Every year, a group of Dallas public school librarians puts out a list of 20 children’s books that are bilingual or in Spanish. The objective is to help other librarians pick out books for the nearly 40 percent of students in the district who don’t speak English or speak it well. Since this initiative began in 2006, the list has gotten the attention of librarians far beyond the district.
Inside the North Oak Cliff library, parents and kids browse the children’s book section. Maryam Mathis, a librarian at Bowie Elementary, pops in for a visit. She’s wheeling around a stack of Spanish-language and bilingual books when she sees one of her students – 8-year-old Andrea Ortiz Lara who’s there with her mom, Maria.
“If I check one out to you, would you take it home and read it? Mathis asks Andrea. “And you could get points for your mayor’s summer reading program.”
“You want to do that? Why don’t you pick one out you like?” she says.
Mathis lays the books out on a table and flips through the pages. She shows Andrea a book called Coco y Pio.
“This is a cute one. This is about two eggs. One is a crocodile and one is a bird.”
Next, she pulls out El Fandago de Lola, about a little girl named Lola.
“This is a good one too. Look at this little girl. She learns how to do a dance for her mom’s birthday party,” Mathis says.
Andrea looks intently at each book, drawn to the colorful pictures.
Mathis is one of 11 librarians in a group that calls itself Luminarias. The Spanish word refers to Christmas lanterns often seen along walkways or rooftops in Mexico and in the Southwest. Mathis says it’s a symbolic term — they like to think they’re lighting the way for young Latino readers.
So far, it’s working. Andrea pulls out a book – La Hermosa Señora – and begins reading to her mom. Mathis says children like Andrea who speak both Spanish and English are particularly fond of bilingual books. They often enjoy reading to their parents or family members.
“They also love to see characters that are Hispanic and that’s starting to be more and more predominant but it’s far from where it needs to be,” Mathis is.
Most of the librarians involved in this effort are bilingual or have a spouse or family member who is. They also talk to teachers, making sure the books are appropriate and kid friendly.
They announce their master list for pre-K to third grade every April, just in time for the Texas Library Association’s annual conference. Books that don’t make that list are included in a supplemental reading list. The group also puts together a reading list of chapter books for kids in the upper elementary grades.
But it’s hard narrowing down the master list down to 20 books.
“We have passionate discussions,” says Sheila Ortega, a librarian at César Chávez Learning Center.
Ortega just returned from Mexico City where she visited bookstores and looked at the latest children’s books. This week, she and the others will be speaking at a conference for school librarians. Librarians from Irving to Austin have used the Luminarias list.
“In fact, they would like a lot more titles,” Ortega says. “Sometimes they say, ‘we need 200 titles, not 20.'”
Some book vendors have begun including the Luminarias’ list on their websites. The books include a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Last year, they picked some poetry.
Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the country, too. Latinas for Latino Literature was launched in December by two Latina bloggers who read a New York Times article about how Latino children weren’t seeing themselves in what they were reading. The group’s website includes recommended reading lists and reading tips as well as a list of Latino authors and illustrators.
But what about critics who say kids should be learning how to read in English first?
“There’s plenty of research showing that children, if they learn to read in their home language, then later, learning to read in English will be easy enough and it’ll help them,” Ortega says. “They’ll do better in school in the long run.”
Andrea is consumed with the story she’s reading to her mom. It’s about a 16th century Mexican Indian man who’s visited by the Virgen de Guadalupe. It’s a popular and important story among Mexican Catholics.
One Luminarias book down, 19 more to go.
You can find the Luminarias reading lists from previous years as well as information about other reading programs on the Dallas public school district’s website. There are also links to posters and a book trailer.