Why Literary Look-Alikes Are Important for Kids

Every literacy teacher I know has a story about the day a certain student really came alive in their classroom -- the day they found a book that they really connected with.
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I've been following the conversation, comments and subsequent articles response to Motoko Rich's recent article in The New York Times regarding the dearth of Latino protagonists in children's literature, and wanted to share my reactions as a former 6th grade language arts teacher and parent.

So, I've got two reactions. The first one is that I agree with the article's premise that it's important for Latino children to see Latino characters in the books that they read. It's just good for kids to connect viscerally with the hero of a story. We're all drawn to stories that feel like us. Every literacy teacher I know has a story about the day a certain student really came alive in their classroom -- the day they found a book that they really connected with. So many times, that's a book about a kid growing up in a neighborhood just like theirs, or with a family just like theirs -- whose interests and loves and struggles are the same as theirs -- who, like them, aspire for great, incredible things.

This idea has a common theme with Teach For America's belief that teachers who share the backgrounds of our students have the potential to have a profound additional impact in the classroom as they can act as a mirror and role model. "It is hard to be what you can't see," as the saying goes. Mental exercise: If this were a conversation about gender roles in literature -- if instead of Latinos being absent or cast as farm workers we were talking about every woman in children's lit (when there were any) being cast as a princess -- if all of the mayors, doctors, teachers, and scientists in books were men -- if our daughters never read about girls who dreamed big, ambitious dreams, how would that feel? We wouldn't stand for a world like that -- and we shouldn't stand for this one, either.

But my second reaction is about the value of having more Latino protagonists for the rest of us: Children's literature (and all media, for that matter) should reflect American society's broad mosaic because it enriches all of our lives. My three children, ages one, three and five, are African American; however, they speak Spanish fluently because we have a number of Latinos and Latinas in our extended family who play critical roles in their upbringing. They also attend a Spanish immersion school. They play with our white neighbors almost daily, and are surrounded by diverse faces and voices throughout their days. My black children truly adore Dora the Explorer -- and Sid the Science Kid and Caillou -- and that's the way it should be. I want them to have heroes who share -- and who don't share -- their background. And I hope that as they grow, they find themselves surrounded by real-life heroes who reflect that same broad diversity of our nation.

It's a false choice to put this up against other education priorities, as some have. It doesn't take away from teacher quality policy work when a publisher fosters the career of the next Alma Flor Ada. It doesn't cost a school district money when an author tells the story of Graciela instead of Grace.

I think we need to look at our literature with more awareness, and expect more. Whenever Teach For America's alumni magazine, One Day, highlights recent publications by our alumni which feature Latino protagonists, like Ashley Perez's (Houston '04) young-adult fiction, I feel pride that our alumni are contributing to a richer range of stories on children's bookshelves. But I also believe we should celebrate the editors and publishers (of all backgrounds) who take a moment to step back and look at the offerings they're putting out into the world, and look out at the children in our schools, and step up to the call to bring more Latino characters to children's literature.

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