Looking Back: Musings on Diversity and Identity in Hispanic and Latin American Children’s Literature

By Alma Flor Ada

When My Name is María Isabel was published in 1993 I was delighted to see that many school and some school districts saw the benefit that all teachers would read this brief chapter book, because they recognized that the significance that students’ names, whichever their origin, be respected. Through the years I have seen enthusiastic teachers doing wonderful projects with the book and I have received numerous letters from students sharing with me how themselves, or some in their family, had suffered by having had their names changed or disregarded. I had imagined that this practice would disappear. Because I leave a part of me in every book, of course, my hope is that they will continue to be read, but I had hoped My Name is María Isabel would be read as something that happened in the past, not currently. Unfortunately this is not the case. José Miguel, one of the characters in Yes! We Are Latinos, insists that he is not Joe, nor Mike, defending the name he was given after his grandfather because the issue. The need to respect diversity continues to be a major issue in our society.

In Yes! We Are Latinos, Isabel Campoy and I, combined free verse presentations of significant moments in the lives of young Latinos and Latinas to introduce the thirteen topics about the Latino history and contributions shared in this book, hoping to bring new awareness to Latino identity.

The issue of identity is complex. We could all recognize multiple identities. With regards to my ethnicity: I am camagüeyana, very much aware of the five-hundred year old city of my birth, Camagüey, birth place of two magnificent poets, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, in the 19th century, and Nicolás Guillén, the Cuban National Poet of the 20th. I am cubana, with deep roots and continuous awareness of the numerous and significant contributions in art, music, ballet, literature, science, education and natural beauty of this island I so much love. I am caribeña, Latin American and Hispanic in my relations with the wide Spanish-speaking world, and Latina in the struggle to bring about recognition to the Latino presence in the United States where I have lived the largest part of my long life.

These multiple identities are in no way, in conflict, but rather like a set of Russian wooden dolls, are nested in each other. They all bring their own richness and make me who I am. But above all of them I am a woman, an activist, a human being devoting my life to foster knowledge and reflection, to celebrate diversity, to struggle for social justice as the only road to everlasting peace.

tesorosAs I write for children and youth it is natural that the values that are important to me would become the theme of my books, whether presented through realistic characters or not. I have recognized how many of these values are part of my legacy, the education received directed from my family, or gleaned by observation of life around me, even when very young. My childhood memories Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, published also as Tesoros de mi isla: Una infancia cubana is an effort to show how it all began.

The value of diversity as opposed to discrimination and prejudice may be expressed as well through geometrical figures as in Friends, where the figures who have been taught to not mix with others who are different discover the joy of sharing with each other, and El reino de la geometría, where King Square VII banished from the kingdom all figures that are not perfect squares, as in a middle grade novel like Dancing Home, co-authored with my son Gabriel Zubizarreta, who is a story of immigration and identity.

Diversity may also be simply celebrated in books for very young readers, A Surprise for Mother Rabbit or Strange Visitors, and is crucial in the four titles of the Hidden Forest series, [Dear Peter Rabbit, Yours truly, Goldilocks, With Love, Little Red Hen, and Extra! Extra!] with extraordinary illustrations by Leslie Tryon. In these books, written in letter format or as a newspaper, characters from traditional stories develop surprising friendships and support each other.

The value of friendship among those who may apparently not be alike, is the theme of Friend Frog, depicting the difficulties of Field Mouse, who can’t croak, or jump, and does not particularly care for swimming in gaining the friendship of outstanding Frog that can do all those things. It is also central to The Unicorn of the West.

saturdays-y-domingosThe joy and strength to be derived from family is present throughout my work as in another book co-authored with my son Gabriel, Love, Amalia. Sometimes the family depicted may be a bi-cultural family as in I Love Saturdays… y domingos.

Recognizing hard work and the need of justice for workers has inspired not only Gathering the Sun, a bilingual alphabet book in honor of migrant farmworkers, but also the biography of César Chávez in Paths and many other pages.

And these are some of the many themes present in my poetry: Coral y espuma [Coral and Foam], a book of poems about the ocean, includes the poem Sol [Sun], enemigo de la sombra, amigo de la verdad, “enemy of shadow, a friend of truth”. The poems in Arrullos de la sirena [The mermaid’s lullabies] are a tribute to motherhood and the unique feelings of being a grandmother. The anthology of my poetry Todo es canción [All is Song] has poems like Canción de todos los niños del mundo, [Songs to all children] written more than forty years ago, and still a message necessary today. It affirms: Yo no hablo tu idioma / tú no hablas el mío/ pero tú te ríes/ cuando yo me río… … vivimos muy lejos / no estamos cercanos / pero yo te digo / que somos hermanos [I don’t speak your language/you do not speak mine/but you laugh/ when I laugh… we live very far away/ we are not nearby/ but I can assure you/ we are all brothers and sisters].

My books, poetry and plays, realistic and fantasy narrative, biographies, folklore and non-fiction, published along many years, with different publishers, and multiple illustrators, are indeed very eclectic. I do not have a specific time or place to write. A single mother, of four precious children, I have been an educator during most of my life, and writing, while very important to me, had to take place after all other responsibilities had been addressed. I have written as ideas, feelings, emotions, filled my mind and soul, many times making initial drafts that later would linger for years on a file drawer, until another moment would bring them to life. I write as I live, as I breathe.

When I was asked recently how I would like to be remembered when I am no longer here the natural answer for me was: “I would feel honored to be remembered as a teacher, as someone who has devoted her life to become a true teacher, and yes, as a teacher who writes.”

