On March 6, the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education in New York City hosted a virtual mini-conference on Latinx children’s literature. The conference’s third edition focused on Mexican American themes and featured David Bowles as the keynote speaker, who is the recipient of the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee’s 2019 Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry for They Call Me Güero and two Pura Belpré Honors.

‘Whole Neighborhoods Inside Us’: Community and Belonging in Picture Books

Alexandra Aceves, editor at Junior Library Guild, served as moderator for the first panel, starting off by introducing each author before interrogating the very idea of Mexican American identity, asking: “What does Mexican American mean to you and where do you find yourself situated within that category? How does it shape your work, if it does?”

Panelist Matt de la Peña, author of Last Stop on Market Street and several other picture books, and YA novels including Mexican WhiteBoy, talked about his experience growing up with teenage parents by the border in San Diego, where he was mostly raised with the Mexican side of his family while also being half-white. “I guess the position I often write from is feeling on the margins of that experience,” he admitted. “I was the lightest. My Spanish wasn’t very strong. I was always on the side of things wishing I could be more in the middle of it in a time when we were taught to assimilate. It’s a very complicated background. I love what I see now. It’s different; I think there’s an embrace of culture.”

Donna Barba Higuera, Pura Belpré Honor recipient and author of Lupe Wong Won’t Dance and El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!, revealed that she related to a lot of what de la Peña said. “I grew up in central California,” she said. “It’s very much agriculture and oil-filled so there’s a big migrant community, but my family had been there quite some time. I also had one parent who was Mexican American, second-generation, while my mother’s side was white and Native American. I spent time with both sides so there was a switching back and forth, an assimilation. There were certain situations where I couldn’t speak Spanish because where I grew up it could be dangerous.”

Yuyi Morales, six-time Pura Belpré winner and author-illustrator of Dreamers, along with many other picture books for children, offered a different perspective on what it means to be Mexican American. “I grew up in Mexico and I only became something else when I got to the United States,” she began. “I remember Isabel Campo speaking once and using [the term] ‘Latina’ for herself. I thought, ‘Why do I call myself Latina?’ That’s something that only happens when we get to the United States. Only then do you begin to see yourself as part of a ‘Latinx community.’ Although we look for similarities to find our strength, it makes me wonder what happens when we look at the differences—when we see those differences not as something we have to defend against but [as something] that we are curious about and celebrate as a part of our connections.”

Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and most recently the picture book My Papi Has a Motorcycle, agreed with Morales. “I think even when we talk about being Mexican American there are differences everywhere,” she said. “My experience as a light-skinned Chicana is going to be different from my brother, who is moreno, or my mom or my dad. Growing up, I never saw myself as American. In my household, my mom would talk about ‘los Americanos’ and mean white or Black folks. I was made aware of my position as Other at a very young age from them and my classmates. What does it mean to be Mexican American—outside of nationalism, imperialism, or all these things that other ourselves? This is who I am in this country, these are my experiences, and this is how I see the world.”

Aceves was interested in exploring the tensions inherent within an umbrella term like Latinx, asking panelists where on that Mexican vs. Pan-Latinx spectrum they were drawing from in making these books.

Morales opened up about how in creating Dreamers she drew a lot from her Mexican-specific experience immigrating to the United States. “Everything I am is always going to show in my books,” she said.

Higuera revealed that the seed of her picture book El Cucuy Is Scared, Too! came from a personal prompt to write about what scared her the most as a child. In writing the book, she said, she realized how common the mythological figure is in Latinx folklore, while it still retains its own differences and particularities.

Quintero brought up salient points on writing with specificity as there is no universal Latinx story. Peña agreed, saying, “In being specific and writing what you know, you’re trusting the reader to take what they need to from it.”

Morales had the last word, which was a poignant one. “Sometimes we have this attitude towards children where we feel like we are the saviors who are bringing them the books that they need, so they can become better people,” she explained, “especially when you are talking about children who come from all the way down the continent. We think they will come to the United States and receive our literature and finally become something they were not when they were in their countries of origin—or when they only had the wisdom and knowledge of their families. We should not go into this thinking we are going to save children from their own lives, their own identities. To me, children are perfect. We should be learning from children, not trying to transform them into what we think they should be.”

Middle Grade Stories of Resistance and Healing

Carla España, course instructor at the Bank Street College of Education, moderated the next panel and stated that in order to acknowledge both the weight and possibility of this moment together she would ask the panelists: “what is a current source of healing for you, whether it be a practice, a song, or a memory?”

“The wound is big; the wounds are many,” Aida Salazar, arts activist and author of The Moon Within and Land of the Cranes, replied. “I’m always in the process of healing: using my life, how I move in the world, and the projects that I embark on as a source of healing.”

Ernesto Cisneros, author of 2021 Pura Belpré winner Efren Divided and a teacher for 20 years, who teaches in his hometown of Santa Ana, Calif., admitted that it’s been a difficult time. “Last week, some of the detention centers reopened and I made the mistake of listening to some of the things being said. I was really hurt. So one way I’m healing is [through] events like this and watching the industry slowly changing a little bit for the better.”

Alexandra Diaz, author of the ALA Notable and Pura Belpré-nominated middle grade novel The Only Road, along with its sequel The Crossroads, said, “I wish I could say I’m doing the same things that Aida and Ernesto are. My healing is usually being outside, walking the dogs, and I am fortunate I live in an open space. There are many places you can be in nature and be alone, which has always been very important to me.”

