On December 4, the New York Times ran an article on the lack of classroom books written by and featuring Latinos. The article highlights the problem, and a few solutions – commissioning writers to write books with Latino characters, or allocating a representative percentage of textbook content for Latino works – but, some say, it left out publishers that are already providing the stories needed. Referencing big six and textbook publishers, the article did not spotlight any nonmainstream publishing houses.
Several of those smaller publishers, including Lee & Low, Cinco Puntos, Arte Público, NewSouth Books, and Groundwood Books, say they are already producing books that fill the void for Latino children. John Byrd, marketing director and CFO at Cinco Puntos, says, “A lot of this work is happening. It’s just not getting the attention that it needs.” Byrd is grateful to the New York Times for bringing up the topic, but he feels the small houses that are trying to get their books into schools were left out of the conversation. And that’s unfortunate, he says, because “indie pubs are doing a better job identifying the market and finding books that work for the market.”
Publishing houses like the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press have spent more than three decades “issuing books created from Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Dominican, Cuban, and other Latino cultures as they have grown in the United States,” says director Nicolás Kanellos. “It is not hard to find our books, which are reviewed in standard publications, such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, and appear [on] many lists of award winners.”
Yet these titles struggle to find their way into the school system. Hannah Ehrlich, marketing and publicity manager of Lee & Low Books, says, “I think it is a problem – a visibility problem – that these books aren’t getting into classrooms.” She adds, “I think a lot of the more diverse work has been coming from smaller presses that have more freedom. There is still this myth that groups like Latinos and African-Americans don’t buy those books. It takes a lot of visibility to get those books into schools.”
Ehrlich suggests that if teachers and librarians are looking for ways to diversify what’s read in their classrooms, “I think the American Library Association is a good place to start, because their awards represent quality awards by small and big publishers. These are expert librarians evaluating these books for authenticity. They’re looking for books that go beyond Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and have been vetted in the field.”
In the eyes of many of the smaller publishers, librarians and teachers are the ones leading the charge, often going out of their way to find quality books for their students, stories they can relate to and identify themselves in. Unfortunately, cutbacks can limit those efforts. As Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry explains, “I think part of the problem is that the role of school librarians has been minimized. So if you don’t have one person who knows the breadth of what has been published any given day of the year, it is very easy for even the most well-meaning teacher to think the books can be found on Amazon bestseller lists.”
Despite the limitations imposed on them, librarians and teachers often go the extra mile to put the right titles in the hands of students. “Librarians are public servants and they are not there to sell books, but serve the needs of their communities,” says Consortium marketing director Jennifer Swihart Voegele. “Librarians are so supportive because they’re not looking for blockbusters, but special books to really connect with someone.” Kanellos notes that Arte Público Press often sells directly to educators. “Quite a few of our clients are individual teachers who dig into their own pockets and buy our books and put them in their classrooms. We go to 20 trade shows a year and meet teachers and librarians, and they are the ones buying the books.”
Byrd hopes teachers will also look outside the typical avenues, to sources like the ALA’s Pura Belpré Award, in their search for books. He sees programs like the Texas Bluebonnet Award, which allows readers to vote for their favorite books, as key for schools seeking more culturally diverse offerings for their students.
Until these titles find their way into the hands of the students seeking them, the problem remains – and it’s not just an issue for Latinos. “The subtle message when books by and about Latinos are absent in our schools and homes is that they are also not a core part of this country,” says Deborah Menkart, executive director of advocacy group Teaching for Change. “The scarcity of books by and about Latinos impacts not only the positive identity development of Latino students, but also the healthy identity development of all of us as Americans.”
Authentic voices and books are needed for Latino and non-Latino readers. What’s often been overlooked, according to many small publishers, is that these books already exist. Voegele says, “Small publishers find the niche audience and try to serve those areas because they feel there is a value to it beyond sales – they believe so much in the product they are producing.” Now, the trick is getting those books into the hands of young readers.