There is one important factor missing from children’s literature, and Hispanic young readers are taking notice. According to a report from the New York Times, there are few exceptions to the lack of Hispanic characters in children’s books, and the ones there are—books by authors such as Gary Soto and Julia Alvarez—rarely make it into the classroom.
As one of the fastest growing minorities, Hispanics make up a significant portion of the school population, and the Pew Hispanic Center indicates more than 12 million Hispanics enrolled in public schools around the nation, making up approximately one-quarter of students in the public school system.
As a growing portion of the school population, Hispanic young readers lacking relatable characters in school literature may miss out on understanding the deeper aspects involved with reading, such as character development and motivation, as well as building up reading stamina.
According to experts, children need to be able to relate to a character in order to understand many situational learning lessons placed in books for young readers.
“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, told the New York Times.
Learning from reading is important, explains the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), because it provides children with a means to expand on basic skills such as communication, listening, and learning to associate visual images with words.
“… A child may access the enormous literary resources, he must, of course, learn to read, and this in the broadest meaning of the word,” explained Denise von Stockar from IBBY. “Because reading, from a global point of view, is a very complex activity which is not limited to decoding a text, but it entails too the child’s capability to understand what he has read, to integrate it in his own context and personal experiences by analyzing it in a critical way so he is able to take a stand on what he has read. Only this kind of complete and deep reading education will take children toward a real, integrated literacy.”
That reading experience may be lessened for young reader Latinos in the United States because only a small percentage of books available are written by Latino authors or are about Hispanics. Only slightly more than 3 percent of children’s books fall into that category.
Not only will Hispanic children miss out on fully developing important skills that come with the exercise of reading, but it is also possible this is related to them lagging behind in school.
A new study from the University of California indicates Latino children tend to enter school seven months behind their peers when it comes to oral language and proficiency skills. Young readers of Hispanic background, who also speak Spanish at home, might find school especially challenging if they do not perceive themselves as part of the equation.
“Their oral language use is going to be quite different from what they encounter in their books,” Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, told the New York Times. “So what might seem like simple and accessible text for a standard English speaker might be puzzling for such kids.”
There is currently not enough research on the connection between cultural relevance in books and reading achievement. However, education and Hispanic advocates are concerned Hispanic young readers might be affected by a lack of relatable stories and characters.
“If all they read is Judy Blume or characters in the ‘Magic Treehouse’ series who are white and go on adventures,” Mariana Souto-Manning, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College told the New York Times, “they start thinking of their language or practices or familiar places and values as not belonging in school.”