Week 1 of 5 Posts on Latin American Centered Children’s Books
In identifying the first children’s book to recommend for this series, I considered the issues brought up by two of the panelists from VIBE movement’s June 2020 Webinar, “How to Talk to Kids About Race.” Swati Singh, an educator of South-Asian descent, shared some of the knowledge she has gained as a continuation high school educator in Riverside California. Swati brought the issue of Americanism as a preconceived facet of whiteness into the conversation. Leilani Maree Wells, a Black parent with biracial parentage, reflected on her experience growing up as the only Black kid in her childhood household. Leilani framed the issue of racial coding as a lived, personal experience which asks for and needs family-oriented dialogue. Both Swati and Leilani’s contributions to the panel intersect at the site of a child’s sense of belonging.
Books can tell stories which validate a child’s sense of belonging. Swati explains, “I see a lot of intergenerational trauma in my kids that are coming to school exhibiting the feelings of worthlessness and disassociation in America that their parents also feel and that they are exchanging with one another. So, the healing across generations has not occurred.” For immigrant children and racially othered children, having their reality validated needs to begin with empowerment at an individual level. For ethnic minority American children who are part of an intergenerational cycle of trauma—e.g., genocide, enslavement, legalized discrimination and oppression, forced removal from an ancestral homeland—knowing their individual and family history in a contemporary US national context can be one way to empower them.
Leilani grew up with Mexican-Italian American siblings. She visited her African American father when she was growing up, but primarily lived as a type of other in her Italian mother’s home. Leilani shared, “I had a very different experience from everyone around me, especially in my own household, especially since my sisters didn’t look Mexican at all…For me, any time I tried and attempted to have these conversations within my family, [about] experiences I was having, I was invalidated within the household of people that were supposed to be there for me and love me enough to be there. And, that wasn’t occurring. And so, I would have these conversations outside of my household, and also not have enough of these conversations in general.” Books can and do dialogue with children. The text and images in a children’s book can provide comfort, understanding, and potential solutions to challenges.
The issue of belonging and the need to empower children who are contending with a status quo which invalidates their experiences brought me to the first book I am recommending to parents and teachers in this series.
Writer-illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal’s Alma and How She Got Her Name (2018) is rich with dialogue about culture, ancestry, geography, and how children can be connected to a homeland through language. Reading the English-language version of Alma situates the child and her father as part of the Peruvian diaspora, a mirroring of Martinez-Neal’s own migration from Lima to Arizona. The book begins with Alma and her multi-part name, which will sound familiar to Latin American children who are often prompted to Anglicize the pronunciation and form of their names to suit Euro-American spaces. “Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela” assumes the normalcy of accented names with rolling r sounds. The breadth of Alma’s full name opens up windows of translation as bilingual Spanish-English speaking children recognize alma as “soul” and esperanza as “hope.”
This book can be the start of an autobiographical journey for children. Like Alma, children can ask their parents what their name means and who their ancestors are on both sides of the family tree. Like Alma, children can ask about their ancestral homeland and living traditions from reading poetry like “Sofia” to protesting in the name of justice like “Candela.” Readers can also explore Peru via the illustrated Incan masks, books about the Amazon, llamas, and Quechua dolls. Alma opens up a dynamic set of avenues for intellectual travel through family histories and geographies.
Alma faces a map of the world as she declares that she yearns to travel, like “Esperanza.” Through Alma, children can begin to conceptualize the significance of maps as they seek to situate themselves in a world which holds many histories and many landscapes.
We meet Alma’s paternal grandfather when she learns about “José,” an artist who taught Alma’s father “to see and love our people.” Alma connects to her grandfather through the practice of drawing. As Alma declares, “I am José,” the illustration layout takes on a two-page mural view. Alma is painting animals on the wall, using a bin of paint brushes just like her grandfather’s bin. Many of the animals are captioned with their names in Spanish, which will resonate with bilingual children and serve as a teaching tool for Spanish-language learners. The gender norms for male-female names are irrelevant to Alma; she embraces her connection to José and all the ways in which she enacts their common traits.
