By Guest Writer Oralia Garza de Cortés
When Reyna Grande www.reynagrande.com, the amazing creative writer cum author cum-community literacy advocate who indefatigably worked ’round the clock to bring together seventy-yes-70-authors from throughout Southern California for the recently held 12th Annual Los Angeles Latino Book and Family Festival first asked me to moderate the panel "Writing Children’s Books" I was of course honored and challenged. Thrilled to be invited to be a part of this historic family book festival and play moderator to such an incredible line-up of talent from throughout Southern California writing for Latino children today. Challenged, too, because I was packing it up, moving back to my beloved Tejas, home, again, after being in California a good eight years. A Tejana in exile is how I declared myself those days. How could I “just say no” to Reyna who was then working extremely hard to make this year's book festival the best ever? I remembered the long, arduous hours I myself spent working years earlier to put together the first Feria de libro: A Family Affair, a book fair that grew by leaps and bounds, so quickly, so fast, out-pacing itself in its accelerated success of attracting thousands of Latinos from Lotus land over, such that its organizing partners Families in Schools and Alliance for a Better Community couldn’t convince Mayor Villaraigosa to maintain the city’s investment in community literacy by sponsoring the Feria once more on the open streets of L.A. City Hall. A victim of its own success you could say. More importantly, I couldn’t help but feel obliged to do some small part to introduce adults to the wonderful world of Latino Children’s Literature.
As a moderator, I took my role seriously. After all, what is the role of the moderator if not to ‘set the stage’ for the panelists to open up their windows to their souls- muses- menos mal. “Like Pablo, the sibling from Las Tres Manzanas de Naranja (Mexico City: CIDCLI, 1985) I re-iterated mostly to myself “no importa. I must be at the feria". Reyna did not waste any time quickly booking me for a parent workshop in Spanish. “Con gran placer” I wanted to shout out, like the folktale compadre el gallo from The Bossy Gallito /El gallo de bodas (Scholastic, 1999). “What about a storytime reading?” she asked weeks later. “Why not?” I thought, I will already be there. But when I discovered that I was doing these three things all in one day, I knew Reyna would be “working me to the bone.”
The Parent workshop in Spanish was, predictably, a big miss. Perhaps it was the too early in the morning scheduling. Much like the experience at the Feria de Libro, workshops and panels for many first time book fair goers is a totally new experience. It was good to hear the student assistants themselves come up with the same assessments and figure out ways to resolve that shortcoming. Nonetheless, I found myself with a display of wonderful bilingual and books in Spanish and no audience. The bright and talented young student who helped me with workshop details, Isabel Martinez, was majoring in Latin American Studies and had her eyes set on a great career in academia. So I gave it my best shot. I sat her down, told her about this potential brilliant career as a critic of Latino Children's Literature and how she, armed with a PHD could put Latino Children's Literature on the map by developing this strand in Chicano Studies where it does not now currently exist. Isabel's eyes were wide open. I started by introducing her to What's Wrong with Julio by Virginia H. Ormsby (Lippincott, 1965) and Bad Boy, Good Boy by Marie Hall Ets (Crowell, 1967) both children's titles that circulated in Texas public libraries as late as 1989 and 1991, respectively. In both, Julio and Roberto are problem children who mis-behave and act out in the classroom because they lack English skills and cannot communicate with their fellow students. They come from families laden with problems. Solutions are resolved only when the two boys of Mexican origin learn English.
What better place to start than at the beginning, denoting the history of Mexican American children's literature and its evolution into Latino Children's Literature. The field is wide-open and in desperate need of serious scholars willing to bring to light what remains hidden still.
At the Kids’ Stage, I decided to take advantage of my two audiences of children and their parents to model a story reading. I decided to introduce my audience to Carmen’s Tafolla’s what Can You Do with a Rebozo? (Tricycle Press, 2008) As a way to engage the children in an interactive story reading of this poetic story, all the while infusing the story with tips for parents on the importance of play in learning through the use of dramatic storytelling. The reading was a big hit. The best part of the storyreading was the stars on stage that day made of niños from the book festival.
