As I read all these #OwnVoices books, I noticed that many revolved around the importance of family and food. In fact, they are intertwined together. Family recipes passed down over generations. Grandmother cooking if not grandmother actually cooking. And it’s always love that binds the generations as well as the secret sauce for why the food is so delicioso.
But, I think #OwnVoices of all cultures have this same recipe because culture when it’s true and honest, comes down to family and food, and then builds out into a larger community. But Latinx #OwnVoices has something a little extra … a rhythm, a spirit of fun where everyone breaks out into dance simultaneously for no particular reason. AND everyone knows the steps of the dance! It’s kisses on cheeks too and the warmth of love unabashedly expressed in gestures and words.
There is generosity too. Of hospitality and an invitation to be an “uncle” or a “cousin” even if you are not actually related. And there is the food. If food is in the book, there is typically recipes in the back. It’s an invitation for you, the reader, no longer a stranger, to partake and enjoy. And please do! These are secret family recipes shared with love!
I was lucky to get a glimpse into this world through one of my best friends growing up who is half Mexican. I heard stories of her aunts and uncles and how everyone lived under one roof giving their paycheck to the matriarch until the last kid graduated from college. I ate the food. In fact, I (and my entire family) would stop by on Christmas day for freshly steamed tamales. Their family food traditions became my own. They are generous that way!
What #OwnVoices children’s books are you enjoying for Latino Heritage Month? Thanks for sharing!
p.s. I have other Latinx book lists here:
Hispanic American Book Lists for Kids
My guest author Derek Taylor Kent comes up with his list for best bilingual Spanish picture books for kids.
I’m noticing some great Hispanic American KidLit lately across all children’s book genres!
I’m doing a round-up of Hispanic books for kids of all ages, from picture books to young adult.
#OwnVoices Children’s Books for Latinx Heritage Month
A Gift From Abuela by Cecilia Ruiz
With a nod to Mexican history and currency inflation, this is a multi-generational story of that very special love between grandparents and grandchildren. Niña and her Abuela spent a lot of time together when she was young doing little happy things like singing silly songs, going to the park, and making paper banners. Abuela wanted to buy Niña something special so she had a special can where she put aside some pesos every week.
As Niña grew older, she spends less time with her grandmother, so one day she visits her and cleans her kitchen as a surprise. Niña finds the can of money, now worthless. But Niña has an idea of what to with it that reminds her of the projects she did long ago. Together, they use the money to make something special. This picture book has a surprising depth and is a good reminder to cherish the relationships with our loved ones. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Alma has a very long name: Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela. She thinks it’s too long and doesn’t fit her so her father gives her the history of her ancestors, each who have contributed their name to hers. Sophia is her grandmother who taught a love of books. Esperanza armchair traveled when her son became a sailor. José is her grandfather, an artist who painted portraits. Pura is her great-aunt who connects her to the spirits of her ancestors. Candela, another grandmother, was an activist. Alma decides that her name is just right, with a story of her own to contribute. The story of a name conveys an entire family history making it special and unique. This picture book is also a fun way to learn about Latino culture. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato
In Cuba, the cars are from the 1050’s with replacement parts ingeniously created from whatever is available. A boy and his family take a road trip to Havana, Cuba in the family car. It’s an adventure both in seeing the surrounding sights and in hoping that the old car can make it there without breaking down. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by
The city is a dreary gray, and one day a little girl brightens it up with her colorful drawings. This inspires an artist with a pocket full of paintbrushes. Soon, the entire neighborhood gets involved in creating a mural that spreads color and joy. As they painted, music filled the air. The color and dancing spread from the wall to the ultility boxes and benches. As their gray city transformed, the people did too. They turned into artists. This is based on a true story. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
p.s.I have other public art artists on this list here: 10 Diverse Picture Books on Fine Artists.
