Educators say children need more familiar images
Like many of his third-grade classmates, Mario Cortez-Pacheco likes reading the “Magic Tree House” series, about a brother and a sister who take adventurous trips back in time. He also loves the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” graphic novels.
At Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia, three-quarters of the students are Hispanic.
But Mario, 8, has noticed something about these and many of the other books he encounters in his classroom at Bayard Taylor Elementary here: most of the main characters are white. “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color,” he said.
Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers. (Dora the Explorer, who began as a cartoon character, is an outlier.)
Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.
While there are exceptions, including books by Julia Alvarez, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Alma Flor Ada, and Gary Soto, what is available is “not finding its way into classrooms,” said Patricia Enciso, an associate professor at Ohio State University. Books commonly read by elementary school children — those with human characters rather than talking animals or wizards — include the Junie B. Jones, Cam Jansen, Judy Moody, Stink and Big Nate series, all of which feature a white protagonist. An occasional African-American, Asian or Hispanic character may pop up in a supporting role, but these books depict a predominantly white, suburban milieu.
“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development in Chicago.
She and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, an elementary school teacher in Chicago who works with students who speak languages other than English at home, reviewed 250 book series aimed at second to fourth graders and found just two that featured a Latino main character.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, which compiles statistics about the race of authors and characters in children’s books published each year, found that in 2011, just over 3 percent of the 3,400 books reviewed were written by or about Latinos, a proportion that has not changed much in a decade.
As schools across the country implement the Common Core — national standards for what students should learn in English and math — many teachers are questioning whether nonwhite students are seeing themselves reflected in their reading.
For the early elementary grades, lists of suggested books contain some written by African-American authors about black characters, but few by Latino writers or featuring Hispanic characters. Now, in response to concerns registered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, the architects of the Common Core are developing a more diverse supplemental list. “We have really taken a careful look, and really think there is a problem,” said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the standards for English language and literacy. “We are determined to make this right.”
Black, Asian and American Indian children similarly must dig deep into bookshelves to find characters who look like them. Latino children who speak Spanish at home and arrive at school with little exposure to books in English face particular challenges. A new study being released next week by pediatricians and sociologists at the University of California shows that Latino children start school seven months behind their white peers, on average, in oral language and preliteracy skills.
“Their oral language use is going to be quite different from what they encounter in their books,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “So what might seem like simple and accessible text for a standard English speaker might be puzzling for such kids.”
Hispanic children have historically underperformed non-Hispanic whites in American schools. According to 2011 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of exams administered by the Department of Education, 18 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders were proficient in reading, compared with 44 percent of white fourth-graders.
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