Alma Flor Ada is the author of numerous award winning children’s books, and has dedicated her life to promote Transformative Education in the pursue of social justice and peace. Born in Cuba, she has studied in Spain, Peru and the United States of America. A strong advocate of Bilingual Education since 1970, she has spoken nationally and internationally on issues of language rights.

Looking Back: Making Accessibility Accessible

My life changed Thanksgiving Day 2003. While I was attending a work retreat with my husband at a resort in Mexico my children, who were with their grandparents in Orlando, were in a terrible car accident. My five-year-old son escaped with only a bruise. My ten-year-old daughter suffered a T11 spinal cord injury and was paralyzed. In an instant, she could no longer walk.
I was a teacher at the time. After a holiday season spent in rehab, we were all ready to jump back into our lives and return to school. By January my daughter, Arielle, was back in her fourth-grade classroom with her friends and a new set of wheels.
Arielle was an avid reader. I had always loved finding the right books for my kids and my students. After the accident, I began to search for characters with differing physical abilities.


People were treating Arielle different. To me, she was still the intelligent, social, vibrant child who talked to everyone and lit up a room with her presence. I desperately wanted people to see her and not the wheelchair, but that wasn’t always the case. To some she was invisible. Our lives revolved around learning about accessibility, advocating for it and teaching others about disability. We also had to navigate our feelings about Arielle being able to walk again one day. In other words, would Arielle grow up feeling less than if we took her out of school and placed her in a full-time physical therapy program with no guarantee of recovery? Or would it be better to let her be a kid and teach her self-acceptance from the seat of her wheelchair? When Arielle told me, she wished there were more books with characters who used wheelchairs I kept searching.

I found THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett which Arielle loved.

Then a storyteller came to our school and introduced us to PETEY by Ben Michaelson.

PETEY takes place from 1920-1990. It’s about Petey Corbin who is born with cerebral palsy and sent to live in an insane asylum. Despite a challenging life Petey keeps a positive attitude and shows kindness to his friend Calvin and all his caretakers. Eventually, Petey meets a lonely eighth-grade boy, Trevor, and the two become friends.

out-of-my-mindWhen Arielle reached middle school, her adventurous spirit led her to try volleyball, road racing, and skate parks. It’s no wonder her favorite books were the MAXIMUM RIDE series. She liked the characters because they had different physical bodies. It was during this time that I began writing a middle-grade novel about a young girl who used a wheelchair.

I searched for more books that contained characters with differing physical abilities and found THE LITTLE LAME PRINCE AND HIS TRAVELING CLOAK by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. It’s the story of a young boy who is paralyzed and exiled in a tower. Then a fairy godmother gives him a magic cloak so he can see the world. Prince Dolor gains wisdom and compassion through his adventures and eventually ends up ruling the land.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper was published in 2010. It’s the story of young Melody who was born with cerebral palsy. OUT OF MY MIND has won numerous book awards and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years.

As part of my research for this post, I asked Arielle to ask her teammates at The University of Illinois if they were influenced by any books that contained characters with differing physical abilities. Some of the favorite books they mentioned were HARRY POTTER, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, and HATCHET. One person remembered liking a picture book with a character that used a wheelchair, A VERY SPECIAL CRITTER by Mercer Mayer and Gina Mayer. It was published in 1993.

a-very-special-critterI found through my school visits that students from kindergarten to high school are very interested in learning about the lives of people with different physical abilities. There’s no judgment just curiosity. We end up having wonderful discussions. I leave knowing the next time those students encounter a flight of stairs or an accessible parking space they’ll view it differently because they had a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes—shoes that don’t touch the ground.

K.D. Rausin is a former teacher living in sunny Cape Coral, Florida. MYSTIC, her middle grade fantasy, and Elle & Buddy, her picture book, both feature strong female protagonists who use wheelchairs.

South Asian Kidlit

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When I sat down to write this post, I had no idea what to write about. My formative years were in the 80’s and the only South Asian stories I knew were the Amir Chitra Katha books and folktales of Akbar and Birbal from India. Living in rural Pennsylvania I grew up on a steady diet of Richard Scarry picture books, Judy Blume books, and Nancy Drew mysteries. When I started reading teen romances, how I wished there was a South Asian female protagonist, someone who had to explore the culture clash while having a crush on the cute Caucasian guy at school. The closest I got was trying to connect with a Latina teen in TE AMO MEANS I LOVE YOU.

I started researching South Asian history in America and found Uma Krishnaswami’s eloquent and educational post on “Being South Asian”. From here I learned the 1928 Newbery Award winner went to a South Asian, Dhan Gopal Mukerji for GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON. Cool! But why is this fact not more readily known? Why did the foundation of South Asian literature not begin forming for another fifty-sixty years? My guess is this probably has to do with the size of the South Asian population and the exclusionary policies prevalent during the first half of the 20th century. While there were South Asians in the United States most prominently in the farming communities of the Pacific Northwest, the numbers were small. It wasn’t until after the 1965 Immigration Act that immigration restrictions from South Asia eased up. It was these 1st generation peoples that would start building the foundation of South Asian children’s literature.

Since I am a picture book writer, here are a few South Asian picture books that made an impression upon me when I re-entered children’s literature as an adult. These books are my mirror, one that I didn’t even realize I needed until recently.