Lucky Luis by Gary Soto, illustrated by Rhode Montijo
Luis worries about baseball tryouts because his father was a champ. For good luck, his father always wore his belt buckle to one side. Luis thinks samples at the supermarket are helping his game. When he doesn’t get to go to the market or when the samples are all gone, he plays poorly. His dad thinks Luis doesn’t need to worry about superstitions; just focus on what the coach says. Luis tries … and it finally works. This picture book sneaks in Latino culture through the food that Luis samples, and is a great reminder that while baseball is America’s favorite past time, many Hall of Fame players hail from Latin America. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Kusikiy, A Child from Taquile, Peru by Mercedes Cecilia
Mercedes Cecilia has created a modern myth in the tradition of oral storytellers about a boy who brings the rain back to Taquile, Peru. Told in lyrical prose, this picture book reflects the connection the people of Taquile have to Mother Earth and their elders. This is a wonderful picture book to learn about Peru. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Dreamers is Yuyi Morales’ personal journey of immigrating to the United States, not speaking English and then having to live here with her husband and young son in order to get her permanent resident status. The public library became a refuge for them, both to expose them to English and to the world of picture books. I love how the books that were the most important to her are included in the illustrations. Yuyi also includes her book list in the back. This is a beautiful and powerful story of the dreams of immigrants. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Imagine! by Raúl Colón
This is Raúl Colón’s own story of a creative explosion when he visited his first art museum, The Museum of Modern Art. A young boy’s life is changed forever when he walks into an art museum and the paintings come alive for him. This wordless picture book is a tribute to the power of art and artists who boldly put forth ideas to define artistic expression in new ways, inspiring generations to come. [wordless picture book, ages 4 and up]
Here is our tour of MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) as part of a whirlwind but perfect day in NYC! I have to say that the MOMA is a creative explosion of ideas, with one of the finest and most inspirational art collections in the world. I took photos of my favorites and hope you enjoy them too.
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet by Duncan Tonatiah
Amalia Hernández created El Ballet Folklórico de México, a dance troupe that celebrated regional and indigenous dances of Mexico. A dancer and choreographer, Amalia combined ballet and modern dance with folkloric dances. reflecting the traditional culture of Mexico in a new and exciting way. Tonatiah details how Hernández became a dancer as a child and how she was inspired to start this international sensation dance group. His illustration, inspired by pre-Columbian art, match perfectly with the aesthetic of El Ballet Folklórico de México dance. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
Martí’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
José Martí was a freedom fighter who fought with words through writing and poetry as well as an actual soldier, not your typical mix. Born and raised in Cuba, he had deep empathy for those he saw enslaved to work the sugarcane fields, owned by the Spanish who colonized Cuba. In 1868, the Cuban people fought to free themselves of Spanish rule. José was enprisoned at a work camp and then exiled to New York. He continued to fight on behalf of his people, raising money and recruiting supporters. He also continued to write poetry, inspired by the Catskill mountains that reminded him of home. José returned to Cuba to join in a new war for independence and was killed in battle. His poetry lives on, singing of freedom. Emma Otheguy captures José Martí’s life fighting for the oppressed in lyrical prose. He’s an inspiration that as a gentle and deeply empathic poet, he could fuel a revolution. [bilingual Spanish and English picture book, ages 7 and up]
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
The Drum Dream Girl is of Chinese-African-Cuban mixed-race ancestry and all these cultures inspire her to drum. The dragon dance drummers of her Chinese ancestors. The conga, bongó, and timbales that come from her Latin and African roots and the rhythms beckon to her. Her sisters invite her to join their all-girl dance band but her father says that only boys should play drums. Until he changes his mind and finds her a teacher that will teach girls that helps her unlock her talent. Now, when people hear her play drums, everyone agrees that girls should always be allowed to play drums.
Told in lyrical free verse, Margarita Engle tells an inspiring story for girls everywhere that they should be able to be anything they want to be. Just like the Drum Dream Girl! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
Frida is famous as an artist and for her vast number of pets: two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a cat, and a fawn. She treated them like her children perhaps because she was unable to have children of her own after the terrible bus accident she was in. Her pets were also her inspiration and were featured in many of her more than two hundred paintings. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
This painting by Frida Kahlo is from the Museum of Modern Art!
Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor
It’s a treat to have a children’s autobiography told in Sonia Sotomayor’s own words. Reading this book feels like meeting her. She gives us an intimate look into what shaped her life which had challenges that she rose above, buoyed by books. They were the windows and doors that opened opportunities for her and gave her a place of sanctuary. She also gives us insight into why she became a judge and how she views justice. I won’t be surprised if this book inspires kids to become a judge. After all, it was the power of books that inspired Sonia Sotomayor to dream this huge dream that came true! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Raúl Colón
The historical figures are presented chronologically but I think to hold young readers interest, it makes more sense to skip around, targeting their interests. For example, young athletes will find Roberto Clemente’s story fascinating as both someone who broke color barriers in major league baseball and devoted his life to philanthropy. Jaime Alfonso Escalante’s story is portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, but the movie doesn’t cover his earlier life about how he came to be a teacher in the inner city. Street artist Judith F. Baca might be more recognizable for her urban murals including The Great Wall of Los Angeles. Others might be more well known such as supreme court judge Sonia Sotomayer, astronaut Ellen Ochoa, and singer Joan Baez. This is a great introduction to Hispanic notables that will undoubtably have some kids searching for more information on their favorites. [nonfiction chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Lola Levine series by Monica Brown, illustrated by Angela Dominguez
Lola Levine is excited! This summer break she is getting a kitten. But Lola’s happiness soon turns to distress when she realizes her little brother might be allergic to her new pet.
I love that Lola is an animal lover, and while she makes a judgment error when trying to keep her pet, she realizes her mistake and makes amends. [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina
This is a delightful Early Chapter Book. Kids will delight in meeting Juana, a girl with strong likes and dislikes that everyone can relate to. She lives in Bogetá, Columbia and this is the year that her class starts learning English! It’s a fun twist to realize that kids in other countries might detest learning English as a second language. Juana spends a great deal of time trying to strengthen her case on why she doesn’t need to learn English which might sound familiar to kids in the United States who dislike learning foreign languages. In the end, Juana is motivated by a trip to an American theme park by applying herself to learning English. And it’s totally worth it!
Peppered with Spanish words and illustrated with charming cartoon illustrations, this is a fun way to introduce kids to Spanish! [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Stella Diaz Has Something To Say by Angela Dominguez
Stella thinks that having a green card as a resident alien might have something to do with not feeling like she fits in. Like her pet Betta fish, she feels a sense of isolation. But this is the year that Stella stands up to the girl bully, makes new friends, and finds her voice at school. Deep inside, Stella knows that she’s a great artist, and is good at math and spelling. Her older brother is nice most of the time, but then there’s her absentee and unreliable father.
Drawing on her upbringing as a Mexican American immigrant, Angela Dominguez writes a story that starts off quietly but builds to a crescendo in the same way as Stella’s own story of self-discovery and self-confidence. Dominguez successfully weaves storylines of single parenting, speech therapy classes, and making new friends making this a Latinx #OwnVoices story with wide appeal. Readers will root for Stella and leave with a stronger sense of empathy for kids who are shy or speak with an accent. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Salsa Stories by Lulu Delacre
This is the perfect book to celebrate Latino Heritage Month. While there are many countries with their own history and culture in Latin America, all have a strong sense of family and distinct and delicious regional cuisine. Salsa Stories combines both elements in this series of stories that cover many Latino countries: Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Mexico, and Peru.
