Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Can you Imagine? ¿Te imaginas?: Beautiful Bilingual Books for Children

by Monica Brown

This article was published by Reforma Newsletter.
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Can you imagine flying though the air on a magic carpet? Can you imagine a trail of yellow butterflies fluttering their wings to songs of love? Can you imagine gold and silver fish swimming in air? Once, there was a little boy named Gabito, who could.

¿Te imaginas cómo sería volar en el aire en una alfombra mágica? ¿Te imaginas una fila de mariposas amarillas aleteando al son de canciones de amor? ¿Te imaginas peces dorados y plateados nadando en el aire? Había una vez un niñito que se llamaba Gabito, que sí podia.

I like to say that I write magical multicultural books for children, and not just because of my picture book on Gabriel García Márquez. After all, what could be more magical than showing how beautifully different languages can be put in the service of captivating storytellers? What could be more magical than demonstrating how much we share in common though our first languages might be different? What could be more magical than creatively exploring the ways so many of us have blended vastly different traditions? Find beauty in being mixed?

Storytelling is not limited to one voice, one rhythm, one cadence. Language joins us together, and nothing more so than multi-lingual texts. I have had the joy of seeing this first-hand when children—and even adults—respond to my Spanish-English bilingual books. So why write multicultural, bilingual books for children? Here’s how I begin to answer this question.

Because. . . bilinguality should be celebrated, not denigrated! Books open minds—let children’s writers and illustrators lead the way in acknowledging the linguistic and cultural diversity of our nation’s children.

Because. . .the best of bilingual, multicultural literature encourages children to not only be proud their American heritage, but to think of themselves as citizens of the wonderful wider world.

Because. . .bilingual, multicultural books help teachers, librarians, and their students bridge their differences and understand each other across cultures, languages, and traditions.

Because. . .bilingual books offer a unique opportunity for children to share the experience of reading literature and with their parents and grandparents, across language divides. A first generation latino/a born in the United States, fluent in English for example, can share a literacy experience with a Spanish-speaking grandmother, for example.

Because. . .surprisingly, bilingual Books can help adult English language learners, because of the bilingual text on each page. Adult learners are often more inspired by the lyricism, poetry, and fun to be found in children’s books than the traditional textbooks. I’ve been told that my book, My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz, has been used as a teaching tool by our local literacy volunteers.

Sugar! My voice is strong, smooth, and sweet. I will make you feel like dancing. Close your eyes and listen. My voice feels like feet skipping on cool wet sand, like running under a waterfall, like rolling down a hill. My voice climbs and rocks and dips and flips with the sounds of the congas beating and the trumpets blaring.

¡Azúcar! Mi voz es intensa, suave y dulce. Te dará ganas de bailar. Cierra los ojos y exchucha. Mi voz se siente como unos pies que resbalan en la arena mojada, como correr bajo una cascada, como bajar por una loma. Mi voz trepa y se mece y sube y baja al ritmo de las tumbadoras y el sonido de las trompetas.

Much more fun than a textbook, don’t you think?

Imagining and creating beautiful bilingual books is very personal for me. I am a California-born Latina raised by a South American mother and a North American father and it has been a gift to be able to write multicultural books for children. Who is Gabriela Mistral? Celia Cruz? Pelé? What did Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez fight for? I write about these inspiring Latinos because I want all our children to know. I feel sure that their understanding of the literature, art, and history of the Americas will be richer for it. From chewing gum, chocolate and potatoes, to salsa music, murals, and magical realism, Latino/as, nosotros mestizos, have left an indelible mark on the Americas, North and South. Let our children’s books rewrite history to acknowledge these accomplishments.

As our field becomes increasingly diverse, it is time for children’s writers and illustrators to explore our unique histories and common joys. Let’s celebrate the beauty of bilingualism and the cyclical nature of human migrations. In my book Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposas en la Calle Carmen, little Juliana learns about the migration of monarch butterflies from her Michoacan-born grandfather. When the time comes to let her own butterfly go, she thinks of:

Flying off into the sky, toward Abuelito’s magical Mexico, where the air is warm and the trees shimmer with golden butterfly wings. Sometime, in the future, I will fly away too. . . .

Volando hacia el cielo, hacia el México mágico de Abuelito, donde el viento es cálido y los árboles brillan con las alas de oro de las mariposas. En el futuro, yo también volaré. . . .

It is, after all, through storytelling, the telling and hearing, that we celebrate the ways we are linked, connected through language, history, and our common humanity.

Monica Brown is the award-winning author of My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz(Luna Rising), My Name is Gabito: The life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Me Llamo Gabito: La Vida de Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Luna Rising); Butterflies on Carmen Street (Piñata); and the forthcoming Pelé, King of Soccer/ Pelé, El Rey de Futbol (HarperCollins Rayo); and Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (HarperCollins Rayo).


Anonymous said...

Just found your blog this morning. Very nice. I look forward to revisiting it, practicing reading Spanish and learning about nuevos libros. Muchas gracias.

Anonymous said...

What lovely looking books. I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which has a special focus on teeth!) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days:,, Enjoy! said...

I hope this is appropriate for the post, but I would also like to recommend the bilingual Matt the Rat series (by Harvest Sun Press). Jorge Ramos even reviewed the books. Visit for more info. Thanks!