Kashmira Seth’s MONSOON AFTERNOON (Peachtree, 2008) transports young readers to a lush, tropical India and explores the relationship between grandfather and grandchild. This book reminded me of my summer vacations in India. The hot, balmy June weather and how refreshing it felt after a downpour. I loved the beautiful watercolor illustrations which accurately depicts the setting with its banyan trees, bungalow homes, and of course the roaming cows. Her latest book SONA AND THE WEDDING GAME (Peachtree, 2015) beautifully balances the rich traditions of an Indian wedding ceremony and its accompanying fun ‘n games. The stealing of the groom’s shoes is the top shenanigan that takes place at an Indian wedding, one that I have participated in many times during my youth.

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wedding game (1)

Rukhsana Khan’s MY BIG RED LOLLIPOP (Viking, 2010) is about an older sister, Rubina, who is invited to her classmate’s birthday party and must take her younger sister at her mother’s insistence. This book cleverly shows the clash of views between two cultures and also how to learn from the experience. Rubina’s mom brought back memories of my mom’s “traditional thinking” which definitely didn’t always work harmoniously with the American way.

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This is just a sampling of the wonderful South Asian children’s books that have been published within the last ten years. For a comprehensive list of South Asian authors do check out this post by Padma Venkatraman. As I look to the future and watch the South Asian population and its history in this country grow, I’m excited to see what type of South Asian stories will be created next.

Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She writes humorous multicultural picture books and spends way too much time online immersing in all things kidlit. You can find her blogging at www.flowering-minds.com and on Twitter @darshanakhiani.

An Asian American Reader Looks for Herself in Books?

I was recently interviewed by an Asian online newspaper. As often happens, the young Taiwanese reporter asked me if I was a prolific reader growing up — and my answer was YES. I loved books. They were my life and lifeline and best friends. When I’m asked to list the books that influenced me the most — there is no hesitation. It’s easy and the list is long and varied. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Last Unicorn. All the Peanuts comics, All of Judy Blume. Read over and over. And over.

I related to these books. I connected to them. I saw part of myself in all the main characters. In Judy Blume’s Margaret, I saw a young, uncertain girl confused by who she was or was supposed to be and looking to a higher power for answers. In Lord of the Rings, I saw a small someone in an impossible fight against huge odds. And in Little Women, I saw a sister who didn’t quite fit in with her big feet and awkwardness, but finally finding her place as a writer. I saw myself. In all these books.


I never really got to see myself.

As often happens, I have been asked to discuss Asian American authors and characters and books that came before mine— and their influences on me.

This is less easy.

It took me a while to start this piece, because I realized that as a child, I didn’t have much experience reading Asian authors who came before me.

So I had to stop and think. When was the first time?

Of course, there was a wonderful start with the magical board books of Gyo Fugikawa. BABIES (Grosset & Dunlap, 1963) in particular I remember. How I loved that book. The Japanese-American author-illustrator was one of the first to consistently show diverse characters in all her work. She wrote & illustrated over fifty books for children, as well as illustrating classic such as A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES by Robert Louis Stevenson. I treasure all my young memories of her works and many, many years later read them to my own children.

From Gyo Fugikawa. BABIES (Grosset & Dunlap, 1963)
From Gyo Fugikawa. BABIES (Grosset & Dunlap, 1963)

As I think about the books I read over the years, it really wasn’t until 1989, as a young adult working in Manhattan, I read Amy Tan’s JOY LUCK CLUB (1989, G. P. Putnam Son’s) and another Asian author came into my life. I know there are some stereotypes that people have problems with in this book, but I loved it. I loved it the way many Asian readers of my generation loved it. We were just was thrilled to see ourselves. I loved reading about the generation of women raised by immigrants. I loved the stories of young Asian-American women finding their way in a world that was a mix of their mothers’ culture and their own contemporary surroundings.

joy luck club

There would be another rather large space of time before Asian authors would come into my life again. When my daughter came to reading age, I was excited to discover a new generation of books that now included Asian American authors and characters.

First there was Grace Lin for her picture books. UGLY VEGETABLES and DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE! Along with my beloved Gyo Fugikawa board books, these became part of our daily readings. As my daughter grew, she had choices I only wished I could have found in my library. There was Linda Sue Park’s lyrical Newberry Medal winning A SINGLE SHARD (2001, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) during her early novel reading years. And Lisa Yee’s wonderful MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS (2003, Scholastic)— a character I adored. As my daughter devoured these books, I got a chance to see the reading world from her eyes and imagine what it would have meant to me to have these books at her age.

When my own debut middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE came out, I received letters that I could not help noticing came from Asian American girls – mentioning how they liked that there were two (two!) very different Asian characters in the story— instead of the typical single token friend.

And they asked if I would be writing books in which these were the main characters.

My next (currently untitled) middle grade novel features a Taiwanese girl who is creative and awkward and hopeful and so many things that I was at twelve. I imagine the girls who will see themselves in my books. I think about how these girls tell me they want to be writers too. I hope they will.

And I can’t help smiling as I write.

Kat Yeh grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked as a copywriter for many years in advertising and sports marketing, while writing poems and children’s books in the wee hours of the night. She currently lived in Long Island where she spends any non-writing time being outside as much as possible and exploring all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She has never cooked a meal without pretending to be the host of a TV cooking show. THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE is her debut middle grade novel.

