New Groups Aim To Get More Latinx Stories To Young Readers

Sep 28, 2020
Originally published on September 28, 2020 10:49 pm

Children don't often get to read stories by or about Latinos. The American book publishing industry remains overwhelmingly white, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, which found only five percent of books published for young readers are by or about Latinx people. But several new groups of writers, editors and agents are trying to increase Latino representation in children's literature. They're working in different ways, and have their own stories to tell. I spoke to a few of them — and got some reading recommendations, too.

LatinxPitch for Kid Lit was created by a team of 12 established and up and coming authors. A few weeks ago, they held their first Twitter event for writers and illustrators to pitch their ideas for picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, young adult books and more; everything from a fictional account of a farmworker girl to a story described as "feminist Motorcycle Diaries + Magic." One writer offered a "Cinderello tale with Samba flair," another pitched a graphic novel about a girl who dreams of becoming Chile's first gold medalist in weightlifting.

There were 1.5 million impressions of the #LatinxPitch hashtag that day. More than 160 agents and editors offered "likes" to the tweeted pitches, and requests to see the writers' work. One acquiring editor at Little Brown Books for Young Readers tweeted "as a Peruvian American, I felt seen so thank you to those who participated! I cannot wait to hear the success stories that come out of this event."

Lee & Low Books

Author/illustrator Jorge Lacera, one of the organizers of LatinxPitch, says it was exciting to see the range of story pitches and the followup from editors and agents. "It's really important to sort of roll up our sleeves and help each so that we can create opportunities," he says. "It all came about because there was a sense in the publishing industry that they were having a hard time finding authors in these communities. As we put more and more of these events on, you can't have that excuse anymore, right? Like, here we are."

Lacera was born in Colombia and came to the U.S. as a baby. He grew up in Miami reading American comic books, watching Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons while his parents listened to salsa music — and as an adult, he became an artist for gaming studios and cartoons such as Care Bears. His wife Megan had written and created characters for Hasbro and Goldilox before forming her own creative company. When their son Kai was born eight years ago, the couple decided to write a children's book that Lacera illustrated.

I felt like there was an opportunity to show Latinx people doing things that are just funny or just being silly. - Jorge Lacera

Unlike other Latinx-themed children's books about immigration or historical biographies, theirs is a silly, pun-filled tale about a little boy in a family of Latino zombies. Zombies Don't Eat Veggies! was simultaneously published in Spanish as ¡Los Zombis No Comen Verduras!

"Ours is multiracial family, and we're goofy and silly. We wanted to write a book that represented that." says Lacera, who adds they were first met with a lot of rejections from editors and agents. "Some asking us to take out the Spanish, some people wondering out loud why they had to be a Latinx family. I think at that moment it became clear that some people get it and some people don't."

Lacera says they were lucky to find an agent and editor who understood. They got a two-book deal with Lee and Low Books, and now they're shopping around an animated film treatment for Zombies Don't Eat Veggies!

Jorge Lacera recommends:

Niño Wrestles the World, by Yuyi Morales (for ages 4 to 8)

Kutu: The Tiny Inca Princess, by Mariana Llanos and Uldarico Sarmiento (for ages 7 and up)

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, by Pablo Cartaya (for ages 10 to 13)

Never Look Back, by Lilliam Rivera (for ages 13 to 17)

Las Musas is a collective of women and non-binary Latinx authors creating middle-grade, picture books and young adult books. The group began two years ago to help support each other's debut or sophomore novels, and they offer mentorships and free webinars for published and unpublished kidlit writers. In December, Las Musas is hosting its first book festival, to be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

I wanted something that would show that we weren't a monolith, that Latinx literature was not just one story, we are many voices. - Aida Salazar

"We decided to create this collective that would help amplify each other's work. We know that we have to build each other up," says author Aida Salazar, a founding member. "I wanted something that would show that we weren't a monolith, that Latinx literature was not just one story, we are many voices. And we didn't want to be pitted against each other. That happens in many publishing houses. They'll say, 'well, we've got that one Latina author, so we don't need another.' We know that there's plenty of room at the table and that we are more than ready and more than worthy to sit at that table. In some instances, we're ready to create our very own table if they don't want to invite us."

