Book, Border, and Background:

Why Use Hispanic Childrens’ Literature?

“La pluma es la lengua del alma”

(The pen is the tongue of the mind) - Cervantes

Linda Medearis and Patricia Lozano

Teachers of young children have a plethora of appealing books to choose from, but the challenge is selecting the books that will offer their particular students the most engaging and informative experiences. “Teachers should be aware of the cultures and values in their communities so that they can adjust their methods and be in accordance with the children’s upbringing, rather than their own.”1 This article discusses the importance of the Hispanic Frontera, or border, background of many of the young Mexican Americans occupying today’s classrooms, especially in the Southwest. The ideas upon which it is based can be adapted and used successfully with other ethnic or geographical groups as appropriate. One of us (L.M.) has used similar strategies successfully with young Native Americans in Oklahoma. The other (P.L.) is a native of the culture and region. Both authors are currently engaged in working with the U.S./Mexico border Hispanic population.

If several different cultural/geographical groups are represented among your students, then the new book Learning in Living Color could be useful.2 The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers support for this kind of endeavor. Describing the teacher as decision maker, NAEYC recommends that the teacher purchase books that have characters and situations drawn from the child’s own culture.3 Children will be inspired to use their language skills for expression and interpretation, drawing upon experiences from their own environment. If the child’s home language is not English, NAEYC suggests that support should be provided to maintain the home language, even if their teacher does not speak a second language. Teachers who choose materials and equipment by considering the children’s developmental level and “the social/cultural context, for instance, the geographic location of the program and the backgrounds of the children” provide the most appropriate setting for learning.4

A four-year study entitled Quality 2000: Advancing Early Care and Education contains eight recommendations with concomitant strategies based on national and international research. In presenting the highlights of this study, Sharon Kagan and Michelle Neuman, researchers at Yale University, describe the importance of implementing strategies which promote both cultural pluralism and sensitivity.5 These authors view the understanding and expression of one’s own cultural values and beliefs as a springboard to learning about other cultures and ultimately to celebrating diversity.


The U.S. Hispanic Population

Educational inclusion with our Mexican American population is especially relevant today. According to the 2000 U. S. Census, approximately 31.4 million Hispanics live in the continental United States, 65% of them originating from Mexico. From April 1, 1990 to July 1, 2000, this population grew by 10.1 million. It is projected to triple from 31.4 million in 1999 to 98.2 million in 2050. As of 1998, twenty million Hispanics report that Spanish is the primary language spoken at home.6

Schools need to be prepared to provide quality education for young children with Hispanic and Mexican background. Today, about 50% of Hispanics drop out of school, 70% of those by 10th grade. Nationally, 38% of Hispanics are retained at least one grade. Hispanic children generally average one to two grade levels below the norms on standardized tests and are placed in special education six times more frequently than the general population.7 Some of these data might be attributable to the incongruities these children face between school and home, such as contradictory language instruction, bias expressed by teachers, and unclear home-school relationships.

For the bilingual child who is sufficiently competent in Spanish, it is most effective to provide literacy instruction in both languages.8 Yet, one of the most critical aspects of the teacher shortage is a lack of bilingual teachers.9 So, what can the monolingual, English-speaking teacher provide to these children?


The School-Home Connection

A recent study, found that preservice teachers spend the greater part of their field work in homogeneous classrooms.10 Often these classrooms reflect the dominant culture. Thus, teacher training does not often offer the opportunity to experience and thereby understand other cultures.

Teachers might not invite parental involvement from culturally diverse families, unsure of the parents’ ability to participate. Or, teachers may avoid issues of diversity and operate as if the differences between children do not exist.11 This behavior may be perplexing to students. There are few Hispanic teachers to serve as role models for new teachers. Various organizations have repeatedly emphasized the importance of Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American role models for minority students. However, there remains a great disparity between the number of teachers of color and those whose color matches the student population.12 The supply of minority teachers is not keeping pace with the demographic changes in America.

A final incongruity faced by some Hispanic students is that their older relatives may have had unhappy school experiences.13 Parents may then distrust and even dislike teachers and formal education. Such feelings, if left unresolved, cause conflict within the child regarding his or her feelings towards the two environments.


