Lucia M. Gonzalez knows an abundance about the impact of bilingual books. An accomplished storyteller, puppeteer, children’s librarian, and author, Lucia has been a champion for bilingual books and programming
for many years. She was president of REFORMA from 2010-2011 and, in 2020, was elected as president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). She has written three bilingual books for children, including two
Pura Belpré Award Honor winners. Lucia is also the library director for the North Miami Public Library.
What impact does a strong bilingual collection in the public library have on a community?
Lucia: Bilingual books serve a primordial function in the pre-readers’ transition from the home language and the home culture to the larger society. Bilingual books help connect generations of readers by allowing
caregivers who might not be fluent in the English language to share the joy of reading a book to their children in the language of their choice and in the comfort of their language. Bilingual books are essential in promoting family
literacy and cross-cultural understanding. They validate the first language and the bicultural experience.
How do bilingual books benefit the growth of a child who lives in a home with parents who speak a child’s native language but goes to an English-speaking school?
Lucia: As I mentioned earlier, bilingual books are instrumental in validating the child’s home cultural and linguistic identity, serving as great connectors to the wider world. There is nothing more gratifying than
the feeling of belonging, of being noticed and appreciated for who you are and for what you are able to contribute to the group, the class, or society at large. A child growing up in a home where the home language is other than
English and the culture is other than the mainstream culture feels a sense of great disconnect and a craving for belonging when attending school where everyone else seems different. Imagine the joy of that child when he hears
others outside his home reading in the home language. Imagine how gratifying it must be for that child to see the classmates interested in the sounds of the words that are so familiar to that child’s daily life. It is a moment
of joy, of self-pride, and most importantly, it is a moment of bonding. Also, the availability of bilingual books within a library’s collection invites the non-bilingual reader to get a glimpse of other languages and cultures
that co-exist in their communities and their classrooms. For me, as a bilingual author, parent, and children’s librarian, bilingual books are about intergenerational bonding and cross-cultural inclusiveness.
What should librarians and teachers look for when selecting bilingual books?
Lucia: The selection of bilingual books should meet the criteria and high standards of quality that we apply to any other book we select for our collections. Language barriers do represent a challenge when the selector
does not speak the language featured in the bilingual book, and it is the responsibility of the selector to seek reviewers that are experts in that language or to seek published reviews of the titles under consideration. The literary
quality, the flow of the story, the rhythm, the voice, and the age-appropriateness of one language must be retained and reflected in the other. One reading should flow into the other seamlessly. For me, the best renditions are
those in which the author creates both versions.
There are many resources available to help with selecting books published in Spanish/English, starting with the now extensive bibliography of recipients of the Pura Belpré (http://www.ala.org/awardsgrants/awards/4/all_years), the Americas (http://claspprograms.org/pages/detail/68/Award-Winners),
or the Tomás Rivera (https://www.education.txstate.edu/ci/riverabookaward/) book awards. Another great place is ALSC’s DIA website (http://dia.ala.org/).
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Pura Belpré Book Award, an award that honors the work of librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré. What does the longevity of Belpré’s name and work say about the need for bilingual books and programming?
Lucia: In 1921, Pura Belpré was hired by New York Public Library to serve the growing Spanish-speaking community in a section of Harlem that later became known as Spanish Harlem, or “el barrio.” When perusing through
the shelves of her library, Pura wished with all her heart to be able to offer the parents and the children of the community she served the books that included their stories, their cultural heritage, and their language. The fact
that her first book, Perez and Martina (Frederick Warne & Co. 1932), remained in print for generations to come is a testament to the history of, and the need for, bilingual books and programming.
What trajectory would you like to see children's literature take in 2021
and moving forward? What trajectory would you like to see YA literature take?
Lucia: I've always believed in the power of books to shape the minds of young readers. Some writer friends have told me how much the pandemic and so many other events in the real world have shaken their ability to
write or their faith in the craft of writing itself. So, I don't know that I have a straightforward answer to that question at all. What would I like to see? I know what I think we need. We need books that make bold, imaginative
leaps. We need ways to find joy and community while refusing to be blinded by nostalgia for a past that never really existed. Two books by writers I'm proud to count as friends and colleagues contain great lavish helpings of all
those elements: A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia, and Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith. The first is a YA novel, an epic multi-generational story of life, death, crime, love, survival set against the
astonishingly vivid background of a declining antebellum Louisiana plantation. In the other, a middle grade novel, Lily and Wendy reclaim the Peter Pan universe, speaking back to the canon with humor and grace. Back in 2019, I
wrote an article in The Horn Book back calling for diverse books to be more than windows and mirrors—I argued they can also work as prisms that refract the light of their characters and themes and cast them back upon the real worlds
of readers. Both these books do that in very different ways. So, I'd argue that windows and mirrors are necessary but as the world gets increasingly complicated, representation is not enough. I'll be looking in 2021 for more books
that act like prisms.