After España asked each of the authors about the spark behind their books, she asked: “Can you walk us through some of your writing rituals or routines, the ways you navigated this process of developing these characters and experiences? How do you navigate that writing process while also taking care of yourself?”

“That’s a tough one,” Cisneros said with a laugh. “I don’t have the smartest way of going about this. I just embrace that [discomfort] and I put myself through those experiences. For example, Efren from Efren Divided is U.S.-born and I was also U.S.-born. I had family who weren’t. I always wondered why I was afforded that special right, a certain life that they weren’t. I’m a method writer; I write from the heart. My agent calls it underwear writing, where you just bare it all. I’ve lived a lot of these experiences, I re-live them as I write them. It’s devastating. I wasn’t at my healthiest point after writing this book. And it took its toll.”

Salazar said, “Part of my writing process is listening. I have to be a really, really good listener in order to be able to convey—with authenticity, with heart, with emotion—all the things that I want to. I’ve been listening for a long time, intently. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. So I think practicing that and studying a lot of craft and reading and deconstructing books are all strategies I use to write. However, Land of the Cranes came not from these traditional ways of practice but a deeper, higher consciousness. It came through me and all the people I’d listened to in my life from my family, my ancestors, my tía, my tío, who all informed it in different ways.”

“I agree with a lot of what Aida said about listening to your surroundings and yourself,” Diaz expanded. “I often put myself into my character’s shoes and it’s very hard, like Ernesto said. It’s challenging and heart-wrenching. You make yourself vulnerable as well when you’re writing these stories. For me, that is such a big part of the creative process, asking myself, how would I behave in these kinds of situations? What are some of the things that would affect me? What would scare me or not scare me? But also you have to realize your characters are individuals. There will always be a part of you in the characters you write and at the same time they are not you. They need to make their own choices, their own mistakes.”

España’s final question was about the appearance of influential teachers in all the authors’ books and what from their life informed these characters. Diaz admitted she spent her childhood being homeschooled so didn’t have many good teacher role models. “I write teachers I wish I had when I was younger.”

Salazar mentioned that she’s a former teacher and currently homeschools her children. “I found that my students always learned through the arts in more powerful ways than intellectual, non-project-based work. So I wanted my character to be a product of arts integration.”

Cisneros explained he created the character of Mr. Garret for two reasons. First, to give a shout-out to teachers, especially one of his high school teachers, who was the first teacher he felt cared about him. “Sometimes, you have to believe in the people that believe in you and sometimes that is enough.” And second, after 20 years of teaching, he needed a reminder to himself of why he was teaching.

The panel ended with España requesting the panelists share any organizations they could recommend people support and follow in order to take the work off the page. Aida mentioned Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese American multi-generational organization that is helping to shut down detention centers formed by survivors or descendants of survivors of the WWII internment camps that detained Japanese-Americans. Ernesto’s choices were Never Again Action, a Jewish organization doing similar work, and Border Angels, which organizes various activities such as bond programs, day-laborer outreach, and collaborations with Water Drop that ensure undocumented migrants have access to water when traveling through the desert. Alexandra’s recommendation was Libras Para el Viaje, a book drive started by adult author Denise Chávez to provide books for people who are detained or awaiting trial.

Literary Dignity: Centering Latinx Kids in Books and Boardrooms

David Bowles’s titles include the graphic novel Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent and The Chupacabras of the Río Grande, which he co-authored with Adam Gidwitz. Bowles delivered closing remarks as the keynote speaker. He touched on where we are, where we’re going, and where the focus should be. “I don’t want to belabor the point, we’ve all seen the stats,” Bowles began. “Less than 8% of the books published for kids each year are written by authors from communities of color. Yet 25% of these books feature protagonists of colors. We’re facing a two-pronged problem—equity and representation. It’s hard to decide which one we should address and we often try to do both.”

“What is representation?” Bowles asked. “One mistake that publishing—and some authors—have made is to imagine that #OwnVoices must represent an entire community. That’s impossible. It’s really depressing that publishing and readership expect this of authors. Personally, I can’t tell a story that is universally applicable to every Mexican American, much less every Latinx person. But I can draw on my identity and experience to construct a story about a very specific character or group of characters, while I put in the work that is required. It is work at the end of the day. Even for those books that are #OwnVoices. Then, not only through cultural lens specifics, but also through character-level specifics, readers of all backgrounds will recognize the universal truths that emerge from specificity—although no book can be a perfect mirror.”

Individual actors are not the main cause behind the representation and equity problems we are facing, Bowles said. Rather, it is the publishing industry itself. “White hegemony’s strangle grip on the literary establishment is [the problem.] That is what needs to be addressed before taking marginalized authors to task for imperfect representation. Big Publishing isn’t willing to do what needs to be done: redistribute resources, retire older white professionals, actively recruit BIPOC authors and editors. Instead, [publishing is] shifting the responsibility to the author in an ugly inversion of responsibility. That’s where we need to start—equity. If 18% of the U.S. population is Latinx then, in an equitable society, roughly an equivalent amount of books for kids, 25% of whom are Latinx, would be published. If that were the case, we [as authors] wouldn’t be shouldered with the responsibility of representing every Latinx in the country, and be freed up to write stories that reflect the vast diversity of this community.”

Bowles concluded by saying, “The work has really only begun.”