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Hispanic Novels: And why your middle graders should be reading them

I know it's the end of the school year. You literally need a stretcher to carry you home at the end of the day. You're thinking about a bottle of wine and binge watching Game of Thrones, not planning next year's curriculum.

But I just finished reading a book over this holiday weekend, was struck by its power and grace. Part of the reason I started writing this blog was to encourage teachers to explore more diverse literature - diverse in the sense that the book features characters and conflicts centered around a different culture.

Today, I want to focus on a couple of books I've read that spotlight Hispanic culture. As a mini bonus lesson (one I learned while prepping this post), the U.S. Census Bureau uses the term "Hispanic" to refer to people of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central or South America - all areas conquered by the Spanish and originally called "Hispania." Because all of the books I'm writing about today feature main characters from one of those areas, I'm going with Hispanic.

For whatever reason, over this past year I've been really impacted by books featuring Hispanic characters and culture. Maybe it's the dynamic storytelling, maybe it's the way words seem to crackle and pop off the pages of these novels. Though each author and story is distinct, a common thread draws them together.

Just this weekend, I finished reading Tony Johnston's Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio. It reads like a collection of short vignettes in the life of the Rodriguez family in L.A. The language nearly jumped off the page at me as I followed Arturo into his daily life: his hobbies, his neighbors, and his beloved family.

In addition to Any Small Goodness, three other titles stand out to me when I think about Hispanic novels:

In full disclosure, I discovered these novels while looking for books to showcase on my Teachers Pay Teachers store, so yes, the links go back to the product. Girl's got to make a living.

But as I mentioned, something special connects these novels across plot lines. Without generalizing and falling into the stereotypical, I want to say that the trends I've noticed in reading these novels captures the vibrancy of Hispanic culture and draws readers in.

Living Language

Like a spicy tajin or smoky cumin, the words conveying each story exudes a rich flavor, drawing readers in. Punctuated with figurative language, keen observation, and details that pop off the page, the writing used to describe the characters, settings, and relationships in these books seem to live in a world all their own.

Whether they admit it or not, students lap this stuff up. It's what keeps them turning the pages. The best part about this writing style is that it's not over complicated. Most of the novels rely on slang, vernacular, and even basic Spanish as the foundation for dialogue. Instead of being intimidating to students, the languages feels familiar, inviting. These novels become accessible to readers of all levels.

Presence of People

The next element that these books have in common - an aspect that feels so attractive during this time of technological isolation - is the presence of people. Family resides at the heart of Hispanic culture. And included in family are friends, neighbors, teachers...basically anyone in another person's sphere of influence. The kind of warmth living within character relationships in these books fills a void in some kids or feels like home to others. Relationships rooted in deep devotion and loyalty provide a hopeful model to kids who experience a fractured social structure in the world today.

Looking in the Mirror

Perhaps the most powerful part of Hispanic novels is the fact that so many children can see themselves as the hero. In a world with heightened racial and cultural divisions, finding literature that celebrates the way you walk, the way you talk, and the way you see things around you feels validating.

When I first started Story Trekker, I thought mainly about incorporating stories of the African-American experience. However, as I've grown in my understanding of literature for kids, I've discovered the many and varied voices vying for space on the state. Hispanics, Asians, Africans, immigrants, refugees...each story resonates with some reader out there.

Kids need to see characters that look like them, sound like them, and live the kinds of lives they do. When they make that kind of connection, they understand what they read on a deeper level. And more importantly, they want to keep reading.

Baby Steps

I'm amazed at the Herculean strength it's taken for you to get through this whole post at this point in the school year, but could you maybe just take it one step further?

I want to challenge you - over the summer of course - to read one of these books yourself (Any Small Goodness is the shortest - just saying). Then stick it in your classroom library. Or lobby your fantastic librarian to purchase a copy or two to house in the school library.

We need to repeatedly expose our students to this kind of high-quality literature. We need to keep promoting it, reading it, and making it more accessible. We need to battle degrading stereotypes by providing alternatives that speak hope, courage, compassion, and resilience. We need to give our students the tools to see others in the fullness of their potential. As educators and parents, we need to keep doing this because, as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy once said, “There are many little ways to enlarge your world. Love of books is the best of all.”

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