Salazar's first book The Moon Within, published last year, was a story about a young Chicana experiencing her first menstruation and her first crush. Her best friend is gender fluid, and they both try to win the friendship of a boy they both like — for different reasons.

Scholastic

Salazar says it wasn't accepted by everyone. "I wouldn't say that the book was outright banned. Nobody crusaded against the book, but it was silently banned at schools and different communities wouldn't promote it, wouldn't have it in their libraries or teach it in their classrooms because menstruation is considered taboo and gender fluidity isn't something they wanted to broach in those settings. So the gatekeepers, the adults, the teachers, the librarians all sort of quietly banned the book and just didn't give it give students access. It's tragic because my book is the first in 50 years to address this in middle grade literature. The last book to address it head on was Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret."

Salazar's new book The Land of the Cranes came out earlier this month. In verse, she tells a fictional story of a nine-year old girl whose family is undocumented. Her father gets deported to Mexico, and she and her mother land in an immigration detention center after crossing the border. The girl writes picture poems to her father while she's in the detention center, and sparks a movement.

"I wrote this story during a time when the Trump administration was retaliating against sanctuary cities like Oakland, where I live," says Salazar, who says the book is a call to action. She was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was a baby. She says until she was 12, she lived as an undocumented immigrant, "So when they were rounding up undocumented people, this is the kind of terror that's very reminiscent of the cautiousness and fear of la migra that we had growing up. "

Salazar says she has family members who were deported or placed in immigrant detention centers. "We've had plenty of family members who crossed the border and were never heard from again, so there is a lot of first person experience woven into the story."

Aida Salazar recommends:

My Papi Has a Motorcycle, by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña (for ages 4 to 8)

Lupe Wong Won't Dance, by Donna Barba Higuera (for ages 8 to 12)

Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland (for ages 12 and up)

Illegal, by Francisco X. Stork (for ages 12 and up)

Dignidad Literaria (Literary Dignity) is a grassroots activist campaign launched earlier this year by three Latino writers outraged by American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins' best-selling novel about Mexican immigrants fleeing cartel violence. Backlash against the book began when Chicana writer/artist Myriam Gurba wrote a scathing review of the non-Mexican author's book, citing her "overly ripe Mexican stereotypes." Writer Roberto Lovato got in on the act, creating the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria, a social media crusade for more inclusion of Latinx writers in the publishing industry.

They have come up with some immediate solutions, but I think of most of them as a stop-gap and a band-aid, because long term, the things that need to be done are going to be painful. - David Bowles

Poet and novelist David Bowles joined Lovato and Gurba in forming the activist group after offering his own critical essay of American Dirt. The Dignidad Literaria movement gathered momentum with writers and activists around the country slamming the publishing industry for ignoring Latino writers. Oprah Winfrey, who had once heralded American Dirt, hosted a public discussion about the controversy. And publisher Flatiron Books cancelled Cummins' book tour. In February, Gurba, Lovato and Bowles met with editors at Flatiron Books and its parent company Macmillan to discuss American Dirt, and the bigger issue, the lack of Latinx representation in the books they acquire and in their editorial staffs.

"We spent two hours having some really, really difficult conversations," recalls Bowles. "By the end of it, I think we had won a good chunk of the people in that room over ... They first conceded that, yes, they did have a problem and that they were going to fix it. "

Bowles says Macmillan now has a diversity and inclusion council, and is working to bring in cultural experts to review their work. "They came up with some really good initiatives for reaching out to under-represented communities," he says. "They have come up with some immediate solutions, but I think of most of them as a stop-gap and a band-aid, because long term, the things that need to be done are going to be painful."

