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.

About Joanne


  1. I agree that a good book is a good book. I belong to a smallish subculture that never appears in children’s books, but I still read a lot of good books when I was a kid. (My mental landscape is almost entirely British, though I’ve lived in California all my life.)

    That said, I would like more of those good books to feature kids of all kinds. If I could, I’d give those elementary teachers an out-of-print picture book called “After-School Monster” by Marissa Moss, which features an ordinary little girl named Luisa. It was one of my daughter’s favorite books when she was younger.

  2. Our School *is* a great Christmas present!

  3. Florida resident says:
  4. Literature should broaden our horizons. Why insist that children must read certain books? Allow children to read the books they want to read. Offer a broad and deep assortment of good books.

    A beloved children’s classic cannot be created to order. There’s an element of inspiration to genius. Would I want my children to be required to read a book series commissioned by a publisher to meet a marketing need, rather than an acknowledged classic? No.

    As my children are not minority, the equivalent would be to require them to read Gossip Girl or Sweet Valley Twins rather than _Esperanza Rising_ or _Cry, the Beloved Country_. I strongly prefer that teachers lead students to good, challenging books, rather than books that match their ethnicity.

    • Dear Cranberry,

      I think the issue is not what’s required (or the motivations behind certain requirements) but that we need to pursue actions to increase the availability of high-quality fiction featuring Latino characters. I know I’m working on increasing diversity in YA with my own work in fiction. My two novels, THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY and WHAT CAN’T WAIT, were written in direct response to my high-school students in Houston, who felt their experiences weren’t reflected in the books available to them. I didn’t write these books because I thought they should be required; I wrote them because I wanted my students’ pleasure reading to include a world and situations that were recognizable to them.

      The quoted comment above from a teacher (“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.”) resonates with what I saw in YA lit with Latino characters, which often focused on quinceñeras and similar events. The idea is to increase what’s available so that teachers have more to choose from, not to force teachers or schools to choose books that aren’t appropriate to their needs.

  5. Once kids get beyond the picture book stage, I don’t know how much it matters what the characters ‘look like’. I know that, as I read, I always imagine the characters looking like people I know and am sometimes surprised to come across a description that differs from what I imagine. I also think that defining ‘like me’ solely by race is unfortunate. My (white) kids watched The Princess and the Frog last week and I found myself thinking how cool it was to have a heroine who talked somewhat like we do (southern), and her background is certainly more in common with my family heritage that the very wealthy girl.

    Sometimes I read to put myself in other eras (Victorian England, the westward expansion, etc), but when I read my ‘fun fiction’, usually mysteries, I find myself relating to characters whom I admire or share background with…and I often don’t look or live like they do! I don’t know how to teach this to kids who don’t read a lot, though.

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    By that logic, I should not read novels by Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. because I’m of European heritage. A good writer is able to appeal beyond his/her own demographic group to a wider audience.

    • Strawman argument. The point is NOT that one should never read anything unless the characters have your same background/ethnicity/gender etc. The point is that there is something to be said for SOME books in the curriculum reflecting the backgrounds of the reader. NOT ALL. SOME.

  7. The readers need to be taught that we share a common humanity, and that there is no such thing as a “white” thing or “Hispanic” thing. I am constantly struggling against the (hopefully) well-meaning teachers who want to consign our Hispanic students to an ethnic barrio because “Shakespeare has no relevence to them”. They even get offended when I tell them it is their job to explain the relevance of shakespeare to their lives.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      The settings and characters from Shakespear’s plays were ususally far removed from 16th century England. How were his plays relevant to his own audience? rhetorical question.

  8. As a kid, I read Heinlein’s Juveniles. They contain just about every kind of character you can name: white boys and girls, Filipinos, Zulus, Jews, members of exotic religions, handicapped characters, you name it. None of that turned me off at all, it added to my horizons.

  9. This is hilarious and could only come from supercilious ivory-tower types. I teach kids of mostly Mexican heritage. First, before the erudite professors in the ed schools start bitching about the lack of color in books, maybe they should figure out a way to get Mexican kids to read. The kids at my school don’t and won’t read. I have to spoon feed them by reading it to them or playing the audio. Their parents don’t read. Most of my juniors last year admitted they had never read a book from cover to cover. There are no books in the home. The entire community has this anti-education bias that the kids bring to school with them. However, given a choice between a good book and a mediocre book by a Hispanic author, say Sandra Cisneros, my students pick the good book, the interesting book. The main problem with book choices in high school these days is not a color problem. There are too many women teaching English, and there are not enough books written by men in the curriculum. Any guy, including any Hispanic guy, is going to be put-off having to read chick lit all year. Therefore, I purposely avoid the usual multicultural pabulum and choose books that appeal to guys. When guys are being academically left behind by girls, I find it my duty to do something that will touch the guys in the reading department. And when you have 16 female English teachers and only 2 male, the guys get enough Amy Tan and Alice Walker to gag a crocodile. Once I taught them Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs. They didn’t like it. I said, “According to certain educators, you’re supposed to really get into this because it’s about Mexico and Mexicans.” (BTW, I love that book.) Anyhow, they said, “We don’t care about that. Give us something interesting to read instead.” We did Of Mice and Men. They got into it.

