trying to protect her the day of her thirteenth birthday. She temporarily gives up writing until she realizes the healing power of telling her brother’s story—and her own—with words. Full of beautiful, descriptive language, this story lends itself well to read-alouds and celebrates the triumph of human resilience. Ages 10 and up.

López, Lorraine. Call Me Henri. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2006.

In a rough urban landscape of gangs, beatings, death and abuse, Enrique juggles a complicated existence between a middle school trying to assimilate him with ESL classes and the care of triplet baby brothers that he has assumed responsibility for at home. Privately, he wishes he could just learn French, a language much closer to his native Spanish. After witnessing a drive-by shooting and his own safety now threatened, supportive and sympathetic teachers intervene and arrange for an escape that is a fulfillment of Enrique’s dream. Tension and action pair with hope in this realistic account of a Mexican-American teen’s life in the barrio. Ages 12 and up.

HeatLupica, Mike. Heat. New York: Philomel Books, 2006.

Michael Arroyo is a talented baseball player with a problem. Ironically, it is the same talent that is threatening his future. Rival coaches don’t believe that he could be so good at twelve, but Miguel has no way to prove his age since his birth certificate is back in Cuba! What’s more, Michael has no parents left and if social services finds out that his dad passed away, they will put him and his older brother Carlos in foster care. Their hope is to hide the truth for a few more months until Carlos turns eighteen. There is a fairytale ending in store, but readers will appreciate the snappy dialogue and the passion Michael has for his sport. Ages 11 and up.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Under the Mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2011.

Lupita’s mother is dying of cancer and their close knit-family feels like it’s unraveling as the disease takes her away. Papi takes care of her mom while Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. After her mother’s death, Lupita struggles with grief and sustaining the will to move forward with what she and her mother saw as goals for herself. She visits and seeks support from family in both Mexico and Texas and eventually comes to peace and finds herself ready to face her future. Beautifully written and entirely in verse, Under the Mesquite offers an honest look at loss, family and love. Ages 12 and up.

Yaqui DelgadoMedina, Meg. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2013.

When Piddy Sanchez is told that a stranger at her new school named Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass, she is utterly confused. Though Piddy is half-Dominican and half-Cuban, she is scorned by a rough group of Latino girls for being too white and too smart. At first, she tries to ignore the threats, but the bullying escalates from verbal abuse to physical confrontations. Piddy’s once-strong grades fall and she begins skipping school due to her constant fear of being attacked. There is no simple solution to the problem, but first Piddy has to at least break the silence. Meg Medina skillfully explores the complexity and difficulty of bullying situations, while accurately portraying the terror and conflicting emotions of a victim. This is a valuable, yet realistic book for teens and the adults in their lives. Ages 12 and up.

Miller-Lachmann, Lyn. Gringolandia. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2009.

Daniel Aquilar’s family fled to Madison, Wisconsin, after his father Marcelo was arrested, held and tortured as a military prisoner in Chile. After six years, his father is released and rejoins the family in 1986, but is thoroughly jostled by the adjustment to a new place—“Gringolandia,” he calls it. Daniel and his “gringa” girlfriend Courtney witness the damage that the trauma has caused with mixed emotions. Though in wretched shape, Marcelo is still an activist yearning to continue the fight in Chile and Daniel is led to reconcile his conflicted attitude toward his former country and roots. This novel provides a hard-hitting look at the effects of oppression, post-traumatic stress and healing. Ages 15 and up.

Enrique's JourneyNazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013.

Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, left her children behind in Honduras when Enrique was only five in order to seek relief from poverty and go find work in the United States. Like many children in this situation, Enrique is utterly lost and confused by the absence of his mother, so he sets off eleven years later, determined to find her again, on a treacherous journey across Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico—mostly on the tops of freight trains. Their reunion is not without its ups and downs either as they try to heal the pain and resentment of the separation. Sonia Nazario conducted her research first-hand and traced the journey of this real migrant boy. This book is a young adult adaptation of her 2007 book for adults updated with current immigration statistics, but it does not gloss over the true perils (such as maiming, rape, beatings and death) these migrants face. It is an eye-opening, humanizing look at immigration, sure to trigger discussion. Ages 14 and up.

