Today, Sincerely Ezzy hosts twice published children's book author James Luna. In the following piece, James discusses why it's so important that we read culturally relevant stories to our children.
I know you'll enjoy it!
The Delicious Souvenirs of Memory
By James Luna
Who will you be? Not what do you want to be when you grow up, blah, blah, blah. Who will you be later today when you open that book, or turn on your reader? Will you live now in 2014, 200 years in the future, or 150 years ago? What will you do? Will you evaluate evidence and formulate theories to solve the crime? Will you face the dilemma of deciding between the two guys vying for your affection? Will you be human, animal, or android? And after you are done, after that pause, the breath held between the last word read and the moment you re-enter the non-book world, how will you have changed?
That to me is the wonder of reading, of stories and storytelling. Through books, through words woven through pages, we can become someone or something other than ourselves, and through that transformation, expand our identities, and deepen our understanding. How many times have you recommended a book because the story made you cry? How many times have you read an event or remark in a book then laughed out loud in a silent room? Make no mistake, this can and does happen to kids at the earliest of ages when they hear stories read, and when they read even the most humble of picture books. I believe firmly in experience as a great teacher, in long walks, telescopes and digging in the dirt. Yet reading is its own experience, an inner experience, where a character’s journey moves me to understand myself and my world better than before I read it.
If you have read to kids, you know that they’ll moo, bark, or repeat a refrain before they can read it. They will say an entire sentence before they can speak the individual words! Like adult readers, they want to see themselves as part of the story, to be IN the book. They can’t wait to partake in the adventures that happen between the page one and “The End.” Why shouldn’t they? There are so many wonderful places children can go when we read to and with them. From places that are old and familiar to adults like the Hundred Acre Wood, or the small, small room, to new places like a wrestling match with Niño in “Niño Wrestles the World,” or in the kitchen with Jorge Argueta’s wonderful poetic celebrations of food. Adults are the guides to these new destinations.
In these new worlds, these book worlds, many precious gifts await our children. A book can develop child’s sense of empathy when we read about Rene in “I Am Rene, the Boy.” She confirms her own worth when a character faces and overcomes the same problems she does. Our kids explore new horizons when they read books like Monica Brown’s “Waiting for the Biblioburro.” We open the world to wonder and awe when we ask, “What will happen next?” An unturned page fills us with anticipation, with hope, and, eventually, relief.
As a writer, the first person I want to experience my story is me! I want to know what will happen to my characters, who they will meet, how they will face their fears or troubles. I miss them when my work (teaching) keeps us apart for weeks. I worry about them, and hope that they won’t get lost without me (I am always lost when we don’t see each other). Of course, each of my characters reflects some part of me. My Piggy is me, running away from everyone. Rafa, my little mummy, is a first-rate wonderer, an explorer that eventually misses the familiarity of home. When I read my stories to kids, I’m sharing a part of me, the wonderer or the escape artist. I hope that the story speaks to the fugitive cookie or adventurer in them.
When the child reading the book is a little Latino or Latina, and the book’s character speaks Spanish, or visits her abuelita, her connection to the story is so much stronger. That being said, I relish multicultural stories that show my kids (and by “kids” I mean my 3 children and the students I teach) that there are universal truths and experiences, such as family, change, fear, loss, and new friendships. Yet when the characters have names like Roberto, or Flor, or Rafael, I see a light go on in the faces of Latino kids. They smile and exclaim, “My sister is named Flor” or “Rafa?! Like my Tío Rafa!” And if the character’s name happens to be the same as someone in our class, they point with the grandest of smiles. These stories reflect something of their lives back on them, becoming affirming their place in the literary world, their spot on the bookshelf.
Though I write in the hope that all types of children will read my books, I consciously choose to put my stories in neighborhoods similar to the one I grew up in, and similar to the one my students inhabit. My characters’ lives and situations purposely mirror the ones I hear about daily as I teach and learn with my class. My book “A Mummy in Her Backpack” began when a student of mine returned from a trip to Guanajuato. My friend Rene Colato Lainez wrote about his journey from El Salvador to the United States in “My Shoes and I.” Memories of a Cuban girl who loved to sing became Laura Lacamara’s book “Floating on Mama’s Song.” One day in the future I may write about kids from other places. For now I’m not done mining the riches of where I live, because the stories I find there are rich. They contain truths and humor, emotions and experiences that interest me. We authors invite you and your children to come along, to walk, sing, and dance, and to take with you the delicious souvenirs of memory.
My stories and all the stories by Latino/Latina authors are more than a little niche or a special section in the bookstore. Where’s the fun in that? I know our stories make all kids laugh, wonder, and root for our characters. The settings are places where kids will want to go over and over. All kids repeat our refrains, finish our lines, and demand an author’s favorite quote, “Read it again!”