As the Writing Children’s Books panel approached, I began to get nervous. A one hour panel with five authors and a moderator? Ay, Dios mio, I wondered. As a last resort, I knew that I could revert to the good old true and tried “you first, then you followed by you” approach to running a fair agenda. But I wanted more than that. I wanted a conversation. I wanted to find the common threads, the common bonds, the similarities and the uniqueness of each and every one.
And find them I did, as I read and re-read as many of the titles that weren’t still solidly packed in the dark, remote corners of my garage since the boxes were packed so tightly and so heavy that I just couldn’t move any of them-deberas! - so is the saga of my too many books that left Tejas and made the sojourn back again, accompanied by so many more newbies picked up along the way.
The conversation that ensued that perfectly beautiful Sunday afternoon between these wonderful autores is not one that I will not easily forget. Like Seven in one Blow, the feisty character from a Grimm fairy tale, René Colato Laínez was clearly the heavy-weight with six contracted, mostly published (or very soon to be published) titles. As I recalled the re-reading of his bio and literary history I discovered why he is such a natural. The word for it is ‘destino’. Rene was destined to become a famous author, like his tío, Jorge Buenaventura Laínez the well-known writer from El Salvador. So I admitted my envy that for René, stories come so easily. Facil! Boom! They‘re there. It’s no wondering his first grade students call him the “Teacher full of Stories”. It’s true. For René it is the classic case of craft versus natural ability-genetic predisposition. Whichever you think best fits René, you can be sure Amada Irma Pérez had it right when she said René had a “thirty year head start on stories over the rest of us; he has been making up stories since he was little boy”. This proves the point, really, doesn’t it, that literacy development really does begin young.
René recounted his love for the printed word, for made up words, for strings of words that form to tell a children’s story. But as natural as we may think that René is, René also armed himself with a master’s degree in creative writing from the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Impresionante. René recounted how one of his teachers took his story under her wings, determined to find a publisher for the story. My Shoes and I, the story of the one constant in René’s long journey from El Salvador through Mexico and on to the United States. Look for it soon from Boyd Mills Press. It calls to mind the recent Jane Addams honor book award winner for 2008 Four Feet, Two Sandals (Eardsman Books for Young Readers, 2007) the story of two young girls who meet at a refugee camp and become fast friends, sharing a pair of sandals between them.
Kathleen Contreras, the author of the much acclaimed Trencitas/Braids (Lectorum, 2009) recounted her sojourn to New York to Book Expo in search of a publisher. Discovering that potential authors go to Book Expo in find of a publisher, Kathleen went and quickly found a publisher, but since she had not made an appointment, she was not given the ten measly minutes to make her case for why a publisher should be interested in her story. Upon asking the publisher for the phone number to call for an appointment, she proceeded to make the call, only to discover that the man she was talking on her cell phone was the very man who answered the cell phone who was standing before her. She asked for the required appointment and was given the time, right there and then. She approached yet another publisher, who was booked solid. But Teresa Mlawer of Lectorum, agreed to squeeze her into her very busy schedule. She gave her thirty minutes. Kathleen was leaving New York that day, but because she had come to New York to sell her story, she re-arranged her travel plans and stayed long enough to visit Mlawer. According to Kathleen, It was the best decision she has ever made. Theresa Mlawer recognized the potential in the story, offering minimal suggestions. After corresponding for almost a year, the story was ready to go to press.
Trencitas /Braids is Colorin Colorado’s (www.colorincolorado.org) feature book for Hispanic Heritage Month, and received a very favorable review from this reviewer in Criticas Magazine’s Online Review Journal http://www.libraryjournal.com.
The Newbie in this gathering of authors was Linda Cortéz, who I must admit I had heard about. . I figured she was probably the publisher for the new East Los Angeles publishing house Frijoles Press, but as it turns out, Linda was not with Frijolitos Press at all. Who is she? I wondered as I kept trying to find more information on the web. Little if any information was available online. Amazon featured four titles for When We Were Little including a children’s book with the same title from the famed actress Jamie Lee Curtis. I figured if Jamie could write a book with such a title, so could Linda. Once I met Linda, I felt proud for her “Good for her” I thought, for giving Jamie Lee a good run for her money. Linda’s stories from this collection of vignettes are recollections of childhood experiences. The stories are a product of a turn to writing as a way to honor the memory of her parents who both died months apart. While the stories were meant to be those treasured memories from childhood, Linda found her voice to be that of the voices of youth she recognized as fourth grade elementary classroom. Determined to bring her stories to publication light, Linda decided to self publish her book.
