If a children’s book makes a splash on the news or social media these days for being under threat of bans from libraries, there’s almost a guarantee that the book deals with racially diverse characters, any mention LGBTQ+ issues, or both.
It’s in this environment that a new collection of books was recently released, one designed for elementary school classrooms. Each bundle in this new Rising Voices series, while differing somewhat depending on grade level, contains books created by Latino authors and illustrators.
Maria Armstrong, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, says that book publisher Scholastic pitched her on the idea for Rising Voices and invited her to be a mentor for the project’s development. She was joined by fellow mentors Sulma Arzu-Brown, an Afro-Latina author, and Columbia-born actor John Leguizamo, who hosts in a Latino history docuseries on MSNBC.
Armstrong says she was excited about the idea of proactively promoting Latino representation through book offerings for teachers. Latino children, who make up roughly 28 percent of kids in public schools, too seldom get to see themselves and culture reflected in books made for their age groups, she adds.
“We want to share that we have Afro-Latinos, Japanese Latinos, it’s all over,” Armstrong adds. “People don’t realize it’s not just Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican Latinos. We’re a huge diverse community, and we wanted to show that across the collection.”
Latino representation in books for kids has ticked up recently. Between 2020 and 2022, there was a 51 percent increase in the number of children’s and young adult books from U.S. publishers created by Latino authors, illustrators and compilers, and a 17 percent increase in the number of children’s and young adult books published about Latino characters or culture, according to data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which studies a large sample of books published each year.
Armstrong says she prefers the philosophy of competence over tolerance when it comes to diversity in books. What she means by that, she explains, is that it’s crucial for children to be knowledgeable about cultures outside of their own. To that end, the book collection isn’t just aimed at Latino teachers and children, Armstrong adds, but can be used in any classroom.
“We [Latinos] have learned from other cultures, because that’s all that is in our school [books], but no one really knows the nuances of our culture,” she says. “It’s important for these books to be in predominantly white schools, so they can see us how we see ourselves.”
‘We Should Be Willing to Share These Stories’
Arzu-Brown is the author of children’s books like “Bad Hair Does Not Exist/Pelo Malo No Existe.” Based in the Bronx in New York City, she is Garifuna, an Afro-Indigenous group from the Caribbean and Honduras, and she says that she didn’t see any book characters who looked like her while growing up.
“I’m a mom of two girls and, of course, we had to teach the kids how to read, and the only books we had available were books with white children,” she says, “but we still welcomed them into our home. Those stories opened our imaginations and, with this collection, all we’re doing is saying, ‘Let us do for you what you have done for us.’ It’s a reciprocity; we should be willing to share these stories.”
That’s part of what makes Arzu-Brown proud to be the first Garifuna to have worked on a Scholastic collection like Rising Voices.
“It’s huge to my community to see there are people like them in this process,” she says. “I do for the next generation, the generations past, and I’m down for what needs to be done in the spirit of love and representation and making sure we are all seen.”
Two favorite books in the collection for Arzu-Brown and Armstrong are “A Mango in the Hand” by Antonio Sacre and “My Two Border Towns” by David Bowles. “A Mango in the Hand” tells stories through proverbs from the author’s Cuban heritage, while “My Two Border Towns” is the story of a boy who grows up happily traveling between the U.S. and Mexico.
While books showcasing racial diversity continue to be a target of political groups’ efforts to ban reading material, both in public schools and public libraries, both Arzu-Brown and Armstrong say they are optimistic about the impact that Latinos stories can have for children.
“I think we are made for such a time as this,” Arzu-Brown says. “These books are a teaching tool to make us less ignorant of the people around us.”
Armstrong says for the people who worked on the collection, promoting representation in literature is part of their DNA.
“We’ve been here a long time, and we’ve got a lot to share,” Amstrong says. “We’re usually working hard with our heads down, voices low, but that doesn’t mean that we’re invisible or that we’re remaining invisible in the land that is ours.”