Latino kids don’t see themselves in books

Young Latino Students Don’t See Themselves in Books, according to the New York Times.  Hispanic students make up nearly a quarter of public school students, but only a small fraction of characters in books for elementary students.

The main characters in the most popular books are white with African-American, Asian or Hispanic characters more likely to appear in supporting roles.

“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development in Chicago.

She and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, an elementary school teacher in Chicago who works with students who speak languages other than English at home, reviewed 250 book series aimed at second to fourth graders and found just two that featured a Latino main character.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, which compiles statistics about the race of authors and characters in children’s books published each year, found that in 2011, just over 3 percent of the 3,400 books reviewed were written by or about Latinos, a proportion that has not changed much in a decade.

Common Core State Standards’ list of suggested books for early elementary students contains black characters and authors, but few Latinos. More will be added, said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead writers. “We are determined to make this right.”

“Research on a direct link between cultural relevance in books and reading achievement at young ages is so far scant,” reports the Times. I think that means there is no evidence. But that doesn’t stop academics from worrying that kids will feel alienated “if all they read is Judy Blume or characters in the Magic Treehouse series who are white and go on adventures.” (What about white kids who don’t have a magic treehouse that provides adventures?)

At Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia, a school where three-quarters of the students are Latino, Kimberly Blake, a third-grade bilingual teacher, said she struggles to find books about Latino children that are “about normal, everyday people.” The few that are available tend to focus on stereotypes of migrant workers or on special holidays. “Our students look the way they look every single day of the year,” Ms. Blake said, “not just on Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Day.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Blake read from “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman, about a daughter of migrant workers. Of all the children sitting cross-legged on the rug, only Mario said that his mother had worked on farms.

However, a book that colors every fourth child brown may be accused of tokenism.

As a reading tutor, I see a lot of books for young children that feature animals — especially cats, bats and rats. They sit on mats and try on hats. Humans are named Nan, Fran, Pam, Sam, Tam, Tim and Sim. It’s not a rich cultural milieu for children of any background. I can tell you what little girls of all colors and creeds long to read: the Pinkalicious series. Sadly, my kids can only handle “tan” and “red.”

A good book is a good book is a good book,” writes author Nikki Grimes in Color Me Perplexed. “The single most important question we should ask when considering a book for our classroom or library shelves is, is the book any good?”

When I was researching Our School (which makes a lovely holiday gift), I saw students from Mexican immigrant families fall in love with Harry Potter books. The kids weren’t British or pale skinned. They weren’t wizards either. They liked the story.

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