All About Languages

For young Hispanic children, language, culture and the concomitant values are products of the home and community settings where they live. Teachers of these youngsters need some knowledge of the workings of language to engage children in activities that are socially meaningful for them. Does this mean the teacher must be fluent in English and Spanish? Ideally, the answer is yes. Well-designed bilingual education programs provide children with English-language competence, but not at the expense of their home language. Given the paucity of bilingual teachers, this ideal may be unobtainable for the present.

Children’s home language should be brought into the shared culture of the school. But what can the monolingual teacher do when confronted with this challenge? Teachers can become ethnographers by being observant and seeking information regarding the language of their students. First, and most important the teacher must learn to pronounce the student’s name as the family does. Teachers can keep a written record of these insights. Even learning small phrases of the home language will likely be appreciated by the children and families. A language other than English can be viewed as an asset, a resource rather than a limitation.

The issue of language knowledge has been one of controversy in this country. Bilingual education is often targeted as counter-productive. Proponents of English being the only language in schools fear the loss of the national language. The state of California has turned away from bilingual education. Others, however, like the state of Texas, are moving toward a dual-language society. Dual-language (developing competency in two languages) advocates believe that a command of two or more languages is beneficial to individuals and to society.14

In addressing the issue of school drop outs, Gonzalo Ramirez and Jan Lee Ramirez, educators in Mesa, Texas, believe that it is only when Mexican American students learn through literature that celebrates their unique culture that education will seize their interest.15 They urge the publishers of children’s books to offer stories that legitimize the Mexican American dual heritage as a way to help reduce the dropout rate. Teachers who value the Hispanic child’s home and family preserve and build on the child’s cultural values, thus raising that child’s self-esteem. Like all other children, Hispanic children do well in “warm, nurturing environments.” Teachers who demonstrate tolerance and interest in other cultures show how each person, adult or child, is valued.

Offering a classroom culture of diversity encourages children to bring into that classroom the culture of their home and community. This will solidify their command of communication. As children use their knowledge of language, they will enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of different languages and dialects. This knowledge base will be further enhanced by what these children are trying to learn, what they gain from the popular media and, most importantly, a deep interest in each other.


Folktales Afoot

One final argument for using culturally, linguistically, and geographically relevant literature with young children deals with folktales. Folktales exist in every traditional culture, and children are fond of this genre. Folktales are universal in that “they are similar in style, structure, story line, and outcome.”16

There are folktales available in both Spanish and English from Mexico and the border regions. An example is Borreguita and the Coyote. This folk tale from Ayutla, Mexico, is written in English, but sprinkled with Spanish words. A glossary in the front of the book offers a pronunciation guide. As a teacher reads this story to students, the use of Spanish authenticates the language for literary uses. At the same time, many students will recognize the familiar folktale format, wherein the small weak animal successfully tricks the stronger, larger one. In this case it is a lamb and a coyote, respectively.

Children can make connections between the art in the stories and the art and artifacts known to be associated with a given culture. In Borreguita and the Coyote, the brown-skinned farmer dressed in typical jeans, vest, and boots typifies this. The coyote in silhouette howling at the moon and a pink adobe church are other examples. Of course, one must be aware of the dangers of stereotyping when looking for “typica#148; images.

Several suggestions for extending the recommended books appear on page 28. For the book Bread, Bread, Bread, a teacher could get pamphlets from a supermarket or bakery that describe different kinds of bread. Have a tray with a variety of breads for children to sample. If there are both Jewish and Hispanic children in the class, look also for Jalepeño Bagels to read as a follow-up. When sharing Baby Rattlesnake with children, give each child a paper cup with gravel in it to shake when the snakes say, “Sh, sh, sh.” This story lends itself to dramatization, with children assuming the roles of baby rattlesnake, the Indian princess, and the rattlesnake family. Ask the children to bring pictures of their families to share before or after reading Family Stories. Mix the pictures and place in folders, then let groups of children make up stories to go with the pictures. Explore a cooking activity after reading Tortillas para Mama. Invite a parent to help prepare tortillas with the children. Enjoy them for a class snack.