Dignidad Literaria is now working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to address the issue. Representative Joaquin Castro and others met with the Association of American Publishers to hold the big publishers accountable, starting with pressuring them to reveal employee demographics.

HarperCollins

"We need an accounting. We need numbers from them," says Bowles. "We need for them to lay their cards on the table and have government oversight ... For the past 40 years, they've given lip service to the idea of diversity and inclusion and multiculturalism, but they haven't done anything substantial."

Bowles, who hails from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, says his own journey to becoming an award-winning published author was difficult, and at first, he had to go the indie route. Cinco Puntos Press has published many of his books, including They Call Me Güero, a story about a red-headed 12 year-old-boy who lives on the US Mexico border and writes poetry. HarperCollins published his latest series of chapter books, 13th STREET, which he describes as "a kind of Latino Stranger Things for kids aged five to nine. It's spooky fun, you know, lots of adventure and humor, but it's also very, very centered in Mexican-American life in South Texas." Bowles also has a new graphic novel, Rise of the Halfling King, another on the way (The Witch Owl Parliament). His first picture book, My Two Border Towns, debuts next summer from Penguin Random House's Kokila imprint.

David Bowles recommends:

Shaking Up the House, by Yamil Saied Méndez (for ages 8 to 12)

Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros (for ages 8 to 12)

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, by Angela Cervantes (for ages 8 to 12)

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo (for ages 13 to 17)

Latinx in Publishing is a network of editors, publicists, publishers, marketers, book store owners, book club organizers and writers. The group promotes literature by for and about Latinx readers, shares resources, gives advice, and hosts conferences and professional development events. It also offers mentorships to Latinx writers yet to be published or have an agent.

The group began in 2016 as a way for Latinos inside the industry "to vent, to celebrate, to shout about our successes," says publicist Saraciea Fennell, who is chair of the nonprofit group's board of directors. "We would talk about frustrations working in the industry."

Where are the Central American writers? Where are the Black Latino writers? We're still missing all of the folks in the diaspora. So there's still a lot of work to be done. - Saraciea Fennell

Fennell is founder of The Bronx is Reading book festival, and created a group for Honduran Garifuna writers. She says the lack of Latinx representation in publishing remains dire and she's been urging her colleagues to look for and support new talent. "Where are the Central American writers? Where are the Black Latino writers?" she asks. "We're still missing all of the folks in the diaspora. So there's still a lot of work to be done. I'm hyper focused on the state of Black and indigenous Latinos specifically."

While Fennell despairs about the industry, she says internal and outside pressures have begun to create change. Major publishers "are finally leaning in more to the conversations that are happening around the professional makeup of the industry, but also the books that are being published"

We want to be holding ourselves accountable. That's really important because it's something that I think all the other publishers should do. - Nancy Mercado

That makes board member Nancy Mercado optimistic these days. She's Associate Publisher and Editorial Director at Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House, which for the first time has released its workforce report on diversity. The data shows that 78 percent of the company's non-warehouse employees are white, and seven percent are Hispanic/ Latino.

"I'm really proud of Penguin Random House," says Mercado. "What's exciting about that to me is that it just allows us to check in. We want to be holding ourselves accountable. That's really important because it's something that I think all the other publishers should do. The first step is always releasing the data, and that's what Dignidad Literaria and other folks have been asking for."

Nancy Mercado recommends

The First Rule of Punk, by Celia C. Perez (for ages 9 to 12)

Running, by Natalia Sylvester (for ages 12 to 16)

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maritza Moulite and Maika Moulite (for ages 12 to 16)

Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera (for ages 14 and up)

Saraciea Fennell recommends

Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away, by Meg Medina and Sonia Sanchez (for ages 5 to 7)

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina (for ages 9 to 12)

Each of Us a Desert, by Mark Oshiro (for ages 13 to 18)

Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (for ages 14 to 17)

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A small fraction of children's books that are published are written by or about Latinos, but several new groups of writers, editors and literary agents are trying to change that. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Latinx-themed children's books that are published are mostly immigration stories or historical biographies. But here's one silly, pun-filled tale about a family of Latino zombies.

