10 Children’s and YA Books about Sung & Unsung Latin@ Heroes

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Hello all!

In case you missed Keira’s Sobre Enero post, this month’s theme honors the many individuals, real or imagined, who populate the rich landscape of Latin@ literature for children and young adults.  This month’s Reading Roundup brings together a few of these heroes, both sung and unsung, whose actions inspired positive change.  While it is a monumental task to choose just a few of the many wonderful books that are out there, I’ve narrowed down the list to books that will encourage our students and children to honor their own truths. I also hope that these books will help expand the literary canon beyond those heroes whose stories are taught repeatedly. The books below encompass a diverse panorama of experiences, accomplishments, and outcomes.  To name a few, these remarkable figures displayed their passion through art, literature, activism, and even by simply passing on their knowledge to new generations.   May you enjoy these works as much as I enjoyed finding them!

Happy New Year!

Abrazos,
Colleen

Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope
Written and Illustrated by Youme Landowne
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 0-938317-84-9
Age level: 5-7 years old

Description (from Good Reads):

The true story of Selavi (“that is life”), a small boy who finds himself homeless on the streets of Haiti. He finds other street children who share their food and a place to sleep. Together they proclaim a message of hope through murals and radio programs. Now in paper, this beautifully illustrated story is supplemented with photographs of Haitian children working and playing together, plus an essay by Edwidge Danticat. Included in the 2005 ALA Notable Children’s Book List and the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List.

Youme Landowne is an artist and activist who has worked with communities in Kenya, Japan, Haiti, and Cuba to make art that honors personal and cultural wisdom. She makes her home in Brooklyn, New York, and rides her bike everywhere.

My thoughts:

When reflecting on cultural heroes, it can be easy to focus on already established and well-known figures.  In this, we often miss the opportunity to learn of the everyday heroes who have greatly impacted their communities, improved quality of life for others, and prompted justice in the face of adversity.  Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope written and illustrated by Youme Landowne, beautifully exemplifies all of the above.  This bold and genuine true story reminds us that our actions make a difference, and that together we are stronger.  As those in the story know, “Alone…we may be a single drop of water, but together we can be a mighty river.”

selaviThis award winning book is presented in two parts: first, a narrative of children protagonists who prompted change in their community and, second, a historical reflection on Haiti written by Edwidge Danticat, an author whom we greatly admire on the Vamos blog.  I hope that you get to read Landowne’s book honoring the strength of the Haiti’s children and community.  If you’re in need of a bit more convincing, however, I invite you to read Alice’s thoughtful and comprehensive review.

Viva Frida
Written and Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Photographed by Tim O’Meara
Published by Roaring Brook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59643-603-9
Age level: Grades K-3

Description (from Good Reads):

Frida Kahlo, one of the world’s most famous and unusual artists is revered around the world. Her life was filled with laughter, love, and tragedy, all of which influenced what she painted on her canvases.

Distinguished author/illustrator Yuyi Morales illuminates Frida’s life and work in this elegant and fascinating book.

My thoughts:

I became an instant fan of author and artist Yuyi Morales in my first month contributing to this blog when I read, Niño Wrestles the World.  And with each subsequent work that I find of hers, I continue to be enchanted by both her artistry and simplicity of prose; Viva Frida is no exception to this.  The book’s art consists of stop-motion puppets that beautifullyfrida capture symbols present in Frida Kahlo’s life and paintings, including la casa azul, deers, calaveras, Diego Rivera, and her pet dog and monkey.  The bilingual prose is sparse, but manages to convey her bold spirit.  For those young readers unfamiliar with the life and works of Frida Kahlo, they may not grasp the symbolism or understand how the words relate to her life.  Yet, this does not minimize the book’s impact, as it really does stand alone and context feels secondary.  A concluding mini biography of Frida’s life helps lend background info.

For a more extensive review of this book, please check out Lorraine’s ¡Mira Look! post from 2015.  As a highlight from her post, I can’t help but share a short video about how Yuyi Morales created the artwork for this visually stunning book!

That’s Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice /¡No es justo!: La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia
Written by Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Teneyuca
Illustrated by Terry Ybáñez
Published by Wings Press
ISBN: 978-0-916727-33-8

Description (from Good Reads):

A vivid depiction of the early injustices encountered by a young Mexican-American girl in San Antonio in the 1920’s, this book tells the true story of Emma Tenayuca. Emma learns to care deeply about poverty and hunger during a time when many Mexican Americans were starving to death and working unreasonably long hours at slave wages in the city’s pecan-shelling factories. Through astute perception, caring, and personal action, Emma begins to get involved, and eventually, at the age of 21, leads 12,000 workers in the first significant historical action in the Mexican-American struggle for justice. Emma Tenayuca’s story serves as a model for young and old alike about courage, compassion, and the role everyone can play in making the world more fair.

My thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book.  Within the first pages, it becomes abundantly clear why Emma Tenayuca’s biographical story about Emma Tenayuca, a young, Mexican-American activist, story must be included in a post about heroes.   For this post, I would like to highlight Alice’s excellent review of It’s Not Fair/¡No es justo!  She writes:

This book is an excellent contribution to our effort to diversify the immigrant                 narrative, as it exposes not only the initial hardships of immigrating to the U.S., but also the myriad of injustices and human rights abuses that have existed and still do exist for Mexican-Americans upon arrival in the U.S. Emma Tenayuca, from a very young age, recognizes the importance of education and the unfairness of the society around her. Her sympathetic viewpoint, coupled with a focused desire to redress wrongs, leads her to become a pioneer for Mexican-American rights in the U.S.

In her post, you will also find detailed historical information about Emma Tenayuca as well as additional resources that can be used for further teaching.

Tomás and the Library Lady
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Raul Colón
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
ISBN: 0-679-80401-3
Age level: Ages 5-7

Description (from Pat Mora):

Tomás is a son of migrant workers. Every summer he and his family follow the crops north from Texas to Iowa, spending long, arduous days in the fields. At night they gather around to hear Grandfather’s wonderful stories. But before long, Tomás knows all the stories by heart. “There are more stories in the library,” Papa Grande tells him. The very next day, Tomás meets the library lady and a whole new world opens up for him. Based on the true story of the Mexican-American author and educator Tomás Rivera, a child of migrant workers who went on to become the first minority Chancellor in the University of California system, this inspirational story suggests what libraries–and education–can make possible. Raul Colón’s warm, expressive paintings perfectly interweave the harsh realities of Tomás’s life, the joyful imaginings he finds in books, and his special relationships with a wise grandfather and a caring librarian.

My thoughts:

Some readers may recall that in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage month, Vamos featured Tomás and the Library Lady.  For the post, Alice wrote an excellent review highlighting the life of Tomás Rivera, provides links to educational resources, and thoughtfully summarizes the book.  Indeed, it is a wonderful fit for honoring the life and works of Tomas Rivera.  Additionally, it is a superb example for this month’s theme of paying homage to the heroes that have inspired us.  In the case of Tomás and the Library Lady, written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raul Colón, there are multiple “unsung heroes” to be recognized, including the farmworkers and his family.  However, the real hero of this book is “the library lady;” the person whom unknowingly impacted and shaped the life of author and educator, Tomás Rivera.  This very touching book teaches young readers that small actions can have big outcomes!  If you have not yet had a chance to share this book with a student or your own child, please do so – you won’t be disappointed!

A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 0-375-90643-6
Age level: 5-8 years old

Description (from Good Reads):

Juana Inés was just a little girl in a village in Mexico when she decided that the thing she wanted most in the world was her very own collection of books, just like in her grandfather’s library. When she found out that she could learn to read in school, she begged to go. And when she later discovered that only boys could attend university, she dressed like a boy to show her determination to attend. Word of her great intelligence soon spread, and eventually, Juana Inés was considered one of the best scholars in the Americas–something unheard of for a woman in the 17th century.

Today, this important poet is revered throughout the world and her verse is memorized by schoolchildren all over Mexico.

My thoughts:

Perhaps my admiration for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz makes me partial in choosing this book about her, but I do so proudly!  Author Pat Mora and illustrator Beatriz Vidal do an excellent job representing this incredible scholar, poet, and activist and advocate.  The story beginsjuana with Juana Inés’ life as child and captures her instinctive thirst of learning.  And although we get the sense that this characteristic love of knowledge is innate to her – that she is truly someone extraordinary – the story’s inspirational tone is not lost on the reader; encouraging us, too, to ask questions, dig for answers, challenge norms, and live up to what we believe is our full potential.  The story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is one that every young person should learn about, particularly our young girls.  I am so happy that Pat Mora’s book, A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés, makes this possible.

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1054-4
Age level: Ages 7-12

Description (from Good Reads):

Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

My thoughts:

For the sake of stating the obvious, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, is an incredibly important book.  Despite my studies in Chicanx history and literature, I (somewhat abashedly) did not know of Sylvia Mendez and her family prior to reading Duncan Tonatiuh’s award winning book.  The Mendez v. Westminster School District case is not only important to Mexican American history; it is profoundly significant to the history of the U.S. and to the “canon” of civil rights activists who have contributed to creating a more just society.  I am deeply thankful to authors such as Tonatiuh, who bring the stories of often unknown heroes to light and make them accessible to young readers.

To read more on Tonatiuh’s, Separate is Never Equal and for classroom resources, head on over to the Katrina’s review and educator’s guide.           