Osa, Nancy. Cuba 15. New York: Delacorte Press, 2003.

Violet Paz lives in Chicago and doesn’t know much about her half-Cuban roots, nor does she really speak Spanish. She definitely is not interested in having a quinceañera, the traditional Latina coming-of-age party complete with tiaras and frilly pink dresses. But when her abuelita from Miami comes to visit and begins making plans for a “quince,” she eventually accepts. During the preparations, Violet learns a lot about what it means to be Cuban and manages to find a way to make the party her own. Sassy, fun and rich in culture, the reader will have a ball on this romp through a Latino tradition. Ages 12 and up.

We Were HerePeña, Matt de la. We Were Here. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Miguel Castañeda is sentenced to a year of juvie in a California group home. He and two friends he makes there, Mong and Rondell, hatch a plan to bust out and escape to Mexico. They make their way down the coast with a wad of stolen money and hopes of starting over. Miguel keeps a journal of their adventure as he tries to come to terms with his crime and cultural identity, revealing a side most would not see from appearances. The journey comes full circle as two of the boys end up heading back to where they started. This is an intense, gripping story about troubled teens that even reluctant readers will enjoy. Ages 15 and up.

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 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.


Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. Accessed April 1, 2014.

¡Colorín Colorado! Accessed April 3, 2014.

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Advanced Book Search.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Accessed April 1, 2014.

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.

“Hispanic Heritage Month.” Rich in Color. Last modified September 24, 2013.

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. 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.

Reader’s Response Journal: Seedfolks


Fleischman, Paul. Seedfolks. New York: Joanna Cotler Books-HarperCollins, 1997. Print.


Thirteen unrelated voices come together one at a time narrating the evolution of an inner-city community garden from a garbage-ridden empty lot. When a young Vietnamese girl plants some lima beans as an offering to the father she never knew, she unknowingly begins a movement and inspires her community to join her in changing the empty space. Friendships grow along with the plants as characters such as a British nurse and her stroke-affected elderly patient, a pregnant teenager, a son of a Haitian taxi-driver, a lovesick former bodybuilder, and a feisty community advocate describe their experiences with the project. Each shares their hopes and worries, solve problems, and begin to care for each other and their neighborhood. The harvest celebration at the end of the summer is evidence of how far they’ve come.


A vacant lot (and the neighborhood surrounding it) in contemporary Cleveland, Ohio.

Point of View:

13 different 1st person voices


Community pride, responsibility, self-sustenance, bridging differences, immigrants, gardening.

Literary Quality:

Each character’s story is developed in a single vignette marked by their first name and an illustration of their face at the beginning of the chapter. Their viewpoints eventually overlap with experiences of other people in the community. There is not a conflict to hold the story together or create a plot around and the characters receive one opportunity to speak their minds. It is up to the reader to piece together the story and see the interconnectivity. The text is succinctly written and layered with humor, prejudice, strength, and growing understanding.

Cultural Authenticity:

Though Paul Fleischman had never lived in the Cleveland neighborhood he described, he had other life experience with multiethnic cities.  His characters are diverse and life-like, each having depth and their own histories. He did research and talked to people about community gardens and the city of Cleveland. The inclusion of multiple cultures and immigrant groups is a celebration of the diversity that composes many urban communities.


This book would be appropriate for middle school readers. The brevity of the text lends itself well to read-alouds and may also appeal to reluctant older readers. Upper elementary readers could probably handle the book, though some of the characters’ issues may be of less interest (such as teen-pregnancy or wooing an ex-girlfriend).