The stories are told in the context of a family gathering, sharing stories of their youth to young Carmen Teresa who has just received a blank journal as a gift. Instead of creating a book of their stories, Carmen Teresa has a better idea. Because she loves to cook, she wants the family recipes described in each story. This is a delicious way to celebrate Latino Heritage Month and recipes are included in the back! [early chapter book, ages 7 and up]
Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano
For kids who like the TV show Wizards of Waverly Place, this chapter book has same light hearted magical but with more Latino culture. Leo (Leonora) is the youngest sister in the Logrono family. They own a panaderia (bakery) that makes the most delicious pan dulce, cookies and cakes around. Leo isn’t allowed to skip school to help prepare for their busiest day, Dia de los Muertes so she sneaks out of school to check on the bakery when it seems suspiciously dark. She discovers that her family are brujas (witches), and their kitchen magic adds a special ingredient to their baked goods. She learns that she’s still too young to learn about magic so she decides to learn on her own. Unfortunately, when she tries out her magic to help a friend, things get out of control. This is a fun series for anyone who ever felt that they were the last to try things in their family! You can also try some magic on your own! Recipes are included in the back for cookies, Pan De Muerto Mensajaro (a type of sweet bread), and Alegrías (Amaranth bars) which do not require cooking.[chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
This is the story of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, and it’s an epic riches-to-rags story across two countries. Tragedy strikes when Esperanza’s father dies, and his evil brother tries to take control of his lands. Esperanza and her mother escape from him, leaving Mexico to the United States. But life is hard in the United States compared to the life of luxury Esperanza enjoyed. When her mother gets sick, she must work as an itinerant farm worker to earn money for medicine and food. Her past is with her as well. Pablo, a boy who worked for her family, also immigrates to the U.S. Though she wanted to marry him as a child, she rejects him as too poor. But here in America, the rules of class that she adhered to are gone. Can Esperanza rise from her past life of entitlement to this new world order? [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Love, Amalia by Alam Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta
It’s bad enough that Amalia’s best friend moves far away without much notice, but then her beloved Abuelita dies. Her Abuelita took care of her after school every day, teaching her how to cook, and sharing stories of Abuelita’s children, now fully grown and living in far-flung places. Abuelita’s death brings the relatives back to Chicago where Amalia can finally put a face to the stories. The letters that Abuelita saved from her children are passed on to Amalia, and they make her realize her connection to her grandmother will never be lost. It’s this realization that makes her finally ready to reconnect with her best friend.
This quiet story has the warmth of a grandmother’s loving wisdom and would be comforting to anyone who has suffered loss either through a friend moving away, or a death in the family. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
How Tia Lola Came to Visit Stay series by Julia Alvarez
Think Mary Poppins + All-of-a-Kind Family but set it in Vermont. And add in Spanish culture and language from the Dominican Republic. There isn’t the magical realism of Mary Poppins but Tia Lola makes her own kind of magic with the charm of her outgoing and perceptive personality. She might need to learn English, but she can connect with anyone. Miguel and his younger sister Juanita have moved to Vermont with their mother after their parents’ divorce. Tia Lola, who raised their mother, is coming to help out. The children miss their papi in New York City, but Tia Lola is willing to chaperone a trip there. Told in short stories that stand alone, this is a charming story of a loving family balancing two cultures. While there aren’t any recipes included, the food described in the book will make you want to visit the Dominican Republic or at least a restaurant serving these delicacies. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
“His (José Martí) poetry is political but full of love and hope,” she said and I nodded. But really, I had no idea what she was talking about.
With a fresh contemporary voice, Pablo Cartaya creates a story about real estate gentrification and young romance that happens to be set in a multigenerational family that both lives together in an apartment complex and works together at the family restaurant. Arturo Zamora is a typical middle school kid who happens to be third generation Cuban American. His family’s restaurant, a bedrock of the community, is threatened when a slick real estate developer comes to town. There is also a middle-school romance in this book that is sweetly awkward and provides comic humor throughout the book.
Cuban culture is laced throughout this. I liked the connection to the poetry of José Martí that Pablo’s Abuela and his love interest, Carmen, both love. (Pair with Martí’s Song for Freedom to explore further.) A story about a Cuban family restaurant would not be complete without descriptions of food and there are also recipes in the back! There is something for every reader in this book, and I highly recommend it! [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
“You nervous about school?”
“Nope,” I said, and gave her a big, fake smile. “It’s always been my dream to be the new kid in seventh grade.”
