By Angela Cervantes
I am an original flashlight girl. You know the type. Hours after parents called for bedtime; I was still up under my bedcovers with a flashlight reading a favorite book.
Many times, those books under the covers with me were the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books. The fact that the heroines of these books were white and I was Mexican American didn't stop me from enjoying these books and rereading them several times. However, the more I fell in love with reading the more I questioned why there weren’t books like these with Latino characters.
At the time, I remember thinking of all the girls in my neighborhood who were just as funny, spunky and adventurous as Ramona, Lucy and Laura. Surely there were books about them out there, right?
Not so much.
As a child, I often sat in front of a bookshelf in the children’s section of the public library and searched for books with characters and authors that had last names like mine. Latino last names like Gomez, Ortiz, Zuniga... but I didn’t find those books.
At school, I asked my fifth grade teacher, Sister Judy, to help me find books “about girls like me,” but she couldn’t find any either. She must have apologized to me a hundred times for that.
Twenty some years later, a lot has been said about the disparity of Latino characters or diversity in children literature. There’s been a well-known New York Times article, “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing” by Motoko Rich and a probing blog by Jason Low: “Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?”.
With all this insight as a call to arms for diversity, I’m not sure that I have much to add to the discussion. All I can offer is my own humble experience as a Latina child with a flashlight who grew up to be a children’s author.
I decided a long time ago, when I used to stare at bookshelves in the public library, that I was going to be a writer. It was as if those bookshelves were my Mount Sinai. I had received a spiritual calling to go to my comunidad with pen, notebook and an honest heart and bring back stories.
As I set forth to write my first middle grade novel four years ago, I knew I would write about my neighborhood, mi familia, and my world. Even though I had heard a rumor from other writers that publishers didn’t publish Latino authors, it never dawned on me to write about anything else.
I had a flashlight and lots of passion. I refused to be discouraged.
Today, I’m a debut author whose first book, Gaby, Lost and Found (Scholastic, 2013) is about a modern, bilingual Latina heroine who won’t stop in her quest to find shelter animals a forever home even as her own family life unravels.
It turns out that the lack of diversity in children’s books, although disheartening to me as a child, had motivated me as an adult to create change. And I’m not alone. I’ve read interviews of authors like Malín Alegria (Border Town teen series) and Diana Lopez (Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel) who have expressed the same experience and responded with great books.
The way I see it, children’s stories featuring Latino main characters are worth telling and NOT just because census data tells us that the Latino population is the second largest ethnic group in the United States and the fastest-growing segment of the school population.
Even if the Latino population wasn’t growing rapidly, these stories would still be important. They have a place on the bookshelf because these books are not written just for a Latino audience; they are written for all children.
In my book, Gaby, Lost and Found, the main protagonist transforms from a victim of a bad immigration system that splits up her family to a protector and advocate for shelter animals.
Gaby is an empowered character that any reader can cheer on. It doesn't matter that she also happens to be Latina. Nor does it matter that she comes from a mixed-status, mixed-culture family. She’s a risk-taker, funny and kind. These are characteristics that any child could relate to, regardless of ethnicity.
I’m grateful to be a newly published children’s author. I do not take this responsibility lightly. Today, children are growing up in a much more multiethnic America than I experienced as a child.
This is a beautiful thing. And the role children’s books play is crucial. Children’s literature remains one of the first encounters a child will have with the world. I’m honored to be a part of that. I believe Sister Judy would be proud.
Angela Cervantes is a writer and poet. Her poems and short stories have appeared in The Kansas City Star and Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. She currently lives and writes in Kansas City where she founded the Latino Writers Collective. Visit her online at www.angelacervantes.com.