Like Dorothy with her Toto, Linda goes everywhere with her own Toto-like character that goes by the name Grand During the Conference panel discussion, Grand managed to escape, only to picked up by Linda as she quickly found a place on the discussion table for him, too. Partial proceeds from her book will be donated by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who have given Cortez’s book a partial endorsement.
The accomplished children’s writer Amada Irma Perez introduced her titles and spoke eloquently of the importance of writing groups such as the Society for Children’s Writers and Illustrators and other local writing groups and friends such as Kathleen Contreras for encouraging her writing. In fact, she revealed ever so proudly how the first line from her children’s book My Very Own Room/ Mi propio cuartito (Children’s Book Press, 2000) survived the writers’ chopping block; it remains the same line she first crafted in writing her first children’s story for a children’s literature class where the assignment was to write a children’s story for publication. A proud Macondista, Amada is one of a sprinkling of children’s writers, along with René Colato Laínez invited to attend Sandra Cisneros’ prestigious writing institute. Her stories have won major children’s book award prizes including the prestigious Pura Belpre Honor Award for Writing for My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aquí a allá (Children’s Book Press, 2004).
Last but not least the Grand Dame of Chicano Mystery Novels is also an accomplished children’s writer. Her lovely gem of a book Where Fireflies Dance /Ahi adonde bailan las luciniérgas(Children’s Book Press,2002)is a mystery story of two siblings who seek to understand the legend and destiny of Juan Sebastián, the famed legendary soldier of the Mexican Revolution. Corpi recounted her first experiences writing for children. When approached by the legendary Harriet Rohmer, the founder of Children’s Book Press first approached her for a story; Lucha went to work, producing a forty page manuscript. But through Rohmer’s patient prodding and help, Lucha was able to think about her story in thirty two frames, sufficient for the making of a children’s picture book. Her new children’s title is The Triple Banana-Split Boy/El Niño goloso (Arte Publico, 2009). Corpi also shared her experiences working with school division publishers whose litany of don’t in children’s publishing Corpi decries as ‘censorship.’ One story in particular about a dying grandmother’s gift of story for her grandson remains unpublished. As moderator I pleaded with Lucha to re-consider re-visiting the story and bringing it to light for children. I suspect it will be quite a gem .
The beauty of the wonderful children’s authors gathered on that glorious October Sunday afternoon lies in the talent of accomplished authors who between them have produced a winning collection of fourteen lovely picture books. Our job as adults living in this capitalist country is to make capitalism work for our children by wielding the law of supply and demand. As adults we must demand that these special books find their way into the bookstores and public libraries and into the hands of children. Children everywhere will only be the better for it, and libraries can truly boast of their role of developing libraries a the vital democratic institutions they were designed to become.
Judging by the number of authors gathered overall, one could say that the 12th annual Los Angeles Latino Book and Family Festival was quite a success. Lastima that the authors did not have the full audiences that they deserved. Let’s hope the 13th annual Latino Book and Family Festival next year will be even more relevant and connected to the community. Cal State Los Angeles as the site for this memorable, historic event can do so much more to attract its future constituents to its campus on these two days. But more departments besides Chicano Studies must also be involved. Where were all the professors? Teacher trainers? Teacher educators? Librarians? And parents? Beloved parents who need to know what books will speak to their children and motivate them to want to read. Notably missing, of course, continues to be the Los Angeles Times who still believes Southern California is made up of the flat communities of Westwood, Brendwood and UCLA. Finally, it behooves LAUSD to insure that children and families attend the festival. It is quite a learning experience and there are no tests required. How to make it all come together, however, is the underlying challenge of the festival sponsors as adults must put aside their petty differences and come together to build a culture of literacy that works for children and families who need books in their lives and in their future.
Oralia Garza de Cortés is a nationally known independent public services librarian whose work with Latino Children’s Literature is legendary. She works with local communities to develop a culture of literacy. You can reach her at: email@example.com