JAIME CAMIL: (Reading) Mo was a zombie with a deep, dark craving. It was dreadful, devious, absolutely despicable. Mo loved to eat vegetables.

DEL BARCO: That's actor Jaime Camil reading from "Zombies Don't Eat Veggies," also published in Spanish as "Los Zombis No Comen Verduras." Jorge Lacera illustrated and co-wrote the book with his wife Megan.

JORGE LACERA: We're goofy and silly, and we, like, wanted to write a book out there that represented that.

DEL BARCO: The Colombia-born, Miami-raised 38-year-old Lacera says publishers rejected the book at first.

LACERA: Some people asking us to take out the Spanish, some people wondering out loud why they had to be a Latinx family. And I think at that moment, it became clear some people get it and some people don't.

DEL BARCO: The Laceras did find an agent and editor who got it. They got a two-book deal and are now shopping around a film treatment to animate their zombie story. Jorge Lacera is also part of a team of authors helping others to break into the publishing industry. Just 5% of children's books are by or about Latinx people according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center. Two weeks ago the group LatinxPitch hosted their first event for writers and illustrators to pitch their children's book ideas.

LACERA: All these wonderful stories were pitched on Twitter, and they were then followed up on by editors and agents who were excited to see them because there was a sense in the publishing industry that they were having a hard time finding authors from these communities. You can't have that excuse anymore, right? Here we are.

DEL BARCO: Another group called Las Musas - The Muses - supports Latina writers with mentorships and webinars. They're planning their first online book festival in December. Writer and activist Aida Salazar is one of the founders of Las Musas.

AIDA SALAZAR: We decided to create this collective that would help amplify each other's work, and we didn't want to be pitted against each other. That happens in many publishing houses. They'll say, well, we've got that one Latina author, so therefore, we don't need another. We know that we have to build each other up. We know that there's plenty of room at the table and that, in some instances, we're ready to create our very own table if they don't want to invite us.

DEL BARCO: Salazar's second book "Land Of The Cranes" debuted two weeks ago. It's a fictional account told in verse of a 9-year-old girl who writes poetry while being held in an immigration detention center. Salazar says she wrote the book to protest immigrant roundups, and she drew on her own family's experiences crossing the border, enduring ICE detention and getting deported.

SALAZAR: I was born in Mexico, and I was brought over when I was 9 months old. And I lived until I was 12 years old as an undocumented immigrant along with my family. And so this kind of terror that was instilled in the community was very reminiscent of the same kind of cautiousness and fear of La Migra (ph) that we had growing up.

DEL BARCO: Contrast Salazar's book with "American Dirt," the bestselling novel about a Mexican family fleeing narco violence in Mexico. Writer Myriam Gurba and others called out non-Mexican author Jeanine Cummins for writing what they consider offensive, stereotypical portrayals. Backlash against "American Dirt" prompted writer Roberto Lovato to create the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria - literary dignity. Now #DignidadLiteraria is a movement for Latinx literature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID BOWLES: This is a clear victory for nuestra gente (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Woo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

BOWLES: Your voices were heard.

DEL BARCO: In February children's book author David Bowles celebrated after he and other leaders of #DignidadLiteraria met with "American Dirt" publishers Flatiron and Macmillan. They demanded the company sign more Latinx writers and diversify their editorial staffs.

BOWLES: We spent two hours having some really, really difficult conversations. And by the end of it, they conceded that, yes, they did have a problem and that they were going to fix it.

DEL BARCO: Bowles, who lives on the Texas-Mexico border, says Macmillan now has a diversity and inclusion council. #DignidadLiteraria is working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to hold the big publishers accountable, starting with pressuring them to reveal employee demographics. This month, for the first time, Penguin Random House did. Seven percent of their non-warehouse workers are Latino, compared to 18.5% in the country. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "BAMBINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.