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
Written by Margarita Engle
Published by Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-0-547-80743-0
Age level: Ages 11-13

Description (from Good Reads):

Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.

My thoughts:

Margarita Engle’s stunning novel in verse, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, introduces readers to a lesser known historical figure and hero.  This Pura Belpré Honor Book is well worth the read and Katrina’s review beautifully articulates why we should all learn about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula):

Tula is a powerful character, not just because of what she believed, but because of how she chose to stand up for those beliefs.  She fought for equality and human rights through her stories and her poetry.  She used the power of words as a means to change the minds of those around her.  How valuable a lesson for the students in our classrooms—that our words are one of the most powerful tools we have for fighting against the things that try to hold us back.  I’ll leave you with the words from Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda that inspired the title of the book— “The slave let his mind fly free, and his thoughts soared higher than the clouds where lightning forms.”

Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa
Written by Veronica Chambers
Illustrated by Julie Maren
Published by Dial
ISBN: 0803729707
Age level: Grades 2 – 4

Description (from Good Reads):

Everyone knows the flamboyant, larger-than-life Celia, the extraordinary salsa singer who passed away in 2003, leaving millions of fans brokenhearted. Now accomplished children’s book author Veronica Chambers gives young readers a lyrical glimpse into Celia’s childhood and her inspiring rise to worldwide fame and recognition. First-time illustrator Julie Maren truly captures the movement and the vibrancy of the Latina legend and the sizzling sights and sounds of her legacy

My thoughts:

I simply had to include Celia Cruz in this list!  Why?  She is a phenomenal artist beloved across the globe and if you can’t tell, I am a fan.    And lucky for us readers, author Veronica Chambers and illustrator Julie Maren bring her story to life in Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa.  I really enjoyed this children’s book on Celia Cruz; it is beautifully illustrated, introduces readers to her childhood personality, and touches on – although briefly- the political climate in Cuba.  Many of us are well aware of Celia Cruz and her importance, and it never hurts to have one more resource to help celebrate and remember her life. Musicians, and their music, are always excellent educational tools!

If you’re curious for more on this book, check out Lorraine’s ¡Mira Look! post.  And for more on Celia, head on over to Jake’s WWW post!

My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata
Written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford
Illustrated by Antonio Castro L.
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 978-1-935955-91-7
Age level: Ages 7-11

Description (from Good Reads):

Aaron has asked his grandfather Tata to teach him about the healing remedies he uses. Tata is a neighbor and family elder. People come to him all the time for his soothing solutions and for his compassionate touch and gentle wisdom. Tata knows how to use herbs, teas, and plants to help each one. His wife, Grandmother Nana, is there too, bringing delicious food and humor to help Tata’s patients heal.  An herbal remedies glossary at the end of the book includes useful information about each plant, plus botanically correct drawings.

tataMy thoughts:

My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata, written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford and illustrated by Antonio Castro L., is a great representation of “everyday heroes.”  In the case of this beautifully illustrated and bilingual book, that hero is Aaron’s Tata Gus.  Tata Gus lovingly imparts culture, tradition, and knowledge by teaching his grandson about his healing remedies and his profound understanding of plants.  Along the way, Aaron also learns about Tata Gus’ own childhood and what it means to be a part of a community.   This thoughtful book encourages us – and our kiddos – to reflect on who are the “everyday heroes” in our own lives.

The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos
Written by Lucía González
Illustrated by Lulu Delacre
Published by Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 0892392223

Description (from Lee & Low Books):

The winter of 1929 feels especially cold to cousins Hildamar and Santiago—they arrived in New York City from sunny Puerto Rico only months before. Their island home feels very far away indeed, especially with Three Kings’ Day rapidly approaching.

But then a magical thing happened. A visitor appears in their class, a gifted storyteller and librarian by the name of Pura Belpré. She opens the children’s eyes to the public library and its potential to be the living, breathing heart of the community. The library, after all, belongs to everyone—whether you speak Spanish, English, or both.

The award-winning team of Lucía González and Lulu Delacre have crafted an homage to Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Latina librarian. Through her vision and dedication, the warmth of Puerto Rico came to the island of Manhattan in a most unexpected way.

My thoughts:

I would be remiss to not include Pura Belpré in this month’s theme.  She is an exceptional figure that had a direct impact on the communities that she served, the library patrons, and more broadly, on the world of Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult literature as the namesake of the, “Pura Belpré Award.”  Lucía González’s, The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, excellently introduces the world to Belpré’s talents as a storyteller, her love for community, and how she creatively inspired young Latinos/as to let their imaginations run wild!  Author and illustrator Lulu Delacre provides beautiful artwork to accompany this thoughtful story.  I hope your interest is piqued!  In need of a little more information?  Read Alice’s awesome ¡Mira Look! review!

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