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The Representation of Language & Cultural Identity in U.S. Picture Books, A Series (2)

Intro to the Series

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.

Spanish and Folklore: How Do They Factor into Children’s Picture Books?

By Sam Kingsbury 

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

The goal of Diverse Book Finder is to collect a comprehensive collection of picture books that feature Black and Indigenous people and People of Color. The collection spans from 2002 to the present (2021), a fact that is very helpful in analyzing trends across years and decades. This post will incorporate only a fraction of the collection of Diverse Book Finder to focus specifically on ​texts that incorporate the Spanish language and folklore.

Using the content filters in the search tool on the website, I searched first for Folklore. There are currently 268 titles available through Diverse Book Finder [Editor's Note: These numbers change constantly as new titles are added]. I then refined my search to include only books which featured Folklore and Spanish language. This narrowed the results to a much shorter list of only 23 books. In looking through these titles, I identified a few trends and some disparities in representation in the books, which I will examine further below.

Spanish and English Working Hand in Hand

The strongest finding is that for all twenty-three titles I found in the results for Spanish folklore, there is representation of both Spanish and English. Every book is listed as a bi/multilingual book. This is incredibly important in terms of books appearing on the shelves of classrooms. Students benefit greatly from seeing someone like themselves in the pages of the picture books that they read. As data from the U.S. Census Bureau​ tells us, nearly 42 million of the roughly 68 million people, just under 62%, who speak a language other than English at home in the United States speak Spanish (2019).

Languages of the United States 2018

Thus, seeing Spanish speakers represented in children’s literature is critical to a large portion of the U.S. population. The representation of Spanish language is especially important in folklore as these stories typically transmit the values, knowledge, traditions, practices and rituals of a people. These are often best imparted in their original form, which is to say, in Spanish. The combination of language present in these books also makes them accessible to speakers of both English and Spanish and provides the opportunity for students to learn or practice a new language as well.

Spanish is particularly well represented in the bi/multilingual category. Of 81 books listed as bi/multilingual under folklore, 23 are Spanish (28%). Below, I have put a few of my favorite examples of picture books which put the two languages side by side to allow readers to learn.

Just a minute


by Yuyi Morales

In this version of a traditional tale, Senor Calavera arrives unexpectedly at Grandma Beetle's door. He requests that she leave with him right away. "Just a minute," Grandma Beetle tells him. She still has one house to sweep, two pots of tea to boil, three pounds of corn to make into tortillas--and that's just the start! Using both Spanish and English words to tally the party preparations, Grandma Beetle cleverly delays her trip and spends her birthday with a table full of grandchildren and her surprise guest. This spirited tribute to the rich traditions of Mexican culture is the perfect introduction to counting in both English and Spanish. The vivacious illustrations and universal depiction of a family celebration are sure to be adored by young readers everywhere


Pacho Nacho


by Silvia Lopez and Pablo Pino

"Mama and Papa could not agree on a name for their first baby, and everyone in the family had an opinion. That's how the name Pacho-Nacho-Nico-Tico-Melo-Felo-Kiko-Rico came to be, and Pacho's parents insisted that everyone use his full name. But when Pacho finds himself in trouble, his younger brother, Juan, must quickly find help, which isn't easy when you have to keep saying Pacho-Nacho-Nico-Tico-Melo-Felo-Kiko-Rico. Author Silvia Lopez highlights family values, community connections, and brotherly love in this interactive, energetic, and silly picture book. Pacho Nacho is based on an old Japanese folktale and includes Spanish words and phrases and multicultural settings." -- publisher


Who shows up?

The question of representation is important in picture books. As I said above, it is crucial for children to see characters with whom they can relate in literature. The representation by country in the 23 books in this category breaks down as follows:

The spread that we see here is reflective of the Census data; the majority of folklore represented has its origins in Latin America and Mexico (Northern America), which is where the majority of the U.S.’s foreign born population comes from. A surprising number of books represent Mexico considering that Mexicans represent less than 1% of the foreign-born population, but otherwise the numbers are more or less representative.

Interestingly, only one title in the collection involved folklore and immigrants (see below); this makes some degree of sense as folklore typically stems from native populations, but it is an interesting number to reflect on as many Spanish speakers in the United States are immigrants, yet their representation in this particular category is almost nonexistent.

The stranger and the red rooster / El forastero y el gallo rojo


by Victor Villaseñor and José Jara

One day in a small California barrio, a scary-looking stranger with an ugly scar on his face arrives. Silence falls on the streets. Normally raucous children stop playing, and their fearful mothers quickly beckon them inside. Everyone peeks out of windows and doors to watch the stranger walk down Main Street. Later in the week, the stranger again appears in town. And a few days later, on a pleasant Sunday morning, the man shows his frightening face yet again. But this time, he's not alone. Cradled in the stranger's arms is a big, red rooster with a yellow ribbon tied around its neck. When the rooster sets off after a bug with the stranger hanging on to the ribbon "like a cowboy who had lassoed a wild bull," the townspeople are finally able to look past the long, ugly scar on the stranger's face. Echoing the oral tradition common to so many Latinos, acclaimed author Victor Villasenor shares with young readers one of his father's favorite stories.


The collection is growing, slowly but surely

Diverse Book Finder began collecting and coding titles from 2002 onwards, and since then, the number of Spanish folklore books has also risen. However, it has not been a linear progression: 12 of the 23 books in the collection (about 52%) were published between 2003 and 2008, and a further 7 were published within the last 5 years. There was a lull in the middle, during which only 18% of the collection was published. However, the past 5 years are trending up, and can be taken as a source of hope that new picture books will continue to be added to the collection to include more folktales to reach more young readers. The collection should continue to grow as the Spanish speaking population in the U.S. continues to grow to ensure that all children have examples to look to in children’s literature. Below is one of the most recent publications (the other most recent is posted above, Pacho Nacho by Silvia Lopez and Pablo Pino).

Being a Mindful Advocate

We must be careful when we are advocating for more diverse books, because there are also potential pitfalls that we must avoid. On Diverse Book Finder’s website, they argue that,

“...while a focus on culture is important, a more balanced portrayal of Latinx/Latin American/Hispanic characters across categories is necessary to upend the assumptions that too often contain the real diversity of Latinx/Latin American/Hispanic people and experiences in one-dimensional representations.”

Diverse BookFinder website

This word of caution is important as we move forward, as we have to ensure that we present accurate characters with whom people can relate, but also characters who run the gamut in terms of categories of literature. We have to ensure that we do not create negative stereotypes through overrepresentation of some aspects of Latinx/Latin American/Hispanic culture and that we have a collection of books with a cast of characters in all walks of life for children to read about.

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