A Conversation with Alma Flor Ada

For our final post of this amazing year, we’re pleased to introduce you to a new series here on Latinas for Latino Lit. Each month we’ll be featuring a different Latino author and/or illustrator and talking about some of the issues that affect our community. We’re so happy to kick off this great series with the award-winning author, Alma Flor Ada.

Alma Flor may be the most recognized Latina author of children’s literature here in the United States. Together with her dear friend, F. Isabel Campoy, she has written everything from poetry to folklore and shared stories from throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Her beautifully written bilingual books are coveted by educators and parents across the country.

A marvelous and much sought-after speaker, Alma Flor is a Pro­fes­sor Emerita at the Uni­ver­sity of San Fran­cisco who has devoted her life to advo­cacy for peace by pro­mot­ing a ped­a­gogy ori­ented to per­sonal real­iza­tion and social jus­tice. She is also a for­mer Rad­cliffe Scholar at Har­vard Univer­sity and Ful­bright Research Scholar.

Alma Flor was kind enough to accept a few questions from L4LL, and we hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as we did…

L4LL: You are such a prolific writer, having published countless books in English and Spanish for children. Where do you go to find inspiration for your stories?

AFA: Inspiration seems to be all around us and inside us, if we only stop to rest and open the door to imagination. In my case many of my books have been born from my own childhood memories, not only the ones that are specifically memoirs like Under the Royal Palms and Where the Flame Trees Bloom but others like the recent Love, Amalia, which draws a great deal from my own relationship with my grandmother.

Both my grandparents were journalists, so it is not strange I would be moved to write Extra! Extra! and letters were a great part of my growing up experiences since we had family in various places. And I thoroughly enjoyed writing letters, thus Dear Peter Rabbit; Yours Truly, Goldilocks and With Love, Little Red Hen.

My children’s childhood was also a fountain of inspiration. It Wasn’t Me/No fui yo, I Don’t Want to Melt/No quiero derretirme, The Kite/El papalote and A Rose With Wings/Rosa alada relate directly to moments when they were growing up.

Some stories have been motivated by a word or phrase. I wrote The Malachite Palace because I love the sound of the phrase “un kiosco de malaquita” in Rubén Darío’s A Margarita and La hamaca de la vaca o Un amigo más was born directly from having thought the phrase “hamaca de la vaca.” I just couldn’t let go of it and had to create a story around it!

L4LL: You and Isabel Campoy have repeatedly written books that pull from different Hispanic cultures and traditions. Why have you chosen to do this? Is diversity so important?

AFA: Our culture is very rich. It co-exists in 20 countries with numerous indigenous populations of various origins. Our language is the fourth most spoken in the World, after Chinese, Hindi and English, but it is after English the most universally spread. Such territorial expansion can only result in great diversity. Our children should be aware that this diversity is a richness we can enjoy, celebrating our regional uniqueness and the strength of our unity.

L4LL: Why do you think it is important for Latino children and their families to read these books?

AFA: The more we know about our culture the more of value we will find in it. No culture is perfect and ours, like all other, is composed of positive and negative trends. Unfortunately, the mass media tends to highlight the negative –crime, drugs, scandal.

We need our children to grow up knowing they need not replicate anyone’s mistakes, not be seduced by false promises, but that they can embrace the positive aspects of our culture –love of family, friendship, creativity, hard work, and endurance.

They should find strength in our roots and inspiration in those who have contributed with their determination and effort.

L4LL: How can we help Latino children escape the discouraging statistics and become proficient readers by 4th grade?

AFA: Reading at home should be an essential aspect of childrearing. Parents and children who devote a few minutes every day to reading will not only strengthen the children’s reading abilities but will find topics to talk about.

Strong literacy is linked to strong vocabulary. And parents and caretakers should know that it is their responsibility to enrich the children’s vocabulary.

Talk to your children, as much as possible: tell them stories of when you were growing up, point out the differences, share with them experiences of your parents and grandparents, explain to them what you do each day, the decisions you have to make, the things that you observe and interest you.

