I can’t tell you the name of the very first book that I loved, but I can tell you that I loved it because the protagonist was my doppelgänger: his name was Christopher. I knew how to “read” that book before I even new how to read; I’d have my parents read it to me every night. It was that connection to that very first book that spurred my love for reading other children’s books as a young boy (Berenstain Bears, whatup), and set the foundation for any future academic success.
As the Latino student population in K-12 public schools inches even closer to a quarter of the total public school enrollment, educators and experts alike are finding that my connection with children’s books is not the typical Latino experience. The reason? As a recent article in The New York Times points out, Latino students aren’t connecting with children’s books because they don’t see themselves in very many of them.
The lack of children’s books with Latino characters shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone in this country. Latinos (along with every non-white ethnic group) are greatly underrepresented in the media, politics, academia, etc. It’s not always a guarantee to see Latinos on channels other than Mundo Fox, Univision, or Telemundo. And when Latino issues are talked about on shows like Meet The Press, there’s often not a brown person to be seen.
The issue with children’s literature, however, is that a lack of Latino characters in children’s books can ultimately hinder an impressionable child’s love and appreciation for reading. And as a recent study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln confirms, it is during these formative ages that reading is so very crucial to a child’s future academic success.
In my classroom, I see it first hand. My top-performing students are also the school’s top-performing readers. Their vocabulary is far more expansive, they have increased mental stamina, and they perform better on state standardized tests.
But again, getting to that point where reading is appreciated and valued is the first, and most important step. There are surely thousands of Latino students that make a connection with their texts and find a love for reading, even with a lack of Latino characters. But as the statistics on Latinos and education tell us, it’s clearly not enough.
Whatever loss Latino students suffer from not seeing themselves in books could be boosted by parents who read to/with them. Realistically speaking, however, this is something that probably isn’t going to change, especially in low-income households. This is exactly why Latino students need more opportunities to see themselves in books. (It’s no guarantee, but it could definitely make a difference.)
This would benefit not only Latino students, but to students from other races/ethnicities who could ultimately learn more about other cultures through literature. The protagonist in my first book, after all, had blue eyes and blond hair.
Which leads me to my last point: it’s perfectly OK for Latino students to read about white characters. The problem occurs, of course, when that’s all they’re reading about.