This is our third post about New York Review of Books' omitting latino books from their Children's Classics list. Several authors from the Latino and Latina Writers Group (LinkedIn) commented and are excerpted below.
When we contacted NYRB, their response was that they didn't know of any latino children's books that should be on their list. That ignorance resulted in a white-washed list. By their definition, there are no latino classics in this category.
Comments by latino authors:
Kathleen Alcala, Permanent Faculty at NILA and Author:
I don't write children's books, but some of the best I have come across are now published and distributed by Lee and Low Books. Many of our top-notch Latino/a writers have also written children's books. NYRB could probably take the time to do the research.
Maria Victoria, Bilingual Author, Editor & Ghostwriter
I do write children's books, I have written them for years for my sons and now for my grandchildren, but only now I am starting to self-publish those stories via Createspace (Amazon). I don't have the time to wait for the industry to embrace our diversity. When I tuck my little ones in bed, I want them to be proud of their Mexican heritage and who they are: beautiful bilingual and bicultural children.
Mona AlvaradoFrazier, Independent Writing and Editing Professional:
Latinas for Latino Lit started last year in response to articles such as NYRB's. Pat Mora has a large list on her website and Reading is Fundamental has a list of multicultural books.
I blog about multicultural books because I believe it takes Latinos supporting Latinos to make these books visible; there are other bloggers doing the same. I beta-read for Latina/o authors because I want to help get them published. We all can do something. Currently, I have two Young Adult novels completed and am looking for an agent. I have one manuscript (protagonist is Mexican,17-year-old mother in prison) with Amazon's Breakthrough Novel competition. They had 10,000 entries, and whittled this to 2,000 (I made this round). On April 14th, Amazon will again cut 1500 entries. I'm hoping my YA novel makes the next round and that I can attract an agent.
Maria Victoria [above] is so right; it's difficult to continue to wait for "the industry" and the "literary gatekeepers," but it also takes funds to publish your own novel (approx. $2,000 to 5,000). I may take that route soon.
Lucha Corpi, Independent Writing and Editing Professional
I've written stories and poems for children, and a couple have been published in the Houghton Mifflin Spanish elementary series, for example, and other pubs. I've also written bilingual picture books--one published by Children's Book Press in S.F., now an imprint of Lee & Low's in NY, another by Arte Publico Press Piñata imprint.
When writing for a classroom series, you're given a list of rules/taboos as to what you can and cannot do or say, i.e. working in the fields OK, but you can't mention of La Migra or living conditions for children of migrant families, etc. After a while, I wasn't willing to write for hire when major publishers dictated what I could write or not about. I can control when and where I publish to make sure my books outlive me.
As a translator of stories for children, however, I had a chance to read English texts of world oral and literary traditions. I confirmed that in all the stories chosen for certain grades, there were common threads that made the stories "universal" and which I call the "human element," in general. We can't deny ourselves our rightful place in this universal culture. Perhaps in some honest and sincere way, a few major publishers want stories that can be sewn together into the larger tapestry of human experience. I don't find anything wrong with showing all the ways in which people from all cultures are simply human, whose literatures have many points of contact along those "universal" lines.
I also believe that as Chic@nos/Latin@s, we are part of a second universe--Mexico and Latin America, and of Latin@ culture. Each is unique in its own historical and cultural way, but socio-politically regarded as disposable once our use to White America is no longer important, desirable or necessary. Major publishers are not willing to publish literature that is "in their face," (about La migra, children of migrant families, etc.) that mirrors all the ways in which they have failed one of the culturally and linguistically richest and most diverse groups in the U.S.
Chicano/Latino publishers have been publishing that literature of resistance and protest, talking about taboo subjects to the extent they can. They have had to battle constantly to remain and help our literatures grow. However we may feel personally about them, we have to remember that theirs hasn't been a road paved with gold, either. So we need to support their efforts and buy their books directly from them instead of Amazon, etc. Most of the time, all we do is criticize them or tear them down, not realizing that when we don't buy their books, we are also hurting the same writers we're talking about here.
As a student of "classic" literature and the literary establishment throughout the ages, one last point about the word "classic" in literature or any of the arts. Ironically, the classics are those works, which were "popular" when their creators were alive, though they made no money from their popularity. They became "classics" when their creators had been dead at least 50 years.
I follow two rules: I do my job as a writer, and write, regardless of criticism or circumstance, and I make sure I publish with publishers who may not pay big bucks in royalty, but who will keep my books in print long after I depart this vale of literary tears. I buy and read books published by Chican@/Latin@ presses, and in general support writers and poets this way.
Who knows? One of these years, one of your poems or a story for children, or one of your books might become a classic. True that, if what I say is right, you won't be here any longer to enjoy the renown and the rewards and fruits of your labor.