Alma and How She Got Her Name shows children how they can interact withtheir ancestors through names, books, and objects. This is a distinctly non-Western epistemic perspective to model. Americans may be familiar with the spiritual significance of ancestral connection through hybrid indigenous-Christian religious celebrations like Dia de los Muertos and Dia de los Difuntos. Children may have seen this type of child-ancestor connection in the Academy Award winning Coco.
As Alma’s father turns to a sacred heart on the wall, he explains that “Pura” was her great-aunt. She “believed that the spirits of our ancestors are always with us, watching over us.” The dark shading of the facing illustration signals a memory; it features Pura lighting a candle under the same sacred heart. A pink-striped Alma is reaching into the memory, lighting a candle next to Pura and the image of a saintly woman, an ancestor on the wall. The sacred heart and ancestor keep watch over Alma on other pages of the book.
Discovery of one’s name and one’s place in the world is a difficult journey for many immigrant, first-gen, multiracial, and multicultural children in America. Alma speaks to such children with the nuance of a 1-1 dialogue between a trusted adult and an initially frustrated child. As Alma configures her name, she configures the world and her place in it. Children of all ethnic backgrounds can learn from Alma’s journey into embracing her name and the objects which connect her to an ancestral past. In an increasingly digital teaching and reading space, Alma and How She Got Her Name reminds us about the importance of living artifacts and their stories. A child may come away from this book asking:
Where does my name come from?
Where are we from?
Am I like my grandparents?
Who are my ancestors?
Where is Peru?
Where is my house, my casa, on this map?
Is there a map of my town?
Is there a map of my grandmother’s pueblo?
These questions can often be answered through stories surrounding a family photograph or heirloom. Alma helps us turn back to the “things” which anchor us to ourselves and our past.
Teachers should take the time to research how to develop equitable and anti-racist lessons. There are potential pitfalls with using this book as a primary text for lesson-building. Be sure to not assign a pre-populated family tree worksheet about names to your students. This type of activity can place an undue amount of stress on students who come from historically enslaved ancestry and/or immigrant families who fled armed conflict. Not all students have access to their family tree going back three or more generations. And, not all students come from traditional families with a mother-father at the center. Many students have same-sex parents, one parent, or a guardian (i.e., grandparent, aunt, uncle, foster parent). Your student may not be able to talk to the person or people who named them. One way to mitigate the potential pitfalls to using this book in class is to model a research method which is inclusive. Show kids that they have an array of resources to learning about their name. They can ask family members, but they can also look up their names and find out their meaning. If your student shares a name with a cultural icon, they can learn about that person and make decisions about what qualities they would like to emulate. Let your students get creative by writing a poem about what their name means to them.
In 2019, Alma and How She Got Her Name received the Caldecott Medal from the Association for Library Service to Children. It may seem strange for Alma and its illustrations to be recognized with an award named for a mid 19th century artist. Randolph Caldecott was a renowned children’s book illustrator from England, but the award is given to an American publication. Martinez-Neal’s award is evidence of how children’s literature today is breaking from an Anglo-centric image bank and linguistic norm. The hybridity of images, cultures, and languages in Alma is the externalization of her complex and deeply rooted name.
Children with racialized names face discrimination and prejudice in American contexts. Alma normalizes non-gender conforming names, non-English names, and multi-part names which subvert expectations for a standard first, middle, and last name structure. Even if your child does not have a name commonly read as an indication of racial otherness, Martinez-Neal’s book captures the beauty of difference for all readers. Reading a book like Alma to your child will undermine the systems of race-based classification children are exposed to, and reinforce a sense of respect and curiosity about themselves, their peers, and the cultures in our world.
*A Spanish-language version of the book is also published by Candlewick Press.
View a recording of VIBE Movement’s “How to Talk to Kids About Race” webinar here:
Learn more about VIBE Movement here: https://www.vibemovement.com/about