Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators gathered on March 9 to celebrate their craft at Bank Street’s second annual conference focusing on Latinx Children’s Literature. The conference, held at Bank Street College in New York City, included an address from Loida Garcia-Febo, president of the American Library Association, three panel discussions featuring speakers from Latinx backgrounds, and a keynote address from author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh. Throughout the day, the presenters emphasized that the children's books being created by Latinx individuals are as diverse and expansive as the creators themselves.
First up was Garcia-Febo, who discussed her work on behalf of libraries nationwide. She spoke about the importance of multicultural literature for young readers, saying that, even as the nation is becoming “increasingly more diverse, multicultural leadership for youth is at a low point.” She added that “authors and illustrators are dream makers” whose creativity and vision “continues to fight intolerance and cultural invisibility.”
Garcia-Febo praised the work of librarians in New York City and beyond, who have tirelessly promoted diverse books, even as those books “have not always been easy to find.” Libraries themselves, she said, are institutions of tremendous value that support all communities, including those who are most vulnerable in society:. “The spirit of diversity, inclusiveness, and relationship building is alive and well in our libraries.”
Addressing the audience of Latinx writers, illustrators, librarians, and educators, Garcia-Febo concluded, “You are the change we have been waiting for.”
Building Visual Literacy
The first panel was named “Fantasy and Illustration in Graphic Novels and Comics” and included illustrators Raúl the Third, Ricardo Siri (better known as Liniers), and Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. Critic, librarian, and editor Shelley Diaz, moderated the discussion. Diaz asked the panelists to speak about their own development as artists whose work promotes the building of visual literacy.
Siri discussed how profoundly he was influenced by the Argentinian comic Mafalda, by Quino. “Mafalda wasn’t about teaching kids to behave well. It was about questioning the world of grownups,” he said.
Raúl the Third (the Lowriders in Space series) recalls that, as a boy in El Paso, Tex., he had a “favorite museum... the local 7-11.” That's where he first discovered comic books. “Not everyone has access to amazing art museums,” he said, but any kid can take a comic book home and become inspired by it.
For Miranda-Rodriguez (La Borinqueña), whose family moved frequently when he was a child, the worlds of comics and graphic novels became “the only constant for me.” Early in his life, Miranda-Rodriguez also recognized that the characters in comics were often faced with “overcoming obstacles,” and the stories were concerned with “a hunger and desire for social justice,” a quality that became implanted in him as a reader. However, what Miranda-Rodriguez did not see in the comics he read were people of color. As he came of age, he took it upon himself to create the Puerto Rican characters (and characters from other vastly underrepresented backgrounds) that he had missed as a child. This desire to diversify comics led him to eschew corporate publishing venues that have historically served up “white male content.” Instead, he self-publishes all of his work. “We have to look to ourselves,” to develop [multicultural] content, he said.
All of the panelists see comics and graphic novels broadening the range of storytelling and representation. “So many American stories aren’t being told,” Raúl the Third said. He added that communicating directly with readers through school visits solidifies in readers’ minds that “creators aren’t just white authors” and can also “inspire youth to create characters based on their own backgrounds.”
Diaz asked the panelists to weigh in on residual beliefs among adult gatekeepers that comics aren’t as legitimate an art form as other types of literature. Miranda-Rodriguez noted how graphic novels, by integrating words and images that communicate in complex, nuanced ways, are “more neurologically stimulating” than other art forms. Siri also spoke about the subtle and sophisticated interplay between language and pictures in comics, which takes some skill to interpret. “You have to learn how to read comics,” he said.
On the Shoulders of Giants
Next, authors and illustrators discussed creating nonfiction stories based on the life and work of Latinx individuals from history, for a panel entitled “Elevating Our Heroes Through Picture Books.” The panelists were Tonatiuh, Eric Velasquez, Anika Aldamuy Denise, and Rudy Gutierrez. Sonia Rodriguez, assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College, moderated the discussion.
Growing up, Denise lamented that the only Latinx character she encountered “was Maria from Sesame Street.” She expressed how much she “needed” more models like Maria, and how moved and inspired she was to first learn about Pura Belpré, a Puerto Rican librarian in New York City and the subject of her recent picture book, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré (HarperCollins).
Velasquez, who illustrated Carole Boston Weatherford’s Schomburg: The Man Who Built the Library (Candlewick), discovered Arturo Alfonso Schomburg when he was a boy. A teacher pointed out to him that he and Schomberg had a lot in common: Velasquez and his family were also from Puerto Rico, she said. For Velasquez, as a Latinx individual who “championed literature... Schomburg was a hero, a giant of a man,” he said.
[Raúl Colón (Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote, Peachtree), admittedthat he didn’t actually read Don Quixote when the book was assigned to him in high school. Instead, he discovered the magic and irreverence of the book when he was an adult. He was impressed by how influential the book has been across cultures and forms of media. “Don Quixote has been ripped off so many times!” In his picture book, which was written by Margarita Engle, Cervantes is cast “as the actual hero” of the story, Colón said.
First stating that “to my family, I owe immense gratitude,” Gutierrez noted how little he saw his own culture reflected in art. “I don't think my mother knew her identity or divinity,” he said. He also reflected on the music that inspired and recharged him in childhood and adolescence. In his New Jersey community (where his family had moved from the Bronx), he heard the sounds of Led Zeppelin from the homes of some neighbors; from other corners, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye; and in his own household, Tito Rodriguez. But there was another sound that fused “magical guitar and African rhythm floating over it all... a marriage of influences.” That, of course, was Carlos Santana, the subject of his picture book, Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World.
The album art was also an inspiration to Gutierrez. As a 13-year-old, he never would have guessed that, years later, he would get the chance to illustrate a Santana album cover (Shaman), and that his musical hero would express admiration for his art.
