Latino authors gathered for a Halloween day discussion titled “The Rise of Latino Literature for Youth” at the New York Public Library. The panelists were Sonia Manzano, Sesame Street actor and author of Becoming Maria; Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper); Adam Silvera (More Happy Than Not); Torrey Maldonado (Secret Saturdays); and Crystal Velasquez (Hunters of Chaos). Karen Ginman, youth material selector at BookOps, a technical service organization that serves the NYPL, moderated the discussion.
The dialogue kicked off with Ginman asking the authors to reflect on the types of books that ignited their own interests in reading and writing, and whether or not they encountered books that reflected their individual cultural experiences.
Growing up in the Bronx with her Puerto Rican parents, Manzano said: “Nothing I read as a kid reflected my life.” However, there were books that stood out to her as being relatable. When she read A Tree Goes in Brooklyn, she particularly connected to a moment in the book when “the family lies to authorities so their kid can go to a different school.” It was familiar scenario – a fib being told to an authority figure to protect a family member – that she regularly saw happening within her own community. For Velasquez, who always felt encouraged by her parents to read, she first “fell in love with language by reading Dr. Seuss and after discovering S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, decided to try her own hand at writing a young adult book. She also loved Stephen King and V.C. Andrews.
Silvera also found that books with Latino characters were few and far between when he was growing up. Though Harry Potter may not have mirrored his experience being raised in a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx, the books still spoke to him (and he has a tattoo to prove it). For Maldonado, “the fruit didn’t fall far from the root.” When he was a child, his mother would fill spiral notebooks with her own writing, which she rarely showed to anyone but that Maldonado delighted in hearing her read. When his mother brought him a copy of Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, which had “a little brown boy who looked like me,” he recalls thinking that his mother had written it and that “my mom was a Jedi.”
Older’s mother introduced him to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges at a very young age. He recalls her enthusiastically explaining to him how “There’s a labyrinth inside a labyrinth!” Though Borges was a bit over his head at the time, this early exposure to magical realism would influence his later writing. Magic, he feels, deeply infuses Latino culture: “We own magic!” he said, “It’s our ship."
Manzano added that, what with the prevalence of magic and “spiritualism in Hispanic households,” it’s high time that paranormal YA books introduce more Latino protagonists.
Speaking of Latino characters, Older brought up how trail-blazing Manzano’s Maria and Sesame Street were in terms of representing the lives of Hispanic children. He also pointed to the “simpatico between humans and Muppets” that continues to be a trademark of the show, as being its own kind of magical realism.
Silvera, whose mother was in the audience (“she’s crashing the event,” he said), spoke about the significant role that female characters play in his own novel. In essence, “all the men in the book suck in some way,” he said. While it wasn’t a conscious decision to write the male characters as such, he noted how “women have always remained the heroes in my life.” In part, he feels this is due to the “ultra-masculinity” that he also encountered while growing up. Calling machismo a kind of “armor that men are encouraged to wear,” Maldonado was driven to write about expectations of masculinity and repressed male emotions through his characters Sean and Justin in Secret Saturdays. In his own experience and that of his character, “feminizing” something is used as a way to discredit it. “It’s a real ball and chain,” Maldonado said, echoing Manzano’s sentiment.
In writing about this aspect of Latino culture, Older believes that it’s important to acknowledge it, to “humanize it but don’t sugarcoat it.” In Shadowshaper, the realm of the Shadowshapers – individuals who communicate with spirits via art and stories – is “very patriarchal.” As Older’s teenage protagonist Sierra breaks down gender boundaries as a Shadowshaper, Older points to how a culture can “honor traditions but also think about how they’ve harmed us.” He also felt strongly about conveying the real threats that face young women – such as being harassed on the streets – even while also creating a fantasy realm.
Somewhat in contrast to the other authors, Velasquez finds that her world-view and her writing were very much “shaped by my own little family,” which didn’t adhere to gender or cultural stereotypes. As she didn’t experience pressure to conform, she offers the same to her characters. However, when writing, she does feel certain expectations that “as a woman, I have to represent all women and as a Latina, represent all Latinas.”
Older also feels that “we are still dealing with quotas” within the publishing industry. For example, he believes that a publisher might reason, “We already have a book about a Chinese character,” while the same considerations would never be made for books featuring white protagonists. The consequence of this quota mentality, he believes is that “we are not seeing the full scope of humanity.”
When Silvera was first looking to publish More Happy Than Not, he experienced resistance from publishers because his main character is gay and Puerto Rican. “We love this,” he would hear, “but what if he’s straight?” It was as though it was too much for one book, having multiple boxes checked off on the diversity roster.
Maldonado addressed “the myth that books about children of color don’t sell,” saying it must be dispelled and will be easily, once more books with minority main characters are published, kids line up to buy them, and publishers take notice. He believes that “gatekeepers need to be educated.” He also pointed out that in many communities, kids borrow and share books – he’s seen it first-hand with his own students borrowing a copy of Secret Saturdays and passing it around their peer groups. The only downside is that, on a broader scale, it could mean that book sales aren’t accurately reflecting the actual readership for particular titles with diverse characters.
Velasquez underscored that, in her experience speaking to readers at schools and other events, she believes that kids are embracing multicultural books. “Kids are reading!” she said. “Anecdotally, kids love books and actual books.” And it’s not just anecdotal, suggested Ginman, who says that library circulation statistics absolutely point to the fact that kids are actively consuming all kinds of books.
When he works with kids through the reading organization BookUp, Older regularly witnesses enthusiastic readers “lose their entire minds” over getting to select the books that speak to them. And when it’s his book, that’s all the better. He shared how earlier in the day, he received a message from a reader in Alaska who related so strongly to Shadowshaper that she carried its characters and content into other areas of her life: in fact, she was going to dress as Sierra Santiago for Halloween.