And ask them to tell you what they do during the day, what they learn in class, who they play with at recess.

You will be building trust and bonding which will be very useful in the future to guide and protect your children. You will also be giving them the gift of words.

When reading the child needs to imagine the reality.

In the past children acquired vocabulary through conversation and through listening to the radio. The vocabulary present in film and TV is restricted, because the images substitute the words.

The reading proficiency children need require daily conversation and daily reading.

Make visits to the library a weekly treat. Establish a library at home with books you borrow from the public library and books you give as gifts.

L4LL: Why do you think large publishing companies and booksellers fail to invest and develop their sections devoted to Latino children’s literature?

AFA: We need to look at this in context. A large section of society still looks at Latinos as second class citizens. The prejudice that has been experienced by all immigrants in the past is confounded in this case with a certain amount of guilt arising from historical wrongs. The publishing industry and booksellers are no exception.

Publishers of children’s literature have a greater awareness of the messages sent by books, being constantly reminded by librarians and teachers of their social responsibility. Yet, it is difficult to make substantive changes, unless there is a clear determination to do so.

There are very few Latinos in the publishing industry. It is essential that publishers advertise and offer opportunities for some of our qualified youth to become editors. It would be very beneficial if some of our young people would be encouraged to get an education as writers.

Publishers could make an effort to foster Latino authors through specific awards, manuscripts requests, and sponsoring their participation in workshops or courses to hone their abilities as potential authors.

L4LL: Some argue that Latino literature should not be separated and put in their own section, but that books by Latino authors about Latinos should be mixed in with the mainstream books. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages? Yay or nay?

AFA: For me this is a case of both. Yes, Latino literature should become part of the mainstream literature, and our authors recognized and read along with all others. Yet, probably most would get lost on the mass. When we identify a Latino literature, offer special conferences and awards for Latino authors and place their books is special sections of book stores and book sellers catalogues, we bring a heightened awareness of their presence.

Teachers and Latino parents become more aware of the existence of books by Latino authors when they are highlighted.

L4LL: What are your favorite children’s books for the holidays?

AFA: Personally Isabel Campoy and I have written Merry Navidad to present the traditional Christmas story though villancicos, organized in sections to go from the journey to Bethlehem to the visit of the Three Kings. The English version that retains the poetic nature of the original were created by my daughter Rosa Zubizarreta. Vivi Escrivá created beautiful renditions of the different moments. It brings us much joy because it was a coordinated effort whose final result was all we had dreamt.

Years ago I wrote La jaula dorada / The Golden Cage a story inspired in my son’s Miguel love for birds and for his grandmother and No quiero derretirme / I Don’t Want to Melt which is a winter story inspired in an anecdote of my son Gabriel. He was very young when we left Detroit to visit my mother in Florida and he asked the snowman he and his siblings had built, “Please, do not melt.” His innocence moved me so much I felt the need to write a book, which is really about the meaning of life.

Recently Isabel Campoy and I wrote three books for the series Cuentos para celebrar/Stories to Celebrate: one dedicated to Christmas and the Three Kings Day, one dedicated to Hanukkah and one to Kwanzaa. As in all books in that series there is a story related to the festivity and a non-fiction section with photographs explaining the meaning and history of the celebration.

Because Christmas has been a very important moment in my life there are many references to it in many of my books.

But essentially a good book is a perfect gift and I hope parents will consider books as important gifts to give their children not only during the holidays but along the year. And the greatest beauty is that they need not buy them: the public library is full of them!


Thank you so much to Alma Flor Ada for talking with us and ending our year on such a meaningful note. Be sure to visit her website, AlmaFlorAda.com, to learn more about her many wonderful publications and find additional resources.

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and a bright and shining new year!