Personal Reaction:

Reading this book was a delightful experience for me. There is a small community garden not far from where I live that I often run by. I have never stopped to talk to any of the gardeners, but I am curious to know how they have procured their own space in it. I am a notorious plant-killer and have had very little luck with my own houseplants, but now I am kind of inspired to try again. Perhaps with the help of the natural elements and a small space (like a pot on my deck) I might be successful growing my own herbs or something. I really appreciated Fleischman’s inclusion of all kinds of community members that might come together and grow through such an experience. I especially liked Leona, who figured it “wasn’t a job for no wheelbarrow. This was a job for the telephone” and then she went to task calling the city to get the garbage cleaned up. (Given my history with plants, I would probably have been more useful on the phone like that too…) Each person had something to offer!

Reader’s Response Journal: Take Me Out to the Yakyu

Take Me Out to the YakyuCitation:

Meshon, Aaron. Take Me Out to the Yakyu. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers-Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.


A biracial boy compares the game of baseball with his grandfathers in America and Japan. In each country the transportation, souvenirs, snacks and even fan behavior surrounding baseball culture are different. However, for baseball fans like the boy and his grandfathers, the excitement and enjoyment are the same, no matter the country. The grandson’s love for the game and his two identities is clear as he describes his day out to the ballgame.


A baseball outing in contemporary United States and Japan

Point of View:

1st person (grandson)


Baseball, fan behavior, biculturalism, grandparent-grandchild relationships

Literary Quality:

The book compares single elements of a baseball outing with the American experience mostly on the left pages and the Japanese counterpart on the right. Japanese words are placed in similar positions in the sentences so that readers can deduce the concepts from context. When there are universal elements, the text is shared between both pages.

Quality of Illustrations:

The illustrations are two-dimensional, done in bright paint colors and chunky bold lettering. The color themes in the illustrations are coded in shades of blue for America and red for Japan. The detail between scenes includes rich cultural nuances for readers to compare.

Cultural Authenticity:

Through the use of side-by-side comparison with analogous illustrations, Meshon shares aspects of Japanese life and baseball culture with the reader. An American, Meshon’s insights into Japan come from his Japanese wife, with whom he shares a passion for baseball and has attended ballgames in the United States and Japan. At the end of the book, there is a bilingual glossary of baseball terms and other fun words, including the Japanese symbol for each. There is also an author’s note giving longer explanations of the history of baseball, game length, baseball fields and mascots in both countries.


With its short texts and bold, simple illustrations, this book would be appropriate for preschool- through early elementary-aged children. It will also be appealing to young sports enthusiasts.

Personal Reaction:

Based on the abstract I saw before reading this book, I expected a tale focusing on a bicultural boy’s relationship with his two grandfathers. Instead the book primarily turned out to be a comparison of baseball between two countries and the grandson was actually a vehicle for showing the similarities and differences. It was delightful to learn about cultural differences in this way, even if I am not a big baseball fan myself. I loved the small details like the paper and electronic tickets, how the smiley faces on characters differed or the fanny-packs versus small satchels. This was a sweet book and a great introduction to cultural differences, through a pastime enjoyed by many.

Reader’s Response Journal: Shabanu


Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. 1989. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf-Random House, 2003. Print.


Shabanu, a Pakistani girl on the cusp of womanhood, and her family are preparing for her older sister Phulan’s upcoming marriage. Shabanu struggles with the kind of obedience and womanly work that will be expected of her once she too is married. The wrath of an embarrassed landowner tragically alters the plans for Phulan’s future. In order to calm the turmoil, Shabanu is pledged in marriage to the landowner’s powerful, much older brother. Shabanu is faced with the choice between the wellbeing of her family and her own happiness.


The Cholistan desert of modern-day Pakistan

Point of View:

1st person (Shabanu)


Gender roles, duty to family, coming of age, obedience, inner strength

Literary Quality:

The novel is rich with description, painting a lively picture of desert life. There is a glossary of Pakistani terms included, as well as a helpful map of the area and a pronunciation guide of the names of characters and their relationships to each other. The book won the 1990 Newbery Honor Medal and several other honors. It is a well-written book with a gradual plot that explodes into a difficult conflict for a main character that the reader has grown to know.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author is a journalist who spent time living and researching among the camel-herding people of the Cholistan desert. The main character, Shabanu, is actually based on a girl that Staples met there. Pakistani vocabulary is integrated into the text. Descriptions of culture and religion give the reader an insider’s view of life in this part of the world. Arranged marriage is handled sensitively and neutrally, though it is likely foreign and confusing for much of the book’s readership.


