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The Representation of Language & Cultural Identity in U.S. Picture Books, A Series (4)

We are so excited to bring attention to this blog series written by students in Dr. Margaret Boyle's "Teaching Languages and Culture" course at Bowdoin College. The series highlights the Diverse BookFinder (DBF), not only as a great tool for educators, librarians, and parents, but as an invaluable space where new and important inquiries about racial and cultural representation in children's books can be asked, investigated, and shared. As a comprehensive and continually growing digital collection -- painstakingly coded by a team of trained undergraduate students and graduate interns -- the DBF is a rich resource for both public scholarship and academic research & teaching. This series offers multiple exciting examples of the kinds of important inquiries that can arise when mining the DBF's publicly-accessible data. These range from explorations of picture book portrayals of diverse Japanese identities, to the importance of books in translation in the development and celebration of non-Anglophone identities and cultures, to a critical investigation of how to read "activism" in books for younger children. ~ Dr. Andrea Breau is a feminist youth studies scholar who received her Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from The Ohio State University in 2018. She served as Project Coordinator for the Diverse BookFinder from 2018 - 2020 and now sits on our Advisory Council.

Stories of Latinx Community-Building: Bilingual Children’s Picture Books and Language Justice

By Norell Sherman

Norell is a student at Bowdoin College who was a Fall 2020 volunteer at Kate Furbish Elementary with the Multilingual Mainers program.

Bilingual picture books have an extremely important place in elementary school classrooms and libraries. Stories told in multiple languages teach students about the plurality of communication and the ways that language is a powerful connecting force that lets us share our experiences and stories. The act of reading and teaching bilingual narratives is a political act; it brings the importance of language justice to primary education classrooms.  

As explained in the Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE) Language Justice Toolkit, language justice is about “building and sustaining multilingual spaces” so that “everyone’s voice can be heard both as an individual and as part of a diversity of communities and cultures”(CCHE 2). Language justice resists homogenous narratives of language production and, instead, makes space for all dialects, especially ones that have historically been marginalized. Engaging with bilingual books is an act of language justice as students are exposed to multilingualism through reading. Reading bilingual books isn’t just about the child learning the words on the page and becoming proficient in a second language; rather, it’s about teaching students to see the existence of other languages and to understand that a story can be told in many different ways. Everyone has the right to tell their story in the language in which they feel most comfortable.

I used Diverse BookFinder to explore the representation of bilingual and multilingual stories that highlight Latinx communities and characters. Using the Search tools Settings and Content filters, I found that 9.1% of the entire collection (325 books) integrates these content categories. [Note: as of publication, a search for Latinx (in Race/Culture) and Bi/multilingual (in Content) surfaced 342 books; these numbers change constantly as new titles are added.]

Activism in Bilingual Picture Books

As I continued to explore the rest of the book selection coded under Bilingual/Latinx, I was interested in the presence of the Settings and Content “Activism” filter. After clicking on it, only 14 books—a mere 4 percent of the books in the Latinx/bilingual collection—popped up on my screen: the majority of books in this category tell stories of historical figures and famous activists like César Chávez, Frida Kahlo, José de la luz Sánez, Dolores Huerta and Jose Martí. Other books highlight key historical moments like the Lemon Grove Incident in California or the foundation of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Latino civil rights organization; two books are about fair wage worker strikes; and another two of the books are about smaller scale activism, like in Bailemos Salsa, where young protagonist Estella petitions for the right to have children’s salsa dance classes at the community center.

The idea of activism is a crucial concept to integrate into classrooms starting as early as pre-school.

Teachers can “effectively engage children as young as age 4 in activism if the projects emerge from real incidents or issues in their lives, are simple and direct, have a clear tangible focus and are geared towards the children’s experiences rather than achieving a particular outcome.”

What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families by Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia Ramsey, page 119)

Children’s books are powerful ways to introduce these concepts of activism in the classroom especially if students can directly connect to the stories. Activism work isn't just about learning about its historical agents; it's also about figuring out how we can engage with activist strategy and put energy into bettering our own local communities.

This brings me back to the Activism filter in the book collection: while stories about historical figures like César Chávez are extremely important for children to read, especially with respect to the movements these figures worked within and the causes they fought for—human rights, equality, artistic expression—I think the activism filter should include more titles that illuminate the power of collective community building and volunteer work. More of these types of stories would demonstrate to young readers that activism work doesn’t have to be in the context of huge social movements; rather, it can be small scale and exist in our own surrounding communities.