On NPR: Latino Children’s Lit to Top Lists

By: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

Every year my co-founder Monica Olivera awaits The New York Times Notable Children’s Literature List with a mixture of hopefulness and trepidation. While excited to learn about exemplary new titles in children’s lit by mainstream authors, she also hopes to see titles in a genre to which she and her children can relate: Latino children’s literature. Wearing two hats as homeschooling educator and Mami, she culls this list for book recommendations. But this year, once again, she was disappointed as it did not include a single book by a Latino children’s author, illustrator, or featuring an Hispanic character. Her disappointment soon turned to action. Deeming this unacceptable, Monica first compiled her own list of Remarkable Latino Children’s Literature of 2013, and then publicly pointed out that in the last 10 years, only one book by a Hispanic has made the cut in the NYT list, as she writes in her NBC Latino Op-ed.

Why are these writers overlooked? They have been publishing for decades, supported by small, independent publishers since at least the 1980s. These authors and illustrators have received numerous recognitions such as the Pura Belpré Award supported by the American Library Association or the Texas State University’s Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book award. As I note in L4LL Read for the Holidays: Two Writers on Why Latino Authors Should Top New York Times Lists which includes a Google Hangout on Air with writers Duncan Tonatiuh and Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, Hispanic authors’ work received the stamp of approval from the Library of Congress in the form of an invitation to present at the 2013 National Book Festival.

This exclusion is due to out of touch mainstream editors, book reviewers, and publishers who rarely venture outside their comfort zone to the world outside their front door into a more diverse and mixed America which includes 52 million Latinos.

The continued blinders on these gatekeepers have serious trickle-down repercussions: first, publishers have little incentives to take chances on “Unusual Suspects” and market to new audiences. Second, most bookstores, libraries, and schools don’t stock bookshelves and curricula with these new voices because they can’t find them in these go-to resources lists.

Third, this list’s exclusion of 17% of our population is not just a disservice to the fastest growing segment of our population, but to the teachers who are trying to make learning accessible to these students. Fourth, it hurts children from all backgrounds, including those who go to school with Hispanic kids. Seeing experiences and stories different from theirs opens up vistas and creates empathy and compassion for the world–not exclusively as they live it, but as it exists around them.

We raise our voices to school the New York Times Book Reviews and others on the richness and quality of an existing body of literature. But we also insist that readers of Latino children’s literature turn their demographic numbers into the economic might necessary to demand more representative “lists”– support our authors and their small, independent presses with purchases, leaving reviews, and placing orders at the library. Even a fraction of Hispanics “voting” with their pocketbooks and tweets numbers millions.

Numbers talk. And the mainstream media and publishers are sure to listen, resulting in a more representative view of our country and literature.

We discuss this topic on NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin with guest host Celeste Headlee leading the discussion on December 9, 2013. Click below to listen:

UPDATED WITH VIDEO: L4LL Read for the Holidays: Two Writers on Why Latino Authors Should Top New York Times Lists

by Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

The New York Times publishes several “best of” lists, including the Book Reviews’ Notable Children’s Books of 2013. Not a single Latino author, illustrator, or character made this year’s cut. Is it the first time this has happened? No. In the last ten years, only one book from this body of literature has been selected by the editor and committee. Is it that Hispanic authors are not publishing? They are, as my co-founder Monica Olivera argues in her Op-ed in NBC Latino. Small, independent publishers have been publishing children’s books by Hispanic authors and illustrators since at least the 1980s. Add to this that today, self-publishing is exploding. Judge for yourself by reading our Remarkable Children’s Literature of 2013

Maybe Hispanic kids lit authors and illustrators aren’t up to snuff? As to the judgement that this literature isn’t good enough which undergirds repeated exclusions, the work of Dr. Monica Brown and Rafael Lopez earned them an invitation to the 2013 National Book Festival.

The Library of Congress can’t be wrong. Rather what is wrong are exclusive, clubby gatekeepers whose far reaching dicta have real consequences: publishers aren’t motivated to pursue new authors and audiences. Same goes for bookstores, schools, and libraries across the country that only stock titles based on these big lists and those requested by the public (also influenced by these lists).

Click below to watch the video of our Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) Google+ Hangout on Air with children’s book authors Graciela Tiscareno-Sato and author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh on the exclusion of Hispanic authors and illustrators from The New York Times Book Reviews’ Notable Children’s Books of 2013 and their different publishing journeys.

