Literature for Young Bilingual Readers

By Grace Cornell Gonzales

The Upside Down Boy/El niño de cabeza
by Juan Felipe Herrera
(Children’s Book Press, 2000)

by Juan Felipe Herrera
(Children’s Book Press, 2004)

At a recent districtwide meeting of bilingual educators, teachers raised a pressing issue: Where do we find high quality books in Spanish for our students? “Some of the translated books we get are terrible!” one teacher exclaimed. “They may be great in English, but the translations are such bad quality.”

“I have to say, though,” chimed in another, “when I brought back books from Spain and Latin America, the kids weren’t all that interested. The books were wonderful, but the vocabulary was regional, and there were cultural references that my students didn’t understand.”

Beneath the general tone of frustration, lay a deeper, unspoken issue: How can we hope to provide equitable educational opportunities for students in bilingual programs when we give them books and other materials that are often stilted, riddled with errors, or out of touch with their cultural and linguistic realities?

What we need, the teachers all agreed, are excellent quality books—written in Spanish—by Latina/o authors who can speak to the experiences of Spanish-speaking students living in the United States.

First on my list are the works of Juan Felipe Herrera. Appointed California’s poet laureate in 2012, Herrera grew up as the child of migrant farmworkers. His bilingual picture books exemplify the type of literature that the teachers in my district are calling for. Written in fluent, vibrant Spanish, drawing upon the lived experiences of Latina/o children and families in the United States, they are full of engaging, lively stories with gorgeous illustrations that fascinate students. And themes of social justice are always at the heart of his stories.

Two books that I have used with great success in the classroom are The Upside Down Boy/El niño de cabeza and Featherless/DesplumadoThe Upside Down Boy/El niño de cabeza is a story drawn from Herrera’s own life. Juanito, the child of migrant farmworkers, attends school for the first time, where he is thrust into an unfamiliar environment and lost in a new language. Eventually Juanito, with the help of caring adults in his life, uses art to pull himself through. This is an excellent book to use with English language learners because it eloquently describes the feelings that Juanito experiences as he struggles with English. It also serves to remind English-speaking students (and their teachers) of the challenges that some of their classmates face.

In Featherless/Desplumado, Tomasito, a child with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair, feels out of place and frustrated at his new school. He compares himself to his pet bird, Desplumado, who is featherless and cannot fly. With the help of a friend, he begins to see that there are more possibilities for his life than he imagined, and he makes his dream of playing on a soccer team come true. Featherless/Desplumado is a creative reminder for all students of how much you can have in common with someone who seems very different from you. It is also a wonderful book to begin conversations about disabilities.

These are not Herrera’s only excellent children’s books. I urge teachers and librarians to look through his work for powerful additions to classroom and school libraries. They are a strong starting place as we compile and expand the list of high quality, relevant bilingual books by Latina/o authors.