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'Our Own Journeys': The Growing Push for More Bilingual Children's Books in Schools and Libraries

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A mother and her young daughter read a book together on a bed, with a crucifix on the wall behind them.
Ten-year-old Katie Noriega and her mom, Rocio Gonzalez, read 'Para Todos/For All' by Alejandra Domenzain at their home in San José. (Courtesy of Rocio Gonzalez)

On a recent evening, 10-year-old Katie Noriega and her mom snuggled up together to read a story at their home in San José. The bilingual book in Spanish and English they dove into, “Para Todos/For All,” by Bay Area-based author Alejandra Domenzain, tells the story of the struggles of a young girl named Flor and her father, who are forced to flee their homeland and look for opportunity in a new country.

“‘Are we going to the land that we see on TV? Will we fly in a plane? Will there be more toys for me?’” Katie read aloud to her mom. “‘Her dad forced a smile and put on a brave face. It won't be so easy to get to that place.’”

Katie's mom, Rocio Gonzalez, read the same lines, in Spanish:

“‘¿Vamos a ese lugar que vemos en la tele? ¿Iremos en avión? ¿Tendré muchos juguetes? Su papa sonrió a medias y se armó de valor. No será fácil llegar.’”

A children's book cover: "For All/Para Todos"
The cover of 'Para Todos/For All,' a bilingual book by Alejandra Domenzain, with illustrations by Katherine Loh. (Courtesy Hard Ball Press)

Katie has lived in the U.S. her entire life. She understands Spanish and speaks it a little bit, but feels more comfortable reading in English. The opposite is true for Rocio, who spent her formative years in Mexico.

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Even though they’re reading in different languages, Katie and Rocio said they get a lot out of reading this book together. Katie responded to Flor’s courage and tenacity.

“I think she's a strong person because she never gave up,” Katie said. “She just kept going.”

Rocio said books like “Para Todos” help connect the dots between what she has — and has not — yet told her daughter about her own complex immigration journey, when she moved to California from Jalisco, Mexico, in her late teens.

"By bringing in these types of books, we can connect them with what we’ve already talked — or not talked — about regarding our own journeys,” Rocio said in Spanish.

'Heard and validated'

A growing number of children’s book authors and literacy activists have been pushing for more bilingual books for kids, like “Para Todos.” That objective resonates with many bilingual households, particularly in California, where more than a quarter of residents speak Spanish as a first language.

A number of academic studies in recent years have shown that bilingual books help improve literacy levels among immigrant families where English is not spoken at home, especially when the stories highlight diverse characters.

“Having access to books where you feel represented or you feel heard and validated is a great thing to have at such a young age,” said Belen Delgado, education policy program associate at the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a grassroots activism hub with several chapters in California.

A small but growing number of bilingual children’s titles are taking that model a step further, by not only centering Latinx characters, but also making them powerful agents of change.

In “Para Todos,” for instance, the main character, Flor, becomes an immigrant rights activist.

“It's not just about, ‘Let's have diverse characters and diverse stories,’” said author Domenzain, who lives in Foster City. “It's, ‘Let's look at the structural systems that are causing the injustice and have on-ramps for young people to question them and know that it's possible to make structural changes.’”

Other bilingual children's book writers agree.

Ann Berlak is the Oakland-based author of “La Gran Decisión de Joelito/Joelito’s Big Decision,” a 2015 book about an 11-year-old boy who must decide whether to eat a hamburger at his favorite restaurant or join his best friend and his friend's father on the picket line to fight for higher wages for lower-income workers.

"I decided to write ‘Joelito’ as an example of how people can not only know that there's an alternative, but fight for an alternative," Berlak said.

Mónica Brown, who grew up in the Bay Area, has written a slew of bilingual children's titles focusing on famous activists from history, including “Lado a Lado/Side by Side,” her book about Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.

A woman reads to a group of young children.
Author Mónica Brown reads to a group of children. (Courtesy of Mónica Brown)

“They imagined great things and believed in themselves, and with community support were able to accomplish extraordinary things,” said Brown of her protagonists. “And I want each child to think they can, too.”