With my L4LL co-founder Monica, our discussion focused on:

  • Why these “lists” count
  • How the mainstream can better access this talent and reach and engagement Hispanic readers to more accurately represent American literature and society
  • Today, despite the economic recession, more ways exist to publish and access books
  • Why 52 million Latinos must translate their demographic power into economic power by “showing up” in support of our authors by placing orders and buying books

This is part of our L4LL Read for the Holidays month-long event where we are highlighting books explaining our holiday traditions, Latino authors and illustrators, and a giveaway of tablet computers and Google Play gift cards.

Latino Children’s Literature Celebrating the Holidays

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As your family launches itself into the holiday festivities, don’t forget to take time to read to your child. Just 15 minutes a day can have a huge impact on their literacy skills. You don’t have to read it all at once, either. You can break it up into 5 minute periods during the day.

And to help you incorporate holiday-themed books, here are a few of our favorite Latino children’s titles that are either written by or about Latinos.

The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola

Sister Angie has organized the celebration of Las Posadas for many years, in which the people of Santa Fe re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter on the night Jesus was born. This year’s performance promises to be very special. Sister Angie’s niece Lupe and Lupe’s husband, Roberto, are to play the parts of Mary and Joseph. But on the night of the celebration, a snowstorm hits and Lupe and Roberto’s car breaks down on their way into town. And to make matters worse, Sister Angie is home sick with the flu. It seems that only a miracle will be able to save Las Posadas.

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola

This Mexican legend tells how the poinsettia came to be, through a little girl’s unselfish gift to the Christ Child. Beloved Newbery honor-winning author and Caldecott honor-winning illustrator Tomie dePaola has embraced the legend using his own special feeling for Christmas. His glorious paintings capture not only the brilliant colors of Mexico and its art, but also the excitement of the children preparing for Christmas and the hope of Lucida, who comes to see what makes a gift truly beautiful.

Merry Navidad!: Christmas Carols in Spanish and English/Villancicos en espanol e ingles by Alma Flor Ada, F. Isabel Campoy

In this warm and vibrant collection of traditional Spanish Christmas carols, or villancicos, noted authors Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy bring to life the holiday traditions of Latin America and Spain. The creative English adaptations by Rosalma Zubizarreta both capture the spirit of the originals and add a new dimension to the songs. And Spanish illustrator Viví Escrivá’s spirited illustrations are perfect backdrops for the lyrics, adding rich holiday flavor.

A Pinata in a Pine Tree: A Latino Twelve Days of Christmas by Pat Mora

An award-winning author and a rising star artist have put a festive Latino twist on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” populating it with piñatas in place of partridges, plus burritos bailando (dancing donkeys), lunitas cantando(singing moons), and much more, all displayed in the most vivid colors imaginable. In this version a little girl receives gifts from a secret amiga,whose identity is a sweet surprise at the book’s conclusion. There are things to find and count in Spanish on every page, with pronunciations provided right in the pictures and a glossary and music following the story. This joyous fiesta will warm even the coldest of hearts.

The Christmas Gift / El regalo de Navidad by Francisco Jimenez

With honesty and rare grace, award-winning author Francisco Jiménez shares his most poignant Christmas memory in this remarkable book. Illustrated with paintings full of strength and warmth, written in spare bilingual text, this simple story celebrates the true spirit of Christmas, and illuminates how children do indeed draw strength from the bonds of their families.

Arturo and the Navidad Birds by Anne Broyles

It’s time for Arturo and his Central American grandmother, Abue Rosa, to decorate their Christmas tree. Abue Rosa shares with him the family history of each ornament as it is hung. But what happens when Arturo plays with-and breaks-a glass bird? Young readers will find out in this touching, bilingual picture book.

Feliz Navidad: Two Stories Celebrating Christmas by Jose Feliciano

Set to the lyrics of Jose Feliciano’s song “Feliz Navidad” and illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner David Diaz, this unique flip book features two different, yet traditional, Christmas celebrations!