The first rule of punk is that there are no rules. The second rule of punk is not the louder, the better. It’s be yourself. I am so impressed with this modern portrayal of a mixed race Latina girl. It’s so unexpected, this mix of Mexican punk rock, ‘zines, starting a new school, dealing with a queen bee girl bully, divorced parents, and finding your own lane of expression that straddles two cultures. There are no stereotypes or tropes to be found, yet there is a plethora of Latinx culture from Folklorica Dance to José Martí to Frida Kahlo to Mexican musical genres. Malu is a character that will stay with you for a long time. Celia C. Pérez does a really good job portraying girl bullying in a nuanced way where no one is all bad or all good, and interactions show external and internal conflict. This is my favorite middle grade book on this list and what I’ve read all year. It had broad appeal for girls and boys and it imparts a sneaky but impressive amount of knowledge about Latinx culture in a way that sticks and makes the reader want to learn more. My only complaint is that cover doesn’t do justice to the book. It reads too young and too cartoony. Malu is cooler than this girl and she dresses in a more interesting way. Also, the book seems thicker and longer than it really is since Malu’s ‘zines are part of the book (and a very appealing part as well) but they do add to the page count. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Merci Suárez attends a private school on scholarship which makes her feel like a second class citizen. She has to do extra community service including The Sunshine Buddies where she gets paired with a boy that the girl who bullies her has a crush on. Merci would rather play soccer but now her family won’t let her try out for the school team because her grandfather needs help. No one tells her exactly what is going on, but it seems that her Lolo acts strange sometimes, wandering off or getting angry for no reason. This coming of age story sometimes feels like it’s really geared to the middle grade audience. The reference to Vanna White of The Wheel of Fortune game show, for example, won’t resonate with most young readers as it’s before their time. Still, those readers who like a coming of age story that is steeped in the realism of everyday struggle will relate to Merci Suárez as she tries to find her place at school and at home.
There’s a lot in common with Merci Suárez Changes Gears and The First Rule of Punk. Both girls are experiencing transitions at school and have to deal with girl bullies. I would describe The First Rule of Punk as cinematic and Merci Suárez as documentary. The former is more light hearted, the latter is more somber. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Not #OwnVoices but Highly Recommended
My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson
In 1961, Fidel Castro vowed to eliminate illiteracy in Cuba in just twelve months. He created an army of volunteer teachers, many of them as young as ten. In this story, Lora is thirteen-years-old and moves to the countryside with her battalion to teach adults in a farming village. It’s not just a difficult task but a dangerous one. The battle for literacy included fighting insurgent soldiers intent on derailing this effort by killing the young teachers. The literacy movement taught more than 700,000 Cubans to read and write. Cuba’s literacy rate continues to be one of the highest in the world at 99.75%.
Katherine Paterson’s closest Cuban friend, Dr. Emilia Gallego, was a brigadista as a teenager and provided insight as well as arranged her trips to Cuba. Learn more here. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Matt de la Pena
Accusation 1: “I wonder if any of Matt de la Pena’s students have weighed in. A friend took a writing class with him and recounted several tales of transactional sexual relationships with his students and creepy behavior.”
Accusation 2: “I didn’t respond to Anne’s survey but Matt de la Pena is someone to steer clear of.”
Accusation 3: “Matt de la Peña. You are powerful and respected in this industry, you should be ashamed of the way you speak to and treat female students. Your business is how we write, not how we look. Among several inappropriate comments, you minimized me down to my appearance in a moment of my education that I worked hard for, that should have been one of my proudest. You made me feel small and objectified. I resent it. I am not shocked to see that I am not the only student you abused your power over.”
Matt de la Pena, hasn’t had time to offer an apology in between all of his speaking engagements, but he somehow found time to change his bio. He no longer considers himself a “love doctor.”
As a grad student, I invited Junot Diaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I’m far from the only one he’s done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore.
“As for Mr. Diaz, he temporarily left the Society of Children’s Book Writers a few years ago after a woman complained to the leadership that he had made her feel uncomfortable. He completed a training course about sexual harassment and was put on a yearlong probation.
Mr. Diaz said the training had taught him that what he had considered innocent flirtation was perceived much differently.
“Don’t call anyone ‘honey,’ don’t touch anyone, don’t engage in any kind of flirtatious manner,” he said in an interview. “And after training I understood my only purpose is to talk about books and the craft of making books.”
Then, after the #MeToo movement caught fire, the writer Ishta Mercurio-Wentworth told Ms. Oliver of an incident that occurred six years earlier, when Mr. Diaz had touched her hair, said, “You’re kinky, aren’t you,” and then walked away. Mr. Diaz then sent her an apology.” from NYTimes
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