Looking Back: From Trinidad To New York

When I arrived in Brooklyn at the age of fifteen, staring a new culture in the face, and the prospect of freezing cold winters, I was excited, but worried. I worried about what I would wear. I worried about whether I would fit in. I worried because so many people did not look like me. Growing up in Trinidad & Tobago, everyone looked like me, more or less. It’s a rainbow of brown hues in the hot Trinidad sun, from blue-black, to red (a color name reserved for people with light skin). In my own family, a mix of Indian and African ancestry, we had every color on the spectrum. But in New York, I was introduced to a whole lot more, plus entire shifts in cultures around every block. The city streets were jarringly weird. School was awkward (it was my first time going to a co-ed school). Finding clothing that didn’t out me as a foreigner and that kept me warm was a bit of a nightmare. But the hardest part of that transition was coming from a family “of means” to one that struggled financially. Then one day I found a book in the library that seemed written for me. It was Rosa Guy’s THE FRIENDS. And finally I didn’t feel like such an anomaly.

Written in 1973, it was Guy’s take on her own trek from Trinidad to New York. The narrator, Phylissia, aged 16 and finding her new life in America flawed and socially fraught, and with the same sudden financial woes, was me in print. Literally. Alice Walker called it a “heart-slammer.” THE FRIENDS was the first of a trilogy followed by RUBY (1976), and EDITH JACKSON (1978), all dealing with the lives of adolescent Black girls in New York, the first two from the perspective of Black Caribbean girls adjusting to American culture. Despite the fact that they were written about the New York of the 70s it was still very familiar. Guy’s books were surprisingly direct and felt to me like a much-needed drink of water. “She’s never afraid of the truth,” Maya Angelou once said. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.”

Another trilogy, THE DISAPPEARANCE (1979), NEW GUYS AROUND THE BLOCK (1983), and AND I HEARD A BIRD SING (1987) also called the Imamu Jones Mysteries, are about a Harlem teen who finds himself in and out of trouble—and jail, in an emotional and social landscape that still resonates today.

Standalone young adult novels include MIRROR OF HER OWN (1981), a coming of age story about eighteen-year-old Mary Abbot and THE MUSIC OF SUMMER (1992) which dealt with colorism viewed from the perspective of the darkest-skinned girl in a group of teens during a summer on Cape Cod. For younger readers, Guy wrote PARIS, PEE WEE AND BIG DOG (1984) about ten-year-old Paris and his friends on one adventurous and unsupervised day in New York City, and THE UPS AND DOWNS OF CARL DAVIS III (1992) about a Harlem boy who moves to live with his grandmother in South Carolina.

Guy also wrote picture books. In MOTHER CROCODILE: “MAMAN-CAIMAN” (1988), Guy retold a series of African folktales. The book won a Coretta Scott King Award for the illustrations by John Steptoe. BILLY THE GREAT (1992) explored what happens when parents have different plans for a kid’s future than the kid himself.

Looking Back

But Guy’s career began writing for adults. BIRD AT MY WINDOW (1966) was her first novel. A MEASURE OF TIME (1983) once again delved into her personal experiences living in Harlem, and MY LOVE, MY LOVE, OR THE PEASANT GIRL (1985), which has been described as The Little Mermaid meets Romeo and Juliet, was adapted for stage and became the eight-time Tony Award-winning Once on This Island.

What Guy did for the landscape of literature goes beyond her own writing contributions. In 1950, she was one of the founders (the only woman) of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Their mission to develop works by writers of the African diaspora helped literary greats including Ossie Davis, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, and Walter Dean Myers. In 1977, the group was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers, and by 1986, founder John Oliver Killens estimated that their members “had produced over 300 published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screen plays.”  

Guy died in 2012 of cancer. While her work never became as popular as Myers’ for example, it was certainly as important and she herself may have been even more influential in the number of writers she helped to develop.  

​Tracey Baptiste, M. Ed is the author of the MG novel THE JUMBIES, which was a New York Public Libraries Staff Pick, and included in the Bank Street Best Books of 2016, among other accolades. She is also the author of the YA novel ANGEL’S GRACE, and several nonfiction books for children. Her latest is THE TOTALLY GROSS HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT. Ms. Baptiste is on the faculty at Lesley University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, and works as a freelance editor for various publishing companies as well as running her own editorial company, Fairy Godauthor.

Looking Back: Diversity in Board Books

By Joanna Marple

Board books are appropriate for children between ages zero and three at which point children start to move toward simple picture books. In addition to having subject matter, which is appropriate for younger ages, board books are also designed to stand up to heavier wear and tear than picture books (think teething!)

Debbie Barbuto who blogs at Mommy Moo Moo wrote a succinct and informative article about the history of board books. She points out that a child growing up during the early Middle Ages (from a wealthy family at least) amongst the marshes of Essex or budding urban center of Roma might have been exposed to wooden tablets to learn her his ABC’s. She traces the history of these early childhood books on materials such as thick card, animal horn and fabric through to the second half of the 20th century when board books start to be produced as new additions of existing, popular children’s books.

In the seventies and eighties, board books began to emerge in the format we know today, sturdy, with fewer pages than a standard picture book and aimed at the first two or three years of a child’s life. Sandra Boynton was one of the pioneers you will all recognize, but another author/illustrator on discovering the lack of books aimed specifically at this age group while nursing her first baby through nightly eczema itching, decided to do something about it. Married to author/illustrator John Burnham, Helen Oxenbury was emerging as an author/illustrator in her own right in the UK.