Meanwhile, Leticia Hernández-Linares’s new book, “La Lucha de Alejandria!/¡Alejandria Fights Back!,” tackles the issue of eviction, something the San Francisco mother of two said she once faced.

“Our children — my children — have been and continue to be exposed to these things,” said Hernández-Linares, who wrote the book as part of Rise-Home Stories, a national storytelling project about housing, land rights and racial justice.

“Teachers and parents have been very grateful and excited about this book as a vehicle to open up discussion around hard things with their kids,” she said.

Barriers to access

Despite the positive reception, it’s been challenging for these authors to get their books into the hands of families that may need them most.

For one thing, there simply aren't enough of these books available yet.

According to data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, which tracks diversity in children's literature, books with Latinx protagonists made up only around 7% of the U.S. children’s book publishing industry last year. There were almost twice as many titles with Black characters.

"If you go to a progressive bookstore, you'll see a very small Spanish-language section, then you see a tiny bilingual," said Timothy Sheard, who runs Hard Ball Press, the small indie publisher of “Para Todos,” “La Gran Decisión de Joelito” and other bilingual social justice books for children. “The bilingual is not as common in bookstores as it could be, given the population.”

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NJ Mvondo is a media diversity advocate who spent years working in an independent bookstore in Palo Alto, before founding Multiculturalism Rocks, an online platform that advocates for cultural diversity in media, especially in children's content.

“Something I observed was that many families came in asking for these books, and they had trouble finding them,” she said. “But when these books would be on the floor, they would sell quickly. They would usually sell out.”

And when bookstores do stock these books, an added barrier is their cost, Mvondo noted.

“Some of the families that really need those books don't have enough of a budget for them,” she said. “They're focused on buying food, paying rent and taking the kids to school and all that.”

Many libraries also are struggling to acquire bilingual children’s books.

“People see a book and they're like, ‘Well, I saw it on Amazon. How come you can't just order it?’ And we really wish it was that easy,” said Elizabeth Perez, a children’s librarian at San Francisco Public Library.

Most bilingual titles are self-published or put out by indie presses, Perez said, which makes them hard to find on the approved-vendor lists the library uses to purchase books.

“Sometimes our own hands are tied,” she said.

Changing times 

It doesn't help matters that California voters in 1986 declared English the state's “official language” with the overwhelming passage of Proposition 63. That was followed 12 years later by Proposition 227, which significantly restricted bilingual education in the state’s public schools.

However, since Prop 227's repeal in 2016, the California Department of Education has worked to increase bilingual programs. Mvondo said together with this effort, she's starting to see more bilingual titles with diverse protagonists addressing social justice themes. “It's growing,” she said. “The No. 1 factor has been mobilization from children's authors, illustrators and publishers.”

A woman reads a storybook to a large classroom of young children.
A volunteer from the 'Jeepney of Hope' project reads a storybook to an elementary school classroom in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Ana Maria Bacudio)

She added, “These books for kids are one of those very rare things in literacy that bring a whole family or community together.”

Inspiring real-world change

Such is the case with Mónica Brown’s “Waiting for the Biblioburro” — or “Esperando el Biblioburro” — which tells the story of a mobile library that travels throughout rural Colombia bringing books to children.

Brown said she was recently contacted by an educator in the Philippines who was deeply inspired by the story.

“When I read that book, it gave me an idea that I could replicate that,” said Ana Maria Bacudio, a medical technologist in the Philippines.

A few years ago, Bacudio launched a roving literary service for kids in underserved communities around her country. There are no burros in the Philippines, she said, so she started out on a motorcycle and eventually upgraded to a jeep, calling it the “Jeepney of Hope.”

Bacudio said her mobile library features many bilingual books on social justice themes. When children from poor, rural communities get their hands on these books, they become aware of their rights, and start to dream, she said.

“It brings children joy, the joy of reading,” Bacudio said. “Most of all, it brings them hope.”

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Thanks to KQED's Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí for help with translations.

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