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University:
It's not just the NYRB (with whom I have a long-standing peeve--since 1973 when it rejected my piece about Chicanos in favor of an Anglo piece about Chicanos by John Womack).
The real problem, however, is with the American Library Association and its annual awards for children's literature. Talk about a dearth! Armando's commentary should be a clarion call for American publishers.
Thanks to Arte Público for the children's books they've published.
Ideologically, we should not expect écrit oblige [great works] from myopic American publishers. Just as the history of the lion hunt will always favor the hunter until lions have their own historians, publishing will always favor the dominant group until Latinos have their own publishers. Hasta la victoria!
Armando Rendón, Editor of Somos en Escrito Magazine:
I gather we’re not getting too agitated about the NYRB list--Rudy has hit the main points in his response to Sara Kramer. My take is that we consider the context, a bastion of white privilege revisiting its own past, but largely unaware and painfully unconcerned with the present reality of millions of Chicanos and Latinos preparing to make our future. If any of us expect entities like the NYRB to empower us to advance in our art and yet maintain our integrity, that’s barking up the wrong ancestral tree.
We as American writers of a certain perspectiva must move on, concern ourselves with writing for the present generation, but having in mind the needs of millions of Latino youth to come. I refer to the critical need for us as writers to provide literary sustenance for the Latino and Latina youth who have already become the majority of first to 12th grade populations in New Mexico (57%), California (51%), Texas (51%), with Arizona (43%), Nevada (40%), and Colorado (30%) not that far behind. The number of literary works written each year for Latino youth is dreadfully low, maybe 2 to 3 percent of children’s books published each year in the U.S.
One cause we can address directly: Latina and Latino writers, established and aspiring, should direct some of their time and talents to writing for young people. My focus as a newcomer to writing for young people is on middle and high school youth because I can craft stories for them of my own recollections. Others might have the insight and mental dexterity to fashion those delightful little tales that can help form the imaginations and identity of toddlers and early school children.
Which causes me to reflect on an important insight that I read in one of the letters to the editor that appeared on 3/23/14, after the NYRB published its 100 best list. The correspondent, who hailed from the Bronx, wrote that a “well-written book …should represent humanity, and readers should be able to find something of themselves in it – no matter the protagonists’ background or color.” A fine point, one that exemplifies the finest literary works anywhere.
However, this notion taken to its logical extreme suggests that all books could be about white Anglo Saxon men, and that would be okay as long as we others could find “something” of ourselves in the text. That’s exactly the attitude that led to the present “lack of diversity,” or to be explicit, the racism by omission in children’s literature.
What I’ve come to realize is that writing for children today is a political act. Taking the word, political, to its ancient Greek root, polis, which stood for the state, the confluence of people who together make up a society. It follows from the converse reality that teachers, librarians, scholars, and parents face: the absolute dearth of books written for and about Latino boys and girls in the U.S. Thus, limiting the presence of Latino and Latina children in books for school kids is a political act, driven by generations of discrimination, oppression and racism.
Final point: while we need more books for Latino youth, we need to set and uphold certain literary standards. Is anyone taking on the task of drafting a set of guidelines appropriate to writing aimed at Latino children, a gathering of Latino writers, educators and librarians with an understanding of the pedagogical, emotional and intellectual/creative needs for these ages? Such a document could be a useful guideline for all of us, even eye-opening for the gatekeepers over at the NYRB.
More salient comments, Lucha. To pick up on one of the things you said, about writing for posterity. When you consider, for example, that in Texas, my home state (no apologies), the school population in 2050 if not earlier will reach 9 million and 6 of those millions will be Latino, we have to think for the future: what we write today will impact millions of kids, and not just Chicanitos but any child from the standpoint of opening up a vision of the world that's multicultural and multicolorful. Adelante!
(Rendón is also the author of the young adult novel, Noldo and his magical scooter at the Battle of the Alamo, which was just named a finalist for an International Latino Book Award.)
Barbara Renaud Gonzalez informed us about her book, The boy made of lightning, the first interactive book on the life of Voting Rights pioneer Willie Velasquez, independently published by AALAS, 9/2013. Original narrative, art, music, sounds and written in Tex-Mex, with pop-ups and translation; it was nominated for a Tomas Rivera Prize.
Also pertaining to this discussion, see Matt de la Peña's thoughts in the article, Where's the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?
Good Money Gone, a novel co-authored by Mario Acevedo, is a finalist in the International Book Awards. Also, Mario’s essay, "Love Between the Species", has just been published in Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (L. Lamson, edit.), a rare and revealing look at the writing secrets of speculative genre masters.
Es todo, hoy,
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