1987 was a prolific year for Helen Oxenbury. With Walker Books, she published: ALL FALL DOWN, CLAP HANDS, TICKLE TICKLE and SAY GOODNIGHT. Unlike her first three board books, I CAN, I HEAR and I SEE in 1985, all four books from 1987 contain a diverse cast of babies (see the original covers below).





These books are still in print and as popular today as they were thirty years ago. Simon and Schuster reissued them in 1999 with very little change to the original illustrations. To set the backdrop to Helen Oxenbury’s choice, it is worth noting that the UK saw a surge of racial tension and serious inner city rioting in the first half of the eighties, which I remember well. This level of racial diversity in children’s literature was welcome, important and pioneering at the time.

On a side note, SAY GOODNIGHT while it doesn’t have gay parents does included male caregivers!

While I believe most of us would agree that babies are not born racist, some would argue that they also do not see color differences, and therefor these portrayals in books for the very young are unimportant distinctions. Are kids color-blind? The researchers behind the book, NURTURE SHOCK by Pro Bronson and Ashley Merriman claim that children as young as six months judge other people based on the color of their skin. They found that while many families try to avoid discussing race in order to raise “color-blind” children, the kids are making their own, often incorrect, conclusions as to why they look different from their friends and neighbors. The authors claim that children as young as six months can judge others by the color of their skin. Even if a caregiver never mentions race, children may well use skin color on their own, along with other differences, to judge themselves and others. While some parents may feel it is too early to address race with their babies and toddlers, by introducing the subject visually through board books such as Helen Oxenbury’s (and many more recently published board books), I believe we can help avoid racial stereotyping, and nurture an inclusive attitude even in the very young. Books featuring children of color can not only help children of color fall in love with the written word, but also give white children an up close and personal view into the worlds of little people who don’t look like them—who, in many ways, are just like them. Maybe these young children don’t notice a character’s color. But maybe a little white girl reading these books with her dads might just decide to play with a little Asian American boy in the playground because he looks like a character in the book she liked. I think the benefits can be this simple and yet this profound.

Looking Back: Sometimes The All of a Kind Family Isn’t

By Laurel Snyder


If I’m being really honest, I have to admit I didn’t grow up with an especially strong sense of Jewish children’s literature.   In fact, when my first middle grade novel, was published, a librarian asked me what made my books Jewish, and I suddenly realized that NOTHING did. I had to accept the fact that my books were not Jewish at all. Furthermore, I realized that this was probably because the books I’d grown up loving most didn’t have any Jews in them.

Of course, I had  The All of a Kind Family books on my shelf.  I had The Diary of Anne Frank. And Zlateh the Goat.  But though I loved them, these books felt old to me, historical, almost like Jewish sacred  texts.  In my head, we had the Talmud, and then we had Zlateh the Goat.  These books were meant to preserve our heritage. They weren’t about me or my life.

Now I realize that part of the reason I didn’t identify these books with my own family was that my heritage was complicated.  Though I grew up Jewish (went to synagogue and Hebrew school, celebrated the holidays, etc.) my mother was Catholic, and intermarried families weren’t something Jewish children’s books addressed in those years.  If Judaism was marginalized by the larger world, intermarriage was marginalized by Jews.  I didn’t really expect to find myself or my family in any literature, ever.  I wasn’t mad about this fact. It absolutely fit with my understanding of the way things worked. Intermarriage was an embarrassment. Why would anyone write about it?

Davita's Harp


Then in high school,   I chanced upon  Davita’s Harp, and reading it, I felt an overwhelming shock of recognition.   Chaim Potok’s story of a girl from a mixed family, growing up in Depression-era New York, aware of the adults around her—their conflicting faiths and classes—struck a massive chord. Even though it was set in essentially the same world as The All of a Kind Family, this book was different. It didn’t feel historical. Rather, it dug into the emotional turf I was struggling to understand myself at that age.  It was about a girl who loved her parents, and their very different traditions. Who felt pulled at times, guilty. Like me.

Beyond religion and family, Davita’s Harp was urban. It was about social justice, war, death, art, and the limitations of the body. It was about all the things I was trying to untangle.  When I was fourteen, and I read this book, I don’t think I’d have called it a “Jewish book.” It felt too complex for that sort of simple definition.  The same way I didn’t feel like a “regular” Jew (I was still laboring under the illusion that there was such a thing), but rather, something messier.

And this is why tokenism will never be enough, in demanding diversity from our literature.  Because no “Jewish” book will ever encapsulate “The Jewish experience.”  Any more than a “black” or “Chinese” (much less “Asian”) book will ever define those experiences.  When people ask me, “How many Jewish books do we need?” I have to answer, “ALL of them.”  However many books we produce to satisfy a quota is too few.  Because not every kid came from The All of a Kind Family.

I think it’s important we remain aware of this, as writers.  Because there’s an impulse, sometimes, to broaden our stories. We want to be available to the greatest number of readers, so we reach for the lowest common denominator. But this feels wrong to me. Backwards.  This is how we lose authenticity, particularity.  No book I can write will ever meet the needs of “The Jewish World” or “Girls 8-12.”  The best I can do it to write one story, for one reader, in one moment, and hope it feels true, and resonates.

Of course, I went on to read all of Potok’s books in high school, and  I loved them. The Chosen. My Name is Asher Lev.  They introduced me—however imperfectly— to other Jewish worlds, to aspects of Jewish life I would probably never have encountered otherwise.  They were a point of departure for me, encouraging me to take Jewish Studies classes in college, and giving me a vocabulary with which to enter new Jewish spaces.  I’m grateful to them all. But nothing else Potok wrote ever touched me like Davita’s Harp.  I’m not sure any book has ever touched me in quite that way. It was the first book I really found my messy, confused, conflicted, ashamed Jewish self in, and that was everything.

