"Do you have a book on superheroes?" Jose asked me on Friday afternoon, as we looked over the easy reader collection together.
It was the same question I had heard from Antonio, Diego, Carlos, and Francisco earlier in the week. Both my students and I were frustrated by the lack of beginning reader books they found attractive. Our well-stocked library had lots of books with dogs or cats as the main character. My students liked animals, but many of them could not afford to own a pet. Very clever books written from the viewpoint of pets in middle-class homes fell a little flat for them.
So did another favorite of mine — Amelia Bedelia — whose misinterpretation of the English language makes most American-born children giggle. It is understandable that an English Language Learner would not find a character who misunderstands English puns particularly funny. What is not understandable is the lack of easy-to-read books with Hispanic characters.
In her captivating Everything I Need to Know I Learned in a Children's Book, Anita Silvey talks about "the amazing power of the right book for the right child — at the right time." Such a book can change a child's life. She interviewed successful people in a variety of disciplines about the book that transformed their reading landscape. As an author, librarian, and teacher, I have a passionate desire to do my part to deliver books that turn reluctant readers into willing ones.
We live in a diverse society. Not everyone lives in a middle-class home with a fenced-in backyard. Not everyone has two living parents who were born in the United States. Children's books — and not just middle grade and young adult novels — should reflect that. If we want to turn at-risk readers into book lovers, we need easy-to-read books that depict their lives and their dreams.
That's why, when I sat down to write a superhero for the struggling readers who kept asking me for one, I named my character Freddie Ramos. In the Zapato Power series, Freddie Ramos lives in Starwood Park Apartments and goes to Starwood Elementary.
At the time I was writing the first Zapato Power book, I worked in a Title I school as a librarian. Many of my students lived in a large apartment complex right next to the school. They moved often, and their families worried about money. That's Freddie's life, too. And quite a few of my students, for one reason or another, lived in a single-parent home. So does Freddie.
For a variety of reasons, including the fact that I was once a young widowed mom, I chose to make Freddie's father a war hero rather than a divorced dad. A couple of the customer reviews on Amazon have questioned why, in an otherwise playful book with large font designed for newly independent readers, the main character would have a deceased father. One adult reader said her five-year-old really enjoyed the book but she had difficulty explaining the death of Freddie's father. While I recognize the discomfort of an adult raising a child in a comfortable two-parent family, I can also imagine the disquiet of a child who never sees his own family situation depicted in books.
Freddie Ramos is Hispanic. He is also the child of a military widow struggling to make a good life for herself and her son. But his ethnicity or family background does not rule his thoughts or his definition of himself. Like most children, Freddie sees the circumstances of his life as normal, not a challenge he needs to tackle. Too often, non-white children living in single-parent families are depicted in children's literature as characters with a problem to solve. Elizabeth Bird, in her April 5, 2010 Fuse #8 Production blog, said that she "could count on one hand the number of MG books for kids starring a Hispanic character where the plot isn't ALL about being Hispanic." She's absolutely right, and this is an issue children's literature needs to address.
The Snowy Day
In 1962, when Viking published the beloved The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, a color barrier was broken in children's publishing. Finally, children of color had the opportunity to see themselves in a book. Families of all races loved The Snowy Day — and still do. It proved that diversity is something we can embrace in children's literature.
Some children may have a greater personal need to see themselves in a book than others, but all children need books with characters from various ethnic, economic, and family backgrounds. And they need them on all reading levels. The book that turns one child into an avid reader may make another child yawn, and vice versa. If we have enough variety available, we will have the opportunity to hook new readers with "the right book for the right child — at the right time."
Jacqueline Jules is a teacher, school librarian, and author of Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, released by Albert Whitman in March of 2010 and Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Springs into Action, September 2010. The third book in the Zapato Power series, Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue will be released by Albert Whitman on March 1, 2011.