There's a disparity in Latinx representation in children's literature and these women are doing something about it
By Kim Hoyos
Latinx representation in children’s literature is abysmal, but it’s not nearly as profiled, researched, or dissected as in other forms of media.
It’s no secret that media guides the way we see ourselves, learn about the world, and understand concepts and communities we might not come in contact within our day to day life. We form our thoughts and opinions through the media that we consume, even as children. Just as children start to model their personalities after the interactions they witness from their families, they can just as well begin to adopt behaviors based on the content that’s being shown to them. Children absorb information like a sponge and that information, if gone unchecked can have serious consequences. Research has shown that exposure to negative stereotypes in media can cause mental health issues, stress, overeating, aggression, or difficulty in making rational decisions in adults (University of Toronto).
Stereotypes stem from repeated storytelling throughout generations and through media—the everlasting omnipresent force that seems to be a beast too large to handle. It feels like the importance of accurate representation in media is always on the tongues of celebs, fingertips of Twitter users, and the forefront of entertainment news. Though there are challenges to inclusion for the film and television industry, news media, and more, there is one realm of representation that still has yet to be unlocked in in terms of a larger cultural conversation. We need to talk about the importance of diversity in children’s literature.
Children’s literature needs to be prioritized in the conversation of representation because of how early exposure to books begins in a child’s life. The CDC recommends reading to infants as early as two months old to jumpstart their cognitive recognition of sounds, language, and environment. Teaching your child through colorful books filled with tales of superheroes, dragons, and everyday people is ingrained into the daily lives of families across the country. Reading is fundamental to a child’s development and exists as one of their first exposures to media.
But, research from the Cooperative Children's Book Center from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education shows that out of the over 3,000 children’s books published in 2018, Latinx characters accounted for just 5% of protagonists. This is a stark contrast to their report of white characters accounting for 50% of books, followed by animals / other (fantasy creatures) accounting for 27% of characters. Latinx representation in children’s literature is abysmal, but it’s not nearly as profiled, researched, or dissected as in other forms of media. For the Latinx community to be so disproportionately represented in children’s literature, even as we account for 25% of the United States’ K-12 students in 2016 (Pew Research Center), is a disadvantage for our youngest members. The publishing industry needs to be challenged to both include Latinx characters in their work and to also publish bilingual books. Children begin to associate gender stereotypes and become aware of gender in abstract ways around age 26 months old (Haim, Ruble).
How can children grow up understanding the beauty of their respective culture and vibrancy of the Latinx community at large when they have limited representation? I spoke to a few Latina moms who weighed in on the books they were being advertised, sold, or accessed. Many were talking to their children in two languages at home and attempting to integrate culture early on. Stephanie Saliba, a Brazil-born mother of two, now residing in New Jersey, describes the process of finding books that feature her culture’s identity,“extremely difficult in the US and hardly ever promoted.” She educates her twin daughters, toddlers aged two, on their identity by celebrating Brazilian holidays, serving traditional meals, and frequently visiting family. Though she’s trying to reinforce their culture at home, she’s noticed that with her daughters now in preschool she,“[finds herself] second-guessing this because they are confused in school and the teachers pressure [her] to teach them primarily English at home.”
Anyone proud of their identity is entitled to teach others, especially their children, about their roots. The United States is a blend of culture, cuisine, ideology, and people—it’s fundamental to the fabric of our nation to honor diversity. Stephanie’s story is not unique; Latinx families across the country are toeing the line of pride in their heritage and raising their children to be fully American and fully Latinx.
With the current administration hellbent on breaking the spirit of the Latinx community, we must take it upon ourselves to nurture our children, to listen to them, teach them, and foster their creativity stronger than ever before. From hateful rhetoric telling us to “go back” to our countries, to the rise of hate crimes, we as a Latinx community have to fight erasure and abuse. We have to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our community. We can mold a generation that can hopefully make a change in the future. Thankfully, some key players are making steps towards inclusion in the industry.
Veoleo is a U.S. independent press created by Colombian sisters Alexis and Janike Ruginis with the mission of celebrating Latin American and Caribbean culture, explaining critical concepts for children, and teaching Spanish. Inspired by Janike’s own difficulty in finding books authentically written in Spanish or representing Latinx culture, the sisters decided to take on the disparity themselves. Their mission is personal and rooted in the belief that they are making change through the creation of Latinx narratives in children’s literature.
“We have a moral conviction that it is important for Latinx kids to see their heritage reflected in books, to plant the seeds for them to be proud of who they are no matter where they live, and to spread respect for our culture,” says Alexis.
Veloleo currently has one book published, ¿Dónde está el coquí? Un cuento sobre la ranita cantante, which is written by the two sisters and illustrated by a Latinx illustrator, and two books available for pre-order. By creating books explicitly for the advancement of inclusion, education, and the support of children, these two sisters have channeled their own experiences into a direct impact that has the possibility of changing the publishing industry and the way we look at children’s literature for the better. Not only are they solving Janike’s struggle of finding books reflecting our community’s experiences, but also solving an issue that parents across the U.S. are facing.
An analysis of authorship in media is vital when looking at representation. Consumers can be as conscious as possible of diversity and inclusion; but, if there aren’t more Latinx voices as producers, content creators, and publishers, then it’s harder to create change. We deserve to have our stories told accurately, respectfully, and frequently. Alice Perez is adding her voice to children’s literature with Vamos a Veracruz, a book inspired by the experiences of her late grandmother. With writing this book, she wanted to honor her grandmother while also working to encourage children to learn about Mexican culture. With reading’s vital involvement in a child’s development, it’s crucial to their education to have books like Perez and Ruginis’ accessible. The books that are read to or by children will mold their views of their world, the way they learn a language (both English and Spanish), and how they identify themselves. Alice suggests, “to keep close ties with their culture, parents can incorporate their language for starters. Simply asking their children small things as they do daily activities, such as doing chores or going out to eat, one can take these small opportunities and turn them into learning experiences for new words.”
There’s so much progress to be made in Latinx representation in children’s literature. By acknowledging and understanding the importance of the issue and those creating inclusive narratives, consumers can make a change. Books give children the ability to grow their emotional toolkit, appreciate their uniqueness, and provide entertainment. Latinx parents, through bicultural integration via literature, can create a whole new gift to their children: the empowerment that comes with seeing media that reflects you. If flying dragons, talking fairies, and kid surgeons can exist in children’s books—Venezuelan business owners, Mexican music superstars, and Cuban immigrants can too. And children in our community deserve to see it.