This book is appropriate for middle school readers, though older readers may also find value in it as a look into another culture. Because the novel focuses on the life of a young woman, boys may be less interested, but the book does not seem alienating toward males. There is a lot of setting and character development at the beginning of the book, which may frustrate readers used to action-filled plots.

Personal Reaction:

I was happy that this book began with a pronunciation guide for names and a map of the area so that I could visualize and correctly say the character names in my head. I did not realize that there was a glossary of terms though until I had finished the book because it was at the end. As a reader then, I had to accept a level of ambiguity for words that I could not decipher much more than their category from the context. For example, I figured that chapati was some kind of food and the chadr was a Muslim veil, but I couldn’t guess what the food was or picture how much the veil covered. I spent much of the book waiting for some kind of horror of arranged marriage to be exposed and for the sisters to be more negative about it. When Shabanu’s bad luck is revealed, it is presented as a solution, although her family is very aware that it probably isn’t ideal but they aren’t sure what else to do.  Though I expected such a conflict, I was surprised at the neutrality and humanity with which it was handled. I left the book feeling curious about what would happen next to Shabanu.

Reader’s Response Journal: American Born Chinese

American Born ChineseCitation:

Yang, Gene Luen, and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.


The Monkey King longs to be a powerful god but ends up trapped under a mountain until he learns humility by accepting his true nature as a monkey. Danny is horrified by the visit of his nuisance, stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee who seems set on embarrassing him. Jin Wang is a Chinese American boy who hates being one of the few Asians at his school and longs to fit in with an American girlfriend. Eventually, through a conflict between Jin Wang and his immigrant friend Wei-Chen, we learn that the seemingly unrelated storylines of the Monkey King, Chin-Kee, Danny, Jin Wang and Wei-Chen are actually just different manifestations of the same lesson. Jin Wang and the others learn that a Chinese American identity is complicated, yet significant, and there is still a lot discover.


Heaven, probably “long ago” in China. Chinatown and Oakland, California (or possibly some other ethnically white-dominant American town), during a contemporary time period.

Point of View:

3rd person


Identity, biculturalism, relationships, escapism, stereotyping, racism, shame, conformity, coming-of-age

Literary Quality:

Yang skillfully weaves a complex and rich storyline together in a seemingly simple graphic novel form. The illustrations do not lessen the powerful message and themes of the book. The use of humor and hyperbole make for a story that is engaging to youth, while exploring serious topics. This book can also serve as a strong example of the potential of graphic novels as quality literature. Among others, it received a Printz Award and was a National Book Award Finalist.

Quality of Illustrations:

The illustrations of characters and their surroundings are memorable and interesting. They also create an obvious satire that helps support the identity conflict of the main characters. The colors are vivid yet muted, with bright tones for action and more subdued hues for serious moments. Important ideas and words are represented with bolded text.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author, like his protagonist Jin Wang, is the son of Chinese immigrants and grew up in California. By making it very obvious that Chin-Kee is a stereotyped character and confronting issues common to many Asian-American youth, Yang successfully portrays bicultural identity formation. Yang also creatively included traditional elements from Chinese culture through the fable of the Monkey King as well as American pop culture like Transformers and Ricky Martin music. There are even Chinese characters included around page borders and in the illustrations (though no real explanation of their meanings).


This book seems to be aimed at a middle school and high school audience. There is some juvenile humor (the monkey urinating on the god-figure’s hand or Chin-Kee peeing in a boy’s Coke) and some sexual references (“you can pet my lizard” and “bear Chin-Kee’s children”). Since the book does combine several story strands together, it might be difficult for concrete-thinkers to fully comprehend the final message without several re-reads.

