When I started to make a list of my favorite children's books with Hispanic/Latino characters or dealt with Latino history, I immediately knew that I had to whittle down my list for time and space reasons. Here are my top favorite choices for Hispanic Heritage Month:
I always look forward to a new Duncan Tonatiuh book; his illustrations (based on pre-Columbian art) are always wonderfully unique, and he brings new life to aspects of Latino culture and identity. His latest, Danza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, focuses on the creation of Mexico's famed El Ballet Folklorico, which choreographs and performs works based on Mexican folk dance (though altered a bit, which has brought criticism and is noted by Tonatiuh). I've noticed that unlike his early books, there is no explanation about his illustration style (which I think would help newcomers to his work).
Margarita Engle's picture books and novels are often retellings of Cuban history and historical figures. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir takes a different path by relating her experiences as a young Cuban-American living in Los Angeles during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Torn between her love and concern for her family members in Cuba and her life in the States, this is a memorable and heartfelt look at what it's like to be caught between two cultures.
Esperanza Rising has become a modern classic. This compelling story of a young Mexican girl and her mother working in the California migrant camps during the Great Depression has been beloved by readers since its 2000 publication.
Did you know that a great deal of what we associate cowboy life was actually initially brought to cowboy culture by Mexican ranch hands? Over 100 years of experience rounding up cattle for wealthy Spaniards meant that they were more than well-equipped to teach the inexperienced American Westerners the finer points of cattle herding, trail life, cowboy clothes, cowboy slang and more. Russell Freedman's In the Days of the Vaqueros: America's First True Cowboys is an eye-opening examination of the debt cowboy culture has to the vaqueros.
Recently, we've been enriched by a slew of children's books about luchadores! Luchadores, if you're not familiar with them, are Mexican wrestlers who wear elaborate costumes and create multi-detailed characters. If you need a counting book that stands apart from the counting books crowd, The Great and Mighty Nikko is one for you. Nikko wrestles luchadores jumping on his bed, while counting (now, that's talent)! Other awesome lucha libre (the wrestling style that they use) are Nino Wrestles the World, Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask, and Lucia the Luchadora.
The first Latino inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame is richly celebrated and remembered in Jonah Winter's Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "The Great One" brought two World Series wins to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but his life was tragically cut short in a plane crash while en route to help Nicaragua with earthquake recovery. Every year, Major League Baseball presents the Roberto Clemente award to the player who has demonstrated exemplary community service, and Roberto Clemente Day is celebrated every year, with the Pirates players engaging in community work (and Clemente's wife and children often in attendance for the festivities). This is a endearing study of one of baseball's greatest athletes and humanitarians.
Lowriders in Space is a very goofy and quirky graphic novel series opener, but it's tons of fun. Not only are Spanish words and phrases sprinkled and translated throughout the story (along with science facts!), but it's a colorful look at the lowrider culture that was popular in California and Mexico during the 1950s. This is pure entertainment.
On the other hand, Lucky Broken Girl is a serious, occasionally heartbreaking, heartfelt tale based on the author's own childhood experience of being bedridden after a major accident. 5th grader Ruthie's life is turned upside down after she survives a car accident that forces her to be in a body cast for the remainder of the year. During this time, she endures friendship issues, conflicts with her mother, and her fears of failure during physical therapy exercises designed to literally get her back on her feet. Set in 1960s New York, Ruthie is of Cuban-Jewish heritage (her grandparents fled Europe for Cuba) and is a realistic, sometimes exasperating, but wholly believable character.
For more information on National Hispanic Heritage Month, check out the official site.
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library