    • The irony is that your little rant actually proved the point of the article. While you were whining that students don’t need to read any books written by someone, say, of the same ethnicity… you then go on to disprove your point by saying that it is important for guys to read literature written by guys to appeal to guys. I thought it didn’t matter? Shouldn’t they get all they need to get out of literature by reading women? Oh wait… you mean there IS something to be said for making sure SOME (NOT ALL) of the curriculum appeal to the backgrounds (ethnicity or gender) of all students?

      • lightly seasoned says:

        Do you think there is a difference between the types of reading those of us who enjoy reading will choose (personally, I read almost compulsively, and my taste in literature leans toward the very difficult), and the types of reading those who struggle prefer? And yes, the kids always seem to love Of Mice and Men. That love rarely extends to Grapes of Wrath, however ;).

    • Here here! You are 100% correct.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Maybe things have really changed since I was in high school, because I remember being required to read a bunch of “guy” novels I found horribly dull- Jack London, Stephen Crane, Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc. The only things that could be considered “chick lit” were Jane Austen and the Brontes.

      • lightly seasoned says:

        It varies a great deal from district to district. Our department is undeniably female dominated (with me being the head dominatrix as chair), but the good old boys are heavily represented. Because our kids largely go on to 4-year universities, we see our job as laying foundation in the humanities more so than enticing them to read. So, the female writers tend to be those who influenced later women writers: Austen, the Brontes, Chopin, Hurston, Morrison, Woolf, etc. (depending on the course).

  10. Whining? And what do you do besides spew vitriol? Ethnicity and gender are two different things. If a woman writes an adventure tale that appeals to guys, I’ll use it. There are none like that in the highly restricted PC curriculum where I teach. Again, the article was about ethnicity, not gender.

    • twitter_ashleyhopeperez says:

      Dear BadaBing,

      Maybe you could play a role in changing the “highly restricted PC curriculum” where you teach. I think understand what you mean; by the time my seniors got to me, they’d seen Sandra Cisneros a dozen times. But that was a curricular failure, not proof that there’s nothing of value in literature by and about diverse people. I dare you to try out my THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY, which I wrote specifically with my Latino guy students in mind. Other great picks are Jack Gantos’ HOLE IN MY LIFE and anything by Matt de la Peña. For guy-friendly stories by Latino authors, check out Junot Diaz’s DROWN and Oscar Casares’ BROWNSVILLE. As lightly seasoned pointed out, the issue with LOS DE ABAJO (the Azuelas novel you mentioned) may be more about difficulty/complexity. OF MICE AND MEN is a much more accessible narrative, which may make it more popular with less-engaged readers (that’s been my experience).

      Finally even if your school restricts the books you use for instruction, you can always encourage diverse reading (however you want to define that) in choice/independent reading. And you can impact your students’ selections by talking up the books that you are reading and getting them to give recommendations to each other. I’ve got some independent reading materials on the Teacher Resources section of my website,, if you’re interested in more ideas for getting your kids reading broadly.

      Ashley Pérez

  11. “Literature should broaden our horizons. Why insist that children must read certain books?”

    I think it’s best to do a combination of the two. When I was in K-12, half the books we read we got to choose, and half were chosen for us. I’m glad I got to immerse myself in a book about how the Space Shuttle and ISS work, but I’m also glad that I was made to read Shakespeare (which I didn’t want to do at the time). Kids don’t always know what’s good for them, after all.

    • cranberry says:

      Sorry, I should have been more detailed in my response. Why insist children must read certain books based upon their ethnic background? Why insist that they “can’t relate” to most novels, because they don’t “see people like them” in the novel?

      The books my children were required to read in their public elementary school were written by far too few authors. I’m certain Cynthia Rylant, Patricia Polacco, Lois Lowry and Katherine Paterson write wonderful books. The students should not read multiple books by the same handful of authors through the years. There are many wonderful books and authors.

  12. One last point: if any group needs support in overcoming disenfranchisement, it’s the Hispanic population in the US, especially those who have parents and grandparents who moved through the public education system. Whereas African Americans prior to the civil rights era moved through segregated schools in which, however inadequate the resources, they were taught by other African Americans who did believe in their potential, most Hispanic students prior to the fifties and sixties were forced out of schools (the methods used to achieve this were myriad) or taught in overcrowded classrooms by white teachers with little investment in educating their pupils. In 1930s Houston, for example, there was virtually no access to high school for the majority of Hispanic students. More on that here:

    Discrimination and exclusion of that magnitude is bound to have an effect, and we all can have a part in bringing trust and investment in education back to this community.

  13. Hi, Ashley: Thanks so much for the titles. I will check them out and see if I can’t give some a go. One of my favorite short stories is “Just Lather, That’s All” by Hector Torres. It’s perfect for teaching irony. There is also a fantastic little piece by Octavio Paz called “The Blue Bouquet” (El Ramo Azul). There is “The Censors” by Luisa Valenzuela, a little tough for them but worth the effort to open their minds to it. I have quite a few stories in Word format that I print, including some I’ve written. I’ve taken the liberty of changing characters’ names to Hispanic just to see what would happen. I’ll try almost anything to get my bibliophobes to read.