When Christmas Feels Like Home by Gretchen Griffith

After moving from a small village in Mexico to a town in the United States, Eduardo is sure it will never feel quite like home. The other children don’t speak his language and they do not play fútbol. His family promises him that he will feel right at home by the time Christmas comes along, when “your words float like clouds from your mouth” and “trees will ride on cars.” With whimsical imagery and a sprinkling of Spanish vocabulary, Gretchen Griffith takes readers on a multicultural journey with Eduardo who discovers the United States is not so different from Latin America and home is wherever family is.

Remarkable Latino Children’s Literature of 2013

It certainly appears as though we’ve come full circle. This month, Latinas for Latino Lit celebrates it’s first anniversary. What a year we’ve had! And to think that it all began with an article in the New York Times by Motoko Rich on Latino students’ lack of access to books that reflect their culture and experience.

So we were especially disappointed when the NYT released its annual list of Notable Children’s Books last week without a single title written by or about Latinos…again. We have more to say on this topic, so look for another response from us soon. But we want to start off by sharing our own list of Remarkable Latino Children’s Literature with extraordinary titles written and/or illustrated by Latinos that were released in 2013. Perhaps the New York Times should ask us for suggestions next year?

We hope you’ll enjoy this list. You can download and print your copy by clicking the link above. And we know that there were many other children’s titles by talented Latino authors that were released this year. Which ones would you add? Share them with us!

YES! WE ARE LATINOS. By Alma Flor Ada & F. Isabel Campoy. Illustrated by David Diaz. (Charlesbridge Publishing, $18.95) A collection of 12 narrative poems, each one describing a snippet of time from the lives of 13 Latino children who come by their heritage in different ways.

TITO PUENTE, MAMBO KING. By Monica Brown. Illustrated by Rafael López. (Rayo, $17.99) A vibrantly illustrated story about the life of the legendary musician, Tito Puente. Brown incorporates music and rhythm in her lively text and challenges children to find music in the world around them.

HOW FAR DO YOU LOVE ME? Written and illustrated by Lulu Delacre. (Lee & Low Books, $11.95) Journey to 13 different places around the world in this beautifully illustrated children’s book about love and families.

ROUND IS A TORTILLA. By Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by John Parra. (Chronicle Books, $16.99) The perfect introduction to shapes, this book uses rhyming text with Spanish words embedded and cultural objects to help children recognize circles, squares, and more.

PANCHO RABBIT AND THE COYOTE: A Migrant’s Tale. Written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. (Harry N. Abrams, $16.95) An allegorical tale about a topic that affects many Latino children, this story helps kids understand some of the reasons and hardships associated with immigration.

NIÑO WRESTLES THE WORLD. Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. (Roaring Book Press, $16.99) A hilarious introduction to the world of lucha libre, the young luchador, Niño, defeats a series of villainous challengers,  like the Guanajuato Mummy, while wearing only his red mask and underwear!

GOOD NIGHT CAPTAIN MAMA. By Graciela Tiscareno-Sato. Illustrated by Linda Lens. (Gracefully Global Group LLC, $16.99) A ground-breaking bilingual book that introduces children to Latinas serving in the military, and honors the latter’s contribution to our country.

A Read for the Holidays Giveaway

Things have changed so much in the realm of literature with the emergence of technology. Today apps and eReaders have spread like wildfire and can be found in thousands of homes across the country. From tablets to computers and other devices, a new way of experiencing literature has blossomed.

Keeping this in mind, we have chosen to help you explore this area with today’s Read for the Holidays Giveaway.

Three (3!) L4LL readers will win a Nexus 7 tablet and a Google Play gift card worth $100! We want you to have access to those amazing stories now available in a digital format.

In addition, four (4!) L4LL readers will win a Chromebook because we believe our stories matter. Your story matters. And we want to help you get started with writing it.

Or perhaps you know a voracious reader or a gifted writer who would delight in one of these gifts. Let us help you with your holiday gift giving.

To enter the giveaway, simply use the Rafflecopter below.

Felices fiestas from L4LL!

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