These are just a few of the activities that can be used to help children access the meaning of the printed word. A creative and culturally sensitive teacher can discover many more. Thus, if Cervantes is right, and the pen is the tongue of the mind, the c‡reful selection and use of children’s picture books can bestow upon those children a multisensory experience rich in cultural context.



1. T. Fayden, “Creating a True Multicultural Setting.” Focus on Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, 10, no. 2 (winter, 1997).

2. A. Valdez, Learning in Living Color. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

3. National Association for the Education of Young Children, “NAEYC Position Statement: Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity,” Young Children, 51, no. 2 (1996): 4-12.

4. S. Bredekamp and C. Copple, eds., Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (rev. ed., Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997).

5. S. L. Kagan and M. J. Neuman, “Highlights of the Quality 2000 Initiative: Not by Chance,” Young Children 52, no. 5 (1997).

6. U. S. Census Report (2000). Available at

7. E. E. Garcia, “The Education of Hispanics in Early Childhood: Of Roots and Wings,” Young Children 52, no. 3 (1997): 5-14.

8. N. Francis and R. N. Andrade, “Mexico: The Challenge of Literacy and Multilingualism,” Childhood Education 76, no. 6 (2000).

9. B. Curran, C. Abrahams, and J. Manual, January 25. Teacher Supply and Demand: Is There a Shortage? (Washington, DC: National Governor’s Association, 2000).

10. S. Neuharth-Pritchett, J. C. Reiff, and C. A. Pearson, “Through the Eyes of Preservice Teachers,” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 15, no. 2 (2001).

11. C. F. Marshall, “Using Children’s Storybooks to Encourage Discussions among Diverse Populations,” Childhood Education 74, no. 4 (1998).

12. J. Archer, “NEA’s Portrait of a Public School Teacher: White, Female, Aging,” Education Week (July 9, 1997). On the web at

13. S. Grossman, “Examining the Origins of Our Beliefs about Parents,” Childhood Education 76, no. 1 (1999).

14. V. Hildebrand, L. A. Phenice, M. M. Gray, and R. P. Hines, Knowing and Serving Diverse Families (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill, 1996).

15. G. Ramirez, Jr and J. L. Ramirez, “Multiethnic Children’s Literature” (Albany, NY: Delmar, 1994).

16. D. A. Finazzo, All for the Children: Multicultural Essentials of Literature (Albany, NY: Delmar, 1997).

Linda Medearis is chair and associate professor of Early Childhood Education, and Patricia Lozano is associate professor of Bilingual Education, both in the Department of Special Populations, College of Education, at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas.

Children’s Literature

Some of these books are available in Spanish (denoted “Spanish or English”) and others are available with both languages written on the pages (“Spanish and English”).

Aardema, V. Borregita and the Coyote. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1991. Use voices, when reading this one aloud. Children love it as the tricky little sheep outsmarts the wily coyote.

Albert, R. E. Alejandro’s Gift. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994. The story of a true environmentalist, set in brush country.

Alexander, F. Mother Goose on the Rio Grande. Chicago: Passport Books, 1993. Rhymes and riddles from Mexico and the American Southwest.

Alma, F.A. Gathering the Sun. NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1997. An alphabet book in Spanish and English, focusing on working crops, illustrated with bright, warm colors.

Ata, T. Baby Rattlesnake. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1989. Native American setting illustrates that family knows best as baby rattlesnake tries to grow up too quickly.

Avalos, C. El Desierto. New York: Scholastic, 1992. Counting with a variety of cacti.

Brett, J. Armadillo Rodeo. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1995. Texans claim the armadillo, a funny animal that children enjoy.

Bridwell, N. La Familia de Clifford. New York: Scholastic, 1988. An old favorite about a big red dog translated into Spanish.

Brusca, M.C. and T. Wilson. Pedro Fools the Gringo. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. Trickster tales from Mexico and other Central and South American countries.