For a kindergartener just discovering the power of her own voice, it would be much harder to connect a story about a soldier from the late 1800s who started a major civil rights organization than to a story about a young kid starting a gardening club in her town or petitioning the city hall to build a public park. Centering stories about young children making a positive impact on their communities can help kids become conscious of their own power to be activists in their own lives.

I believe there is something extremely special about engaging with stories about local activism in bilingual books. These books illuminate the power of community building, and in these stories, community is built through multiple languages. This ties back to the importance of language justice. Language justice is about being able to express ourselves in the language in which we feel “most articulate and powerful” which is especially important when thinking about self-expression in the context of community building.

As the CCHE toolkit emphasizes, “When movements make room for multiple languages and voices, we all benefit from a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and wisdom...Language justice helps us build power by opening doors to new members, leaders, and forms of leadership” (CCHE 2). 

As students read a story about a young Latinx girl who wants to petition city hall to build a public park to replace a town landfill, bilingual narratives zoom in on that community narrative, drawing attention to the ways that this advocacy is carried out in multiple languages.

For young students, many of them already have inherent ideas of fairness, thus using a framework of fairness to discuss language justice in early education classrooms can be very successful. Teachers can ask questions such as:

  • Is it fair that stories are only told in one language if not everyone speaks that language? 
  • How has language unfairly discriminated against groups of people? 
  • How can understanding other languages make us more empathetic and inclusive? 

When approaching bilingual books about activism, it’s not only powerful to see examples of community building in these story books, but it is also powerful to see the creative process of collective work through communication in multilingual spaces.

Diverse Book Finder already has some of the books that are capable of expanding the activism filter. Here is a list of a titles about young children who use their voices to incite change and who realize the major role they have in positively impacting their community that should be added to the Activism filter:

Toña and her Abuela set out on a journey to create patch gardens on the empty plots of dirt in their urban neighborhood. Abuela teaches Toña how to plant seeds and cultivate land to grow healthy and plentiful gardens. When Toña hears that other children want gardens to plant but can’t find space to grow them, she feels sadness and compassion and a desire to change things. On a mission to create the opportunity for more children to grow gardens, Toña gathers information about all the empty plots of land in her neighborhood and creates The Patchwork Garden Club; she invites all the other children to join and gives them the addresses to the empty garden spaces around the town. She asks club members to bring their harvested vegetables from the garden to the farmers market so that everyone in the neighborhood can have healthy meals. Toña demonstrates how planting gardens is a form of activism.

This book could be tied to themes of community building, environmental stewardship and food justice. Language structure: Fully translated in both Spanish and English on all pages.

This book is the story about Chavi, a young girl who wants to drum in the Calle Ocho festival in Miami. Her schoolteacher and family say she can’t drum because she is a girl, and drumming is for boys. The story is about how Chavi overcomes these gender stereotypes at her school and in her family and proves to her community that girls can drum too.

This text could prompt discussion about why it is unfair that girls aren’t given the same opportunities as boys and the importance of treating everyone equally. Language structure: Fully translated in both Spanish and English on all pages.

This book is a story about a young girl’s gratitude for her family and their “hands” that lift her up and keep her safe. She compares each of her family members’ hands to plants in the natural world. The story teaches the importance of reaching out to help others, cultivating compassion and loving the natural world. These core lessons of empathy, compassion and support are deeply connected to concepts of activism and social justice.

This book could supplement a lesson about ways to express gratitude for one another and why it’s important to support our friends and families. Language structure: Fully translated in both Spanish and English on all pages.

This book is based on the true story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. When Ada and her friends want to play music but don’t have instruments to do so, with the help of their music teacher Señor Favio Chávez, the children construct instruments made out of recycled materials from the landfill. With their new musical instruments, the children form an orchestra and play in their town, bringing hope and unity to their neighborhood.

This story could be connected to a lesson about the power of music and art in community building or the creativity and resourcefulness needed for problem solving. Language structure: written in mostly English yet provides Spanish words and phrases with translations interspersed throughout the story

This story tells the story of Don Margarito’s commitment to planting trees and taking care of the forest in Guatemala after the land gets destroyed from military violence. The story includes lessons of environmental care, rooted in Maya culture and tradition, and the importance of planting trees to keep environments healthy.

This book can connect to conversations about caring for the environment and land displacement. Language structure: Fully translated in both Spanish and English on each page; also includes phrases in Ki’che’ which exposes students to indigenous dialects in Central America.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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