Personal Reaction:

This book was my first serious experience with a graphic novel that could be considered literature. I have probably only read one other, and it was a random, uninformed book selection that did not leave me wanting for more. Initially with American Born Chinese, I struggled to see how the stories were interrelated, even as I finished the book. It took more several more looks to see the layers and the complexity of the satire in Chin-Kee’s depiction. It even took me a bit to recognize the symbolism in the Monkey King’s evolution as a character. However, when I finally understood the parallels between Danny and Jin Wang and then Chin-Kee and Wei-Chen (as well as the ties between Jin Wang, Wei-Chen and the Monkey King), I realized the brilliance of Yang’s text. In creating such an intricate story, he also defined the complex nature of what it means to be Asian-American.

Reader’s Response Journal: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the MoonCitation:

Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009. Print.


After witnessing the sacrifices of her parents and continually hearing the despair of her mother over their poverty, young Minli decides to leave on a journey to consult with the Old Man of the Moon on how to change her family’s fortune. During her journey she befriends a lonely, flightless dragon, an orphan boy who tends to a water buffalo, a king masquerading as a beggar, and a set of twins who defeat a dangerous tiger. Each of them helps her get closer to her destination while teaching her the value and meaning of life. When she finally meets the Old Man of the Moon, she is given the opportunity to ask only one question of him and is faced with a choice that ultimately changes the life of her family and entire village.


Traditional Historic China, near the Jade River and the mountains.

Point of View:

3rd person


Coming-of-age, gratitude, greed and discontent, importance of family and friends

Literary Quality:

The book is a blend of fantasy and Chinese folk literature that explores universal themes surrounding contentment. The language is reminiscent of traditional folktales from other cultures, while adding charm and authenticity to the story. When a side-story or legend is recounted, it is offset by a different font and title decoration. The book was well-received when it was published, winning the Newbery Honor Medal and multiple other awards and best-book honors.

Cultural Authenticity:

Lin was motivated to write this book after a thorough exploration of several Chinese folktale and fairy-tale books introduced to her as a pre-teen and then continuing with travels to South Asia as an adult. She found ways to integrate her Asian-American sensibilities of a spirited heroine while honoring the traditional folk literature of her Chinese heritage. Lin includes a bibliography of some of the Chinese folktales from which she drew her inspiration. The simple illustrations throughout the book appear to be in the style of traditional Chinese art and basic Chinese symbols, meant to complement elements of the plot.


Though the precise age of the protagonist is unclear, this book is geared toward an upper elementary-aged audience. The tale is sweet and uncomplicated by edgy, adult topics. The language is descriptive but not bogged down by complex constructions or difficult vocabulary, making it accessible to younger readers.

Personal Reaction:

I found the Lin’s book to be compelling and delightful. I enjoyed each episode as Minli progressed in her quest and was very interested in what would happen next. It was nice not to be sure of how the book would end, while at the same time, I was fairly optimistic that it would work out in Minli’s favor somehow. I was a little skeptical that the book could have universal appeal, given its traditional title and cover art. To me, this might limit the audience who would consider reading it, but I cannot think of a better alternative. Instead, it seems that its reputation and positive reviews should hold it in an esteemed place as part of quality children’s literature.

Reader’s Response Journal: Same Sun Here

Same Sun HereCitation:

House, Silas and Neela Vaswani. Same Sun Here. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012. Print.


Meena and River are penpals from seemingly very different backgrounds. Meena is an immigrant girl from India living in New York City and River is a boy from Kentucky who loves basketball. As they exchange snail-mail, they discover that they are kindred spirits who both have a strong attachment to their respective grandmothers and families whose father has to live separately from them in order to work. Like most good friendships, they are able to resolve a conflict respectfully, even though it is through letters. They rejoice in each other’s triumphs, teach each other about their different cultures and lifestyles, and encourage each other through some hard times, including a death and local tragedy, without ever having met.


New York City and Eastern Kentucky, in 2008 and 2009.

Point of View:

1st person epistolary (Meena and River)


Family, friendships, confidants, cultural acceptance, cultural encounters, grief and worry, activism, respect.