Laurel Snyder is the author of many picture books, including Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, The Longest Night: A Passover Story, and Swan: the life and dance of Anna Pavlova.  She has also written 5 middle grade novels, including Bigger than a Bread Box, which draws on her childhood memories of life in an intermarried Jewish home.  A Baltimore native, Laurel now lives in Atlanta, where she works for InterfaithFamily.

Looking Back: The Brownies’ Book: Groundbreaking Literature for “The Children of the Sun”

By Andrea J. Loney

LBS2As a young black child growing up in the suburbs, I was often leery of “old-fashioned” children’s books published before the late 1960s. Sure, there were the lovely and colorful Golden Books with their shiny spines, and the stodgy Dick and Jane primers, always fun for a giggle or two. But in those older books I seldom saw anyone who looked like me or my family members. It seemed that black children were invisible in the early days of children’s books.

Well, not completely invisible. There were books like the wildly popular Little Black Sambo (1899), which often featured grotesque caricatures and painful stereotypes that usually positioned the black characters as buffoons. While those stories may have been written from the author’s perception of black children, none of those stories were actually written for black children. Back then there were few opportunities for African American children to see positive, uplifting, and heroic reflections of themselves in the pages of a book.

But around 1915, the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement brought a boom of cultural, literary, and intellectual empowerment to the African American community. It also brought the first magazine published for African American children. Lovingly illustrated with images of black boys and girls of all shades and types, this publication featured fairytales, African folktales, fantasies, realistic stories, poems, games, songs, articles on current events, and biographies. It even shared photographs of and letters from the readers themselves.

brownies.192109.017Its publisher, the legendary scholar and visionary W.E.B. Du Bois, named it The Brownies’ Book, and it became a foundation of African American children’s literature.

As founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the editor of the popular NAACP publication The Crisis, Du Bois had previously published the “Children’s Number,” a yearly issue of The Crisis for kids featuring stories, photographs, poetry, and games. But these issues still reported on the rise of racial violence against black Americans, such as lynchings and riots. Du Bois grew concerned for the emotional welfare of the children reading these issues.

So in 1919 Du Bois decided to create a monthly magazine – “for all children, but especially for ours, ‘the Children of the Sun.'” He wanted the publication for children ages six to sixteen to be a thing of joy, beauty, happiness, laughter, and emulation. He wanted to promote self-esteem, education, and leadership skills in young black children. Most of all he wanted to help African American children realize that being black was a normal, beautiful thing.

The Brownies’ Book was the first concerted effort to create a body of literature exclusively addressing the needs of African American children. The magazine ran from January 1920 to December 1921 under the leadership of Du Bois (editor), Augustus Granville Dill (business manager), and Jessie Fauset, (literary editor in 1920 and managing editor in 1921). It cost 15 cents a copy or $1.50 for a year’s subscription.

july 21 coverThis magazine was instrumental in promoting future African American children’s literature. It advertised and sold books that were not readily available in bookstores – works by writers such as Benjamin Brawley, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and more. The Brownies’ Book ran an ad for Unsung Heroes (1921), Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s acclaimed book on African American historical figures. After writing for several issues of The Brownies’ Book, poet and naturalist Effie Lee Newsome later published a volume of poetry for young children called Gladiola Garden (1940), which was gorgeously illustrated by the African American painter Lois Mailou Jones.

In 1921, The Brownies’ Book was the first magazine to publish the poetry of Langston Hughes, one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Dream Keeper (1932) contains many of his poems for children. Throughout his career Hughes wrote many books for children, and he also wrote with his friend Arna Bontemps. Under Hughes’ influence, Bontemps also enjoyed a long and productive career in children’s literature.

May 20 coverThe Brownies’ Book was the first magazine to take black children and the vast range of their particular life experiences seriously. The magazine encouraged imagination and play, but it also faced the reality of racial prejudice while celebrating cultural distinctions specific to the African American childhood experience. Through story and history, photos and illustrations, The Brownies’ Book fostered a deep cultural pride in young African American readers that still resonates to this day.

Online bibliography:
The Crisis. Vol. 18, No. 6 (October 1919), Pg. 285 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1295989365421875.pdf

The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children’s Literature, 1880-1939

Appropriating Change Through The Brownies’ Book

A nearly complete set of all the issues of The Brownies’ Book

Andrea J. Loney was the winner of Lee & Low’s 2014 New Voices Award and her picture book, BUNNYBEAR, will be published by Albert Whitman and Co this fall.

Looking Back: Charlemae Hill-Rollins

alexandria library
The contents of the Library of Alexandria may have been intended more to display the splendor of Egypt at the time than the lesser goal of research, but this library also had a mandate to collect all the world’s knowledge at that time. The library staff was occupied with the task of translating these works onto papyrus paper and archiving them. Part of the librarians’ job description included a well-funded royal demand involving trips to the book fairs of the day in Rhodes and Athens; not so dissimilar to today’s acquisitions procedures (Bologna, Frankfurt, anyone?) Also, any books found on ships that came into the port were taken to the library, copied and stored. This makes me hopeful that there was an element of diversity in this splendid ancient bibliographic center.

