Latin American Children’s Books: Why Representation Matters (+ Book Recommendations!)

“When children see their lives reflected in the books they read, they feel they and their lives are not invisible.” – Malorie Blackman.

At the very first educate. library inauguration, in July 2018 at the Adrian Mejia School in El Progreso, children were clambering on their friends’ shoulders to peek through the window into their new library. I was watching from a distance, helping set things up for the community’s inauguration ceremony and smiling at the excitement of the gaggle of kids at the window. With a gasp of delight, one boy exclaimed “Look! It says ‘que monton de tamales’!” The boy’s friend jumped up to take a look and the two of them laughed. Tamales are a Mesoamerican dish, a corn-based dough, usually with meat in the middle, steamed inside a corn husk or banana leaf – a dish every Honduran child has had at Christmas time. The book, Que Monton de Tamales is about children helping make tamales for Christmas dinner.

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Children peeking in through the window of their new school library

Having books where kids can see themselves and their lives reflected is important. When the library doors opened and groups of students had a chance to come in and explore, Que Monton de Tamales and other books like it immediately drew children in.

educate. supports community-driven projects in Honduras that focus on education and, due to popular demand, libraries have become a cornerstone of this part of our work. In all of our library projects, we work with teachers at each individual school to make sure that the books that fill their shelves are relevant to the cultural context and the students. Getting access to literary resources is great, but it’s far better if those resources are ones that empower children’s own culture and way of life, and that make them feel seen and recognised and important. If students only have books with white role models, this consolidates the already existing notion of white supremacy within Honduras (and beyond). As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her well-known TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story, she grew up reading stories about white children and says she “did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” In Honduras, providing books by Latin American authors and about Latin American characters challenges the Eurocentric nature of many of the world’s formal education systems, and gives students at the schools we work with role models that they can truly relate to and see themselves in.

Not every book in these libraries is a Latin American story. These libraries are also spaces for children to learn about new places and other parts of the world, and to come into contact with stories and characters from elsewhere. After all, “reading is an exercise in empathy, an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while” – another quote by Malorie Blackman. We strive to make sure that each of our libraries has a strong Latin American selection, along with stories from other parts of the world. This might cost us a little extra sometimes – both in time and in money – because it means buying specific books rather than basing our selection solely on cost efficiency. But we believe representation matters, so we put our money where our mouth is. We’re proud and excited to say that our upcoming two libraries’ Latin American sections will be packed to bursting!

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A book donation from Better World Books, including many Latin American stories

Looking to diversify your own reading lists with some Latin American books? We’ve put together a list of some of our favourites, many of which are ones that students in Honduras will be finding on their library shelves soon! If you’re in Amsterdam and you’re looking for diverse children’s literature, check out EduCulture bookstore – they specialize in promoting diverse children’s books and have donated a beautiful selection of stories for our La Florida and Las Lagunas library projects this year!

Picture books

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Lola / Islandborn – a story about a girl from the Dominican Republic who lives in the United States. Her teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, but she doesn’t remember so she asks her friends and family what they remember and pieces together the story of her home – The Island. Her grandmother tells her: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”  A story about migration, culture and belonging.

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Juan Bobo Goes to Work / Juan Bobo Busca Trabajo – A Puerto Rican Folktale about a boy trying to find work in his town. He always tries to do things right, but manages to leave disaster in his wake every time!

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Too Many Tamales / Que Monton de Tamales – A story about Maria and her cousins on Christmas eve making traditional Mexican tamales, and how Maria just can’t resist trying on her mother’s diamond ring.

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Dreamers / Soñadores – A story about a mother and her child who leave everything behind in Mexico and cross the border into the United States. In this new land of unknowns, public libraries become their refuge.

 

Novels

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Enrique’s Journey / La Travesia de EnriqueA true story from award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario recounting the odyssey of a Honduran boy who braves hardship and peril to reach his mother in the United States. A must read.

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The House of Spirits / La casa de los Espíritus a written tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies.

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Esperanza Rising / Esperanza RenaceEsperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico, but a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers where she faces hard labour, financial struggles and a lack of acceptance.

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100 Years of Solitude / 100 Años de SoledadA classic Latin American  novel that tells the story of the Buendia family and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao / La maravillosa vida breve de Oscar WaoOscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd, living in New Jersey but with dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien.

 

Feel free to share more Latin American book recommendations in the comments!

Blog post written by Antonia McGrath

 

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