Literary Quality:

The book was written as series of letters between two middle schoolers, including drawings, poems, plays that they wanted to share with each other as friends. These additional elements add an authentic feel of the experimentation new friends do to share and get to know each other. The inclusion of family members’ influence on their lives provides depth to their feelings. The book received positive attention for its audiobook performance by the authors, as well as honors from the South Asia Book Award Committee and Bank Street College of Education.

Cultural Authenticity:

This book was co-authored by two talented writers, each a member of the cultural experience that their characters represented. The characters teach each other—and the reader—about their culture and community through questions and answers they exchange in the letters. For example, Meena includes Hindi words and translations and talks about New York rent control and bindis, while River explains what Little Debbie cakes are and describes the controversial issue of mountaintop removal in the Appalachians.


This book is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. It will appeal equally to boys and girls as both have an equal voice. Since it also represents several distinct cultures (American, Indian, immigrant, urban, rural), it may appeal to a wider readership than those interested in a single parallel culture.

Personal Reaction:

As I read this book, I was reminded of my own experience with penpal-writing and the longing I had to connect with a best friend. For several years, I wrote letters to new friends in Nebraska and England, sharing photographs and homemade beads, worries, family issues, dreams and advice. I definitely would have identified with this book back then and it probably would have encouraged me to write even more letters! I enjoyed the influence that each child had on the other and how they were open to learning from each other. There were moments that I was a little surprised that River as a tween boy would play along with a girl suggesting that he pour out his heart so easily. However, it did lend to a convincing friendship anyway, even if I think that such tween boys are pretty rare.

Reader’s Response Journal: A Step from Heaven

A Step from HeavenCitation:

Na, An. A Step from Heaven. 2001. New York: Speak-Penguin Putnam, 2002. Print.


As a four year-old, Young Ju’s experience of immigrating with her parents is confusing, especially since they have left her grandmother behind in Korea. When her brother Joon Ho is born shortly after their arrival, Young Ju is disrupted again, as a son is more important to her father than a daughter. As she grows up and learns English in the United States, she experiences the strain between cultures and the relationship between her parents disintegrates. Young Ju and Joon both lie to their parents in order to spend time with their American friends. One day, her father catches her in a lie about her friend Amanda, and he delivers a beating to Young Ju and then her mother that ultimately changes all of their lives.


Korea and Southern California, contemporary time period.

Point of View:

1st person (Young Ju)


Immigration, culture shock, domestic abuse, gender roles, coming of age, identity.

Literary Quality:

An Na convincingly portrays the simple voice of a young child, showing the passage of time through her development of language. As Young Ju ages, we see the growing complexity of her family’s dynamics in her narration. Her emotions are vividly described and we as readers share in her joy and pain. An Na was honored with the Printz Award, the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, National Book Award Finalist and multiple others for this, her first novel.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author, like her characters, was also an immigrant to the United States from Korea. She contrasts Korean and American culture through the family’s experiences with adapting to the change, especially in regards to gender roles and respect of elders. The inclusion of Korean words and sounds at the beginning of the book are a beautiful reflection of how language sounds to a young English Language Learner. She also uses the Korean terms for the adult family members throughout the entire book.


This book would most appeal to a young adult audience.  Middle schoolers might also be interested, though the abstract use of language to portray a four year-old Korean child at the beginning might be a bit overwhelming for some. Readers with some prior knowledge of the Korean immigrant experience and/or Korean culture will also identify with this book.

Personal Reaction:

I was awestruck by the genius use of language to portray aging, language development and acculturation in the main character. It was so impressive to me to be able to infer Young Ju’s age through her words without needing a lot of other contextual markers (like grades in school). I also smiled ruefully at the introduction of her little brother as the new “prince” in her family, as some of my Korean immigrant friends have told me similar stories of their brothers when they were growing up. This was short, but powerful, book that dealt with some tough issues in a strong and empowering way. It was frustrating at times to see Young Ju and her mother feel caught, but the resolution was satisfying. I was glad to feel as though it would work out for them and that they finally had their feet at the end.