Not long ago I heard from a Houston high school teacher that my novels The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait had gone “viral” among students. It wasn’t that a teacher was requiring kids to read the books; it was that students were sharing the books, telling their friends about them, and reading them under the table when they were supposed to be doing their science homework.
This is the situation anybody who cares about kids and their reading lives should want.
It’s especially important for reluctant readers who can count their successful encounters with books on one hand. And it’s most important for reluctant readers in lower-income brackets minority groups, where becoming an avid reader (the earlier the better) may be what helps close the gap between their academic performance and that of their “majority” middle-class peers.
We can’t transform readers’ lives by micromanaging their choices, whether by insisting that they focus on “great works,” or by shoe-horning in saccharin PC reads. Encouraging personal connections to books is the way to make books go viral.
In my experience, when you set aside big hits like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, the books that get passed around and talked about by teens are those that speak to their own experiences in some important way. And that’s not just about race or ethnicity, either.
While the biggest issue that may be hindering the success of young Latino readers is the relative lack of high-quality literature that features Latino protagonists at all, a related (and less discussed) issue is the lack of representation of diversity of experience within the Latino community. A recent New York Times article made precisely this point in terms of young Latino readers:
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.
This passage from the NYT article resonated with my own experience as a bilingual literacy tutor in East Austin some ten years ago and as an English teacher in Houston. I also reviewed Spanish-language books for Reading Is Fundamental, and almost without exception they were translations of popular children’s books in English with white characters. Why is this an issue? For one, it exercises a subtle pressure on students to value the commercialized image of mainstream U.S. culture over their own family lives and culture. Even for students from other backgrounds, seeing more Latino character has considerable value, as this balanced and thoughtful response highlights.
Many of the comments on the NYT article (also see this post and comments, including my own) were depressing in their willful misunderstanding of the issue. The point is not that children can only relate to books with characters from their own background or experience. Clearly, that’s not the case or much of literature—including most of what was written by dead white guys—wouldn’t appeal to any of us. The point is that there is something inherently unjust and damaging about never or rarely seeing anyone like you (whether in terms of socio-economic status, gender orientation, race, or ethnicity) in books.
As one commentor, BorincanoDC, wrote:
Even 45 years ago it would have been a good idea for me and kids like me to pick up a book in the classroom and see intelligent, decisive, challenging characters like the kids in my family and neighborhood. And it would have been a pretty good idea for the OTHER kids to be presented with a world a little different from their own where characters named Juan and Maria lived valid and coherent lives.
Speaking of names... May I please weigh in that, while a name change may be better than no representation, I found myself biting my hands to keep from screaming when I read one high-school English teacher’s strategy for getting his Hispanic “bibliophobes” to read: “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.”
I hope he’ll try something else—anything else. If his students are anything like mine, they can smell condescension a mile away.
He could start by handing his reluctant readers The Knife and the Butterfly, which I wrote specifically with my Latino guys in mind. Other great picks are Jack Gantos' Hole in My Life and anything by Matt de la Peña. For guy-friendly short stories by Latino authors, he could check out Junot Diaz's Drown and Oscar Casares' Brownsville.
One last point: if any group needs support in overcoming educational disenfranchisement, it's the Latino 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 accomplish 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 segregation here, and more on race in writing 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. I write books that I hope will be worth reading and passing around. Teachers, librarians, readers: help us make the good books go viral.