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Latinx Authors Celebrate Children's Literature In Virtual Festival

Dec 12, 2020
Originally published on December 18, 2020 8:24 am

Las Musas, a collective of writers, held its first celebration of Latinx children's literature in December in a two-day, virtual festival featuring more than 140 authors and illustrators.

Organizers say they created the event to amplify their voices — and to help counter statistics: The Cooperative Children's Book Center found that only 479 of the 4,035 children's books published in 2019 were by or about Latinx people, who make up 18% of the country's population.

"Unfortunately, Latinx representation in kids' books is abysmally low," says Mayra Cuevas, a Las Musas organizer, CNN Worldwide producer and author of YA book Salty, Bitter, Sweet. "And that is something that we are working with the industry and with publishers to fix.

Cuevas says representation in children's literature matters. "It's a way for kids to see themselves, to see their lives and their experiences validated."

This year, the country's biggest publishing houses were called out for underrepresenting Latinx voices. Some have begun diversity initiatives, and many were sponsors of the Latinx KidLit Festival. Cuevas says the virtual gathering was inspired by the Everywhere Book Fest, which took place in May, after the coronavirus pandemic shut down live events.

"All of our book tours were canceled. Also, people in our communities were hurting. Teachers were hurting. We know that the Black and Latinx communities were the hardest hit from from the pandemic," Cuevas says. "So we really felt like this is a way in which we could bring some joy to our community, doing what we do best — you know, tell stories."

During the festival, writers and illustrators answered questions from children around the world.

"What inspires you to write?" one child asked.

"Tell us about your character," said another.

"How long does it usually take you to write a book?" queried more than a few.

In one panel, Mexican writer and illustrator Flavia Zorrilla Drago talked about her first picture book, Gustavo The Shy Ghost. "I like to draw monsters, ghosts and witches," she said. "Everything that is scary and weird. I love that."

In another session, National Medal of Arts winner Julia Alvarez spoke about what motivates her to write. "I see the faces of those kids at the border, looking up in terror, being wrenched from their parents," she said. "And it puts — we have a wonderful word in Spanish — an inquietud: a pebble in my shoe. It just keeps rattling in there until I shake it out on paper."

During the festival, there were panels on serious themes in Latinx children's literature. For example: "Stronger Together: Social Justice in Young Adult Literature," "The Culture of Machismo and Toxic Masculinity," and "Fronteralands: Immigrant Stories about the U.S.-Mexico border." In other sessions, authors talked about writing horror stories, magical realism, Latinx culture and identity, and fighting anti-Blackness, racism and colorism.

There was also fun — a children's concert by 123 Andres, dance classes from the Ballet Hispanico, cooking lessons, and a sketching contest in which book illustrators were asked to draw mythical alebrije creatures. There was storytelling — and even a poetry slam.

The Latinx Kidlit Festival is on YouTube, and there's a website filled with resources for educators and young readers.

Katie Abreu, a student at The Young Women's Leadership School of the Bronx, for example, had the chance to ask a question of author Elizabeth Acevedo.

"It made me feel like I'm a proud Puerto Rican, and I should be a proud Dominican," says Abreu. "Elizabeth made me feel like it is important for me to let it be out there and let it be known. "

That's exactly the kind of reaction Las Musas hoped for.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A collective of writers called Las Musas recently held its first online book festival celebrating Latinx children's literature. NPR's Mandalit del Barco offers a peek.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The two-day virtual Latinx Kidlit Festival featured more than 140 authors and illustrators who answered questions from children around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What inspires you to write?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Tell us about your character.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: How long does it usually take you to write a book?

DEL BARCO: In one panel, Mexican writer and illustrator Flavia Zorrilla Drago talked about her first picture book, "Gustavo The Shy Ghost."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLAVIA Z DRAGO: I like to draw monsters, ghosts and witches. Everything that is scary and weird, I love that.

DEL BARCO: In another session, National Medal of Arts winner Julia Alvarez talked about what motivates her to write.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIA ALVAREZ: I see the faces of those kids at the border, you know, looking up in terror, being wrenched from their parents. And it puts - we have a wonderful word in Spanish - an inquietud, a pebble in my shoe. It just keeps rattling in there until I shake it out on paper.

DEL BARCO: During the festival, there were panels on serious themes in Latinx children's literature - social justice, machismo and toxic masculinity and immigration stories. There was also fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: A children's concert, dance classes, cooking lessons and a sketching contest...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Draw a dragon mixed with a cat, and they have to fly (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: There was storytelling and even a poetry slam. Here's an excerpt from Elisabet Velasquez reading her poem "Pronunciation."

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "PRONUNCIATION")

ELIZABET VELASQUEZ: Some people say that we're saying it wrong, but they are just jealous that our accents want every letter to be heard because isn't that the worst thing - to exist so plainly in sight and still be ignored?

DEL BARCO: According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, 479 of the 4,035 children's books they compiled were by or about Latinx people, who make up 18% of the country's population.

MAYRA CUEVAS: Unfortunately, Latinx representation in kids books is abysmally low. And that is something that we are working with in the industry and with publishers to fix.

DEL BARCO: Las Musas organizer Mayra Cuevas is a CNN worldwide producer whose debut YA book "Salty, Bitter, Sweet" comes out next month. She says representation in children's literature matters.

CUEVAS: It's a way for kids to see themselves, to see their lives and their experiences validated.

DEL BARCO: This year, the country's biggest publishing houses were called out for underrepresenting Latinx voices. Some have begun diversity initiatives, and many were sponsors of the Latinx Kidlit Festival. Cuevas says the virtual gathering was inspired by the Everywhere Book Fest, which took place in May after the coronavirus pandemic shut down live events.

CUEVAS: All of our book tours were canceled. Also, people in our communities were hurting. Teachers were hurting. We know that the Black and Latinx communities were the hardest hit from the pandemic. So we really felt like this was a way in which we could bring some joy to our community, doing what we do best - you know, tell stories.

DEL BARCO: The Latinx Kidlit Festival is on YouTube, and there's a website filled with resources for educators and young readers like 14-year-old Katie Abreu, a student at the Young Women's Leadership School of the Bronx. She got the chance to ask a question of author Elizabeth Acevedo.

KATIE ABREU: It made me feel like I'm a proud Puerto Rican, and I should be a proud Dominican. Elizabeth made me feel like it is important for me to let it be out there, let it be known.

DEL BARCO: That's exactly the kind of reaction Las Musas were hoping for.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGULARIS' "REAL FEAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.