I am a librarian. I know how much (or at times how frustratingly little) a modern librarian can influence the content and promotion in her library. I have just completed an annual book order and one of my guiding principles was diversity. I am fortunate that this happens to be one of the values of my school. I could not curate a series about the forerunners of diversity in children’s literature without including one or two librarians. There are many to chose from, but today’s focus lies with Charlemae Hill-Rollins.

Charlemae Hill-Rollins McCain Library and Archives University of Southern Mississippi
Charlemae Hill-Rollins
McCain Library and Archives
University of Southern Mississippi

In a poor, rural Mississippi community at the end of the 19th century, Charlemae Hill-Rollins was born, the oldest child of a farmer and a teacher. It was maybe her grandmother, a former slave, who had the greatest influence on her childhood. Her grandmother shared oral stories and her collection of books with her grandchildren. Rollins recalled her grandmother’s influence in More Books by More People: Interviews with 65 Authors of Books for Children: “She gave us all the books that belonged to her master who was the father of her children, one of whom was my father. We enjoyed the books in his library, even though most of them were medical books. But I would read anything and everything.”

Rollins began her Chicago library career in 1927, and six years later, she was named head of the children’s department of the new George Cleveland Hall Library, where she remained for 36 years.

Though all this took place ¾ of a century ago, her activism reads like so many present day diversity articles in School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly. In time her fame was to spread from her Chicago library, the first branch to be located in a black neighborhood and serving such a diverse population, across the nation. While pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Rollins wrote a research paper on representations of African Americans in children’s literature and their impact on children, which would eventually be published as the pamphlet The Negro in Children’s Books. This publication began the crusade for which I especially want to honor and acknowledge Rollins. Working to have children’s books depicting racist stereotypes removed from library purchasing lists, Rollins’ We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use was published by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1941. This pamphlet outlined criteria for the selection of literature relating to African Americans, one of the first writings of its kind and truly a precursor of our thrust in the We Need Diverse Books movement. She helped raise the level of consciousness among fellow librarians, teachers, and publishers to the need for more honest portrayals of African Americans in children’s literature.

we buildRollins became the ALA’s first black president in 1957. She retired in 1963 at the age of 66 but didn’t stop what had become her life’s passion. During her retirement she wrote many books of her own, including several YA biographies of black men and women. And in 1972 she was the first African American to receive an honorary lifetime membership in the ALA. Rollins’ role in promoting African Americans in children’s books deservedly earned her awards from library, education, and humanitarian organizations. Among other notable awards she received, was the Coretta Scott King Award in 1971 for her biography Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes. And it deserves our gratitude as we continue to promote Rollins’ values of improving the image of African Americans in children’s books and helping young patrons learn about their heritage.

Rollins said exactly what we are still saying — “Children as they are growing up need special interpretations of the lives of other peoples,” she maintained, “[and] must be helped to an understanding and tolerance. They cannot develop these qualities through contacts with others, if those closest to them are prejudiced and unsympathetic with other races and groups. Tolerance and understanding can be gained through reading the right books.”

Joanna Marple

Online Sources:

Joseph Bruchac: A Strong, Early Voice in Indigenous Children’s Literature

Bruchac-7Imagine a lake with its shimmering, glass-like top – quiet and calm. Yet just below, fish dart and snakes swim in search of food. Above, water striders glide and dragonflies flit on the smooth surface. This image is Joseph Bruchac – a picture of calm, yet teeming with incredible activity inside and around him. For over forty years, this Abenaki author’s award-winning stories about indigenous peoples have crossed all genres of children’s literature. Still as he describes his worst day as a writer, that reality almost never materialized. After a frustrating first semester in graduate school with a visiting instructor who not only gave him the only “B” he ever earned in a writing course and made him rewrite his novel several times in various voices, the teacher told Bruchac he was too lyrical in his prose and not a storyteller. Bruchac left, smashed and trashed his typewriter. Then, he built a fire in his back yard at married student housing and burnt all of his writing. Thankfully, for the world at large, Bruchac bought another typewriter and the following semester met Grace Paley, a new teacher, lifelong mentor and friend with great respect for Native cultures.

I first found Bruchac’s abundant work as an undergraduate through his 1990 ​Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children​ (with Michael J. Caduto), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. From there, books about my own tribe demonstrated a commitment to writing accurate and authentic stories.

Bruchac Milky Way PB

​[See The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story​ and ​The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (co-authored with Gayle Ross)​; early reader – ​The Trail of Tears​; and, his middle grade novel​, My Name is America: The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy​.] Bruchac finds that is one of the biggest challenges in sharing stories about indigenous people. “Don’t make things up,” he advises. “Go directly to Native people themselves. Not to books, not on-line, but to actual living people. And never expect any one member of a Native culture to know everything or accurately tell every story from her culture.” His upcoming novel, ​Talking Leaves​, on Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee syllabary, reflects this practice as he drew on his consultations and collaborations with many Cherokee citizens both in Oklahoma and North Carolina over the years as well as submitting the manuscript to the Cherokee Nation’s language program for review and comment. The tribe previously awarded Bruchac its Prose Award; and, he credits receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas as his best day as a writer.