The other panelists said they are also influenced by music, finding it to be particularly freeing and motivating when faced with writer’s and illustrator’s block. While Colon feels that there “is nothing nicer than a sheet of white paper,” and encourages other artists “not to be afraid,” he finds that “loud music” is especially useful in freeing up his thoughts to begin creating.
When dealing with a creative impasse, Denise does something that she normally hates doing: “I clean the house,” she said. In fact, she often blasts Carlos Santana. As she was working on Planting Stories, Denise often experienced moments of fear and doubt. “Pura Belpré was so important to me, I had to get it right. It was fear. I wanted to do right by this woman,” she said.
Latinx Characters Come of Age
The final panel, “Soy yo: Developing Identities and Relationships in Latinx Coming-of-Age Stories,” featured Latinx authors of middle grade novels. The participants were Pablo Cartaya, Angela Dominguez, Hilda Eunice Burgos, and Aida Salazar. Carla España, a professor at Hunter College, served as moderator.
While writing their fictional stories, the authors inevitably draw from their own experiences as Latinx kids. Cartaya (Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish,Viking) spoke about first becoming cognizant of the fact that he wasn’t being reflected in books. It was when he read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. “It was the first time I thought about it. And I realized that I did want to see myself,” he said.
Dominguez thought back to her experience as a “shy little girl” when writing Stella Diaz Has Something to Say (Roaring Brook): “Stella was an extension of myself. I was afraid to talk, and I didn’t find my own voice until adulthood,” she said.
In her middle grade debut novel in verse, The Moon Within (Scholastic/Levine), Salazar sought to tell a story that captures “the spirit of what it feels like to menstruate, to not want to menstruate, to be on the cusp between childhood and adulthood,” she said. She was aware that, since Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, there had not been a true middle grade story that directly and honestly talks about menstruation—and she counts The Moon Within as a definite “first for the Latinx community.”
Burgos (Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, Lee & Low) grew up watching shows like The Brady Bunch and remembers marveling at the fact that “those people speak the same language all the time.” In her household, English and Spanish were spoken interchangeably. When she decided “I want to write a book..., of course I would have to write about someone like me,” she found she had few models from which to work. She hopes that other Latinx readers like her—“a nerdy kid from Washington Heights”—are increasingly finding that their unique experiences are mirrored in books. For Burgos, it’s crucial that stories are being published that show different kinds of Latinx voices. “Dominican is just one aspect of who my characters are,” she said.
Cartaya added that “we’re not monolithic,” and that books showing Latinx individuality can go a long way toward breaking cultural stereotypes. Somewhat like his character, Marcus—who travels to Puerto Rico to meet his relatives—he doesn’t fit into any particular category. “I’m Cuban-American and I don’t dance salsa,” he said.
The authors concluded their discussion by addressing what they hope readers glean from their books.
In reading about her bilingual Latinx character who dreads but ultimately celebrates her period, or her “gender-expansive” character who embraces both female and male attributes, Salazar hopes others will see themselves and all they can be.
Dominguez hopes that shy readers, Latinx or otherwise, find Stella to be relatable and her example, empowering. “Shy kids have a lot going on. We’re observing, not talking,” she said. She also wants kids to see that immigration status doesn’t define them. “We should have no walls for them,” she said.
Burgos wants “people to lose themselves in the book,” both by relating to the Latinx characters and “expanding their minds to relate.” Cartaya is hopeful that readers of his work will think more expansively about the experiences of people who might not look like them or speak like them—and to be mindful of other people’s cultures. He did just that by visiting Middletown Elementary School in Boise, Idaho, which recently made news after staff members dressed in “Mexican” outfits for Halloween. There were 1,000 kids bussed in to hear Cartaya speak about racism, respect, and representation, he said. Cartaya addressed both the students and teachers at the school. Sometimes, having a serious conversation about cultural insensitivity means making listeners “uncomfortable,” he said.
Marrying the Traditional and Modern
For the final presentation of the day, Tonatiuh, author and illustrator of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale and Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (both Abrams), among other books, discussed his evolution as an artist and writer and the importance of honoring diverse perspectives. As an art student in New York City, Tonatiuh was drawn toward a range of classic and contemporary European and American artists, but as he “became more curious and proud of his Mexican heritage,” he began exploring Indigenous Mexican art styles. He worked at a center for workers in New York, which served many individuals from Indigenous Mixtec backgrounds. His interest in the history of Mixtec people led him to discover the distinctive “flat and stylized forms” that feature prominently in their traditional visual art.
For a senior project, Tonatiuh practiced emulating the Mixtec art style. He had never thought about illustrating a children's book, but he was urged by a teacher to do so; he submitted illustrations to Abrams, and was invited to write a picture book text. His first manuscript needed a bit of work: while the concept of the story showed potential, the publisher wasn’t taken with the rhyming text, he said. Tonatiuh rewrote the story, and his first picture book, Dear Primo, was born. The story focuses on two cousins—one living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and the other in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico—who correspond in letters. Tonatiuh aimed to show the cousins’ different experiences in an American metropolis and a colonial-era Mexican city, while also demonstrating similarities. “I wanted to show the same child in two different environments,” he said.
Tonatiuh’s illustrations demonstrate the influence of Mixtec art, while also integrating modern elements. The effect is an aesthetic blend of ancient and new, Mexican culture and American life.
The author-illustrator concluded his keynote address by echoing the insights from many of the day’s presenters. He believes wholly in the power for books to transform and support readers by reflecting diversity of culture, ethnicity, and life experience. It’s essential that all readers “realize the diversity within the Latinx community,” he said.