Castañeda, O. S. Abuela’s Weave. New York: Lee & Low, 1993. A Guatemalan girl and her grandmother create beautiful weaves.

Cowley, J. Gracias, the Thanksgiving Turkey. New York : Scholastic, 1996. Set in the city, a Mexican American boy wants to keep a turkey as a pet, not as a meal.

Declare, L. Arroz con Leche. New York: Scholastic, 1989. A selection of songs and rhymes from Latin America.

Ehlert, L. Cucko/Cucìú. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. Mayan Indian tale of how the cuckoo lost its color.

Flora, J. The Fabulous Firework Family. New York: McElderry, 1994. A true story of a border family who make fireworks.

Garcia, M. The Adventures of Connie and Diego. Emeryville, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1994. A person’s color is not as important as their character.

Garza, C.L. In My Family. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1990. Flavorful sampling of family activities en la frontera (on the border). In English or Spanish.

Gershator, D. and P. Gershator, Bread is for Eating. New York: Henry Holt, 1995 Written in English with a recurring Spanish song. Includes the written music.

Gonzalez, R. and A. Ruiz,. Mi Primer Libro de Dichos (My First Book of Proverbs). San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1995. A collection of popular Mexican proverbs. In Spanish and English.

Griego, M.C., B. L. Bucks, S. S. Gilbert, and L. H. Kimball, eds. Tortillas Para Mama. NY: Henry Holt, 1981. Students often remember these familiar little rhymes and songs. In Spanish and English.

Guiberson, B. Z. Cactus Hotel. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. Describes the ecosystem surrounding the birth and death of a saguaro cactus.

Hurwitz, J. Zapatas Nuevos Para Silvia: (New Shoes for Silvia). New York: Scholastic, 1995. A little girl waiting to grow into a new pair of shoes. In Spanish or English.

Levy, J. El Espíritu de Tío Fernando. (The Spirit of Tío Fernando) New York: Scholastic, 1995. In Spanish and English

Lowell, S. The Three Little Javelinas. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland, 1992. Retelling of the three little pigs set in the southwest. In Spanish or English.

Marsh, T. J. and J. Ward, Way Out in the Desert. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland, 1998. The poem “Over in the Meadow” with southwest wildlife.

Martinez, A.C. The Woman who Outshone the Sun. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1991. A Mexican folktale about friendship. In Spanish and English.

McDermott, G. Coyote. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1994. Boldly colored, reminiscent of heat and sun with a blue coyote as the protagonist.

Mora, F.X. Coyote Rings the Wrong Bell. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1991. An old Mexican folktale, in pictures without words; so viewers make up the story.

Morris, A. Bread, Bread, Bread. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1989. Photographs of the different kinds of bread eaten by people all around the world.

Paulsen, G. La Tortillería (The Tortilla Factory). San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995. How commercial tortillas are made. English or Spanish.

Peña, A. Calor. Waco, TX: WRS, 1995. Hispanic and Native American, or Mestizo, family values. Find the other Southwestern “family” artists to whom the author pays homage.

Sanfilippo, M. Vamos a la fiesta! (Let’s Go to the Fiesta!) NY: Scholastic, 1992. An easy to read book in Spanish about a modern Mexican American family and their adventures at a fiesta.

Soto, G. Too Many Tamales. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1993. This Christmas story is humorous, tender and true-to-life as it reflects the closeness of a contemporary Mexican American family.

Soto, G. The Old Man and his Door. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1996. An old man is terrible at listening to his wife and creates difficulties for himself.

Stevens, J. R. Carlos and the Squash Plant. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland, 1993. A Southwestern tale of a naughty Hispanic boy who ends up with a squash plant growing out of his ear. English and Spanish.

Third Grade Art Students. How the Sun was Born. St. Petersburg: Willowsip, 1993. A creation tale from Southwestern students in bold colors.

Thomas, J. R. Lights on the River. New York: Hyperion, 1994. The story connects a migrant family in the United States with their roots in Mexico.

Wing, N. Jalepeño Bagels. New York: Atheneum, 1996. A Mexican/Jewish boy whose parents own a bakery has them prepare a special treat for show and tell.