In addition to continually creating and publishing “the world of stories around us,” the septuagenarian tends a large garden and teaches martial arts 5-6 days a week, cultivating a “Zen mindedness about living and writing.” He also works alongside his two sons, Jim and Jesse, who are active in bringing Native language and stories to film. Together, they created a new imprint, Bowman Books, within their Greenfield Review Press, to showcase the poetry, traditional stories and shorter fiction of Native writers in the Northeastern US. Even with his success, Bruchac still finds challenges from traditional publishing houses to consider using Native illustrators, but credits many of his editors “who have been willing to listen and glad to learn” about Native cultures in editing his work. As Bruchac considers what excites him about children’s literature, he believes it is “some of the best and most interesting writing being produced these days,” citing Louise Erdrich’s work for younger readers as one example. He is also energized by what can be done with movies, the “possibilities of the graphic novel” and “new media on-line,” thus providing a hint of all the stories Bruchac still has to share with the world.

For a complete listing of Joseph Bruchac’s wide body of work, visit www.josephbruchac.com and his Bowman Books imprint at www.lulu.com/spotlight/jbruchac. To learn more about his formative years and journey as a writer and storyteller, read Michelle Parker-Rock’s kid-friendly and insightful ​Joseph Bruchac: An Author Kids Love​, Enslow Elementary, 2010. The current WNDB-Scholastic Reading Club Special Edition flyer features Bruchac’s ​The Journal of Jesse Smoke​ and ​Eagle Boy​, a contemporary middle grade novel about a Mohawk boy facing bullying and prejudice in Brooklyn.

Traci Sorell is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee nation and a writer of picture books, both fiction
and non-fiction.

Look Back In Pride

In this first post in our LOOK BACK series, I shall focus on two LGBTQ YA authors/books. Of course, back in the 70’s and 80’s it was mainly L and G. B, T, Q, I, non-binary characters etc. rarely appeared, but more on that in later posts. (Note, Malinda Lo has compiled some interesting statistics of LGBT YA novels from 1969 to 2011 in a post on her website​.)

If I had known about and been able to lay my hands on ​Annie On My Mind ​by Nancy Gardner when it was published by Farrar, Strauss Giroux in 1982, I firmly believe my coming out story could have been different! I also want to acknowledge the important role of early LGBTQ ​publishers like FSG, who took quite a risk on these controversial and marginalized themes at the time.


This was not the first modern lesbian YA novel but it was groundbreaking as the first happy ending in a YA novel with a lesbian theme. It was also unusual in including two gay generations: Liza, the protagonist, and her
girlfriend Annie; and the two ‘spinster’ teachers who ‘shared’ a house, Ms.Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. Okay, so the ending is in fact not so happy for these two adults whose teaching careers at the private girls school, which Liza attends, are cut short by the young lesbians’ rash behavior. After a couple of decades of tragic endings to gay novels (mostly adult romances), often through car crashes, the hard won and optimistic conclusion for Annie and Liza broke a mold in the gay problem novel trend of its day.

Also, as Roger Sutton points out in a 2007 Horn Book article on the subject, it is most definitely an “us” not “them” story, “The dedication — ‘to all of us’ — has ardency and high-mindedness in its unspoken declaration. It also signals a sense of community between author and readers, at least among those who can decode the ‘us’ to include themselves.” My Fosters Academy style school in Cambridge (UK) contained no gay YA novels (though looking back it may have had some Ms. Stevens and Ms. Widmers!) and while I came to Annie ​much later than high school, my identification with Liza was immediate and life-changing. While the story is dated with regards vocabulary, e.g. “lovers” rather than girlfriends, and the more closeted nature of the two couples’ sexuality, it still reads as a wonderful rollercoaster first romance between two adolescents. While many teens still struggle with coming out; some face intense bullying and discrimination; and gays do not always have equality in the workplace, it is important to note the different social milieu in Liza and Annie’s Brooklyn. As of this year’s supreme court ruling, two lesbian eighteen year-olds in NYC can marry and it is quite likely they would have attended a gay/straight alliance club at school, whereas ​Annie on My Mind was published at the same time AIDS was beginning to make international headlines and fuel the already existing homophobia in many nations.

The School Library Journal included ​Annie On My Mind on its list of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. And according to the ALA​, it was number 48 in the top 100 most frequently challenged books during the period 1990 to 2000. It has been banned in many school libraries over the years and was publicly burned in Kansas City. It remains a classic lesbian coming-of-age story and Nancy Garden, who died last year, was a trailblazer.

IGTIGTWhile ​Annie ​is still in print and still garnering regular readers and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the first gay YA novel​, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan had been out-of-print for years until Flux Books brought out a “40th anniversary” edition in 2010. It was published in 1969, just six months before the Stonewall Riots. It is more humorous and cynical than ​Annie​, and definitely more ambiguous. I think it is also worth noting that the main characters in both novels as well as their authors and the authors of are white.

The protagonist of Donovan’s novel, a thirteen-year-old named Davy Ross, is forced to move to an unwelcoming Manhattan apartment to live with his estranged alcoholic mother after the tragic loss of his grandmother who was his rock. About 1/3 of the way into the story, at his private school in New York, he meets another boy called
Altschuler, who treats him like dirt at first. But the two start to explore a confusing romantic relationship. Any physical scenes take place off stage and are referenced obtusely. The slow pace of the novel and unresolved ending might lose some 21​st century teen readers, but like Annie, ​it is historic in that it isn’t a tragic and coming-of-age story undermined by hopelessness. Davy hasn’t the self-confidence of a modern gay teen character like Tiny from ​Will Grayson Will Grayson, but Tiny and we owe a debt to Davy’s tentative exploration of his homosexuality and Donovan’s courage in writing this novel.
I would love to hear your first LGBTQ YA reads and how they
impacted you.

Joanna Marple