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Chicano and Chicana Books for Everyone

By Phillip Serrato

A sizable body of literature for younger readers by Chicano and Chicana authors depicts the various challenges and experiences that distinguish many Chicano/a childhoods. Certainly, a crucial aim of authors such as Amada Irma Pérez, Francisco Jiménez, Francisco Alarcón, and Juan Felipe Herrera is to speak to Chicano/a children and help them to negotiate some of the issues they may face as they grow up. Yet while these authors' books have a special resonance for Chicano and Chicana children, their books are accessible enough to amuse, enlighten, and inspire readers of all backgrounds. Quite simply, there is something for everyone in these books.

Reflecting a key element of the family history of many Chicano and Chicana children, the subject of immigration is common in Chicano/a children's literature. In her bilingual picture book, My Diary from Here to There (2002), Pérez offers a story about the anxiety that she felt when her family relocated from Juárez, Mexico, to the United States. Amidst the excitement that everyone else in her family expresses over the impending move, a young Amada wonders in this book, "Am I the only one who is scared of leaving our home, our beautiful country, and all the people we might never see again?" The style of the book renders young Amada's feelings effectively relatable and capable of eliciting the understanding of any reader.

The CircuitAs an autobiographical novel, Jiménez's The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (1997 offers an even more fleshed out and striking insight into the subjectivity of an immigrant child. As in Pérez's book, Jiménez's work opens with the confusion and anxiety that a child feels when informed that his family is going to "take a long trip north, cross la frontera, enter California, and leave our poverty behind." Descriptions of the family's enduring hope for a better life in the face of economic struggles, the difficult working conditions in the fields of California's central valley, and the haunting specter of immigration raids draw the reader into the book and nurture compassion for the resilience of the family unit. The Circuit emerges as an excellent selection for readers age 10 and up. It humanizes immigration and encourages thoughtful conversations about immigrant experiences, including the adversities that immigrants face and their reasons for migrating in the first place.

Angels Ride BikesGoing beyond the subject of immigration, Alarcón's bilingual poetry picture books model the flexibility of poetry as a form of expression that can be about anything and everything. In Angels Ride Bikes (1999), for instance, young readers realize that poems might be about everything from city lights at night, to a bunch of bananas sitting on the kitchen table, to a neighborhood guy from Michoacán who sells ice cream out of a pushcart. Notably, the apparent simplicity of Alarcón's poems belies the sophistication of his craft. In Laughing Tomatoes (1997), the poet concocts a nifty metaphor to capture the consequences of a bite of a chili pepper:

sometimes
a bite is all it takes
for a supernova
to explode

Laughing TomatoesIn the span of just a few words, Alarcón expands the way a child may conceptualize the explosive bite of a chili pepper. In "Morning Sun," also in Laughing Tomatoes, Alarcón continues to encourage child readers to playfully and imaginatively put into words something as simple as the arrival of a new day:

warming up
my bed
in the morning

the Sun
calls me
through the window

"wake up
get up
come on out"

Framed by the vibrant illustrations of Chicana artist Maya Christina Gonzalez, Alarcón's poems inspire readers to see poetry in their immediate surroundings and to write their own poems.

My Very Own RoomWhile Alarcón's books bring to life the landscapes of childhood, Pérez's bilingual picture book My Very Own Room (2000) and Herrera's verse novel Downtown Boy (2005) dramatize some of the challenges that young people face. My Very Own Room is actually the sequel to My Diary from Here to There. It picks up young Amada's story once she and her family are settled in the United States. Commenting on the crowded living conditions in her new home—the book begins with her receiving an elbow jab in her ribs while trying to sleep in a bed crowded with her five brothers. She observes, "A little space was all I wanted, but there wasn't much of it. Our tiny house was shared by eight of us, and sometimes more when our friends and relatives came from Mexico and stayed with us until they found jobs and a place to live." Eventually a storage closet is emptied for Amada and with the help of her family it becomes her own room—a place where she can read and think and be herself.

Downtown BoyFor slightly older readers, Herrera's Downtown Boy portrays the peer pressure that boys may experience as they grow up. In the course of this verse novel, Juanito, the eleven-year-old protagonist, finds himself having to choose between competing definitions of masculinity. His P.E. coach, his cousin, his cousin's friend, and others foist different ideals of masculinity onto Juanito in this boy-to-man narrative. With his father spending more time in Mexico than with him, Juanito finds himself in the precarious position of trying to figure out on his own the difference between right and wrong and ultimately what kind of a boy he wants to be. Conversations about peer pressure and masculinity can take place around this brilliant novel.

As can be seen in this tiny sample, the field of Chicano/a children's literature is a rich one that depicts a panoply of experiences and offers something for everyone. Although this essay focuses on Amada Irma Pérez, Francisco Jiménez, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Juan Felipe Herrera, there are a number of other authors in the field who are worthy of attention, including Pam Muñoz Ryan, Pat Mora, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. The works of these authors, too, offer something for everyone.

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Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems/
Los ángeles andan en bicicleta y otros poemas de otoño
Ages: 6 and up
Author: Francisco X. Alarcón
Children's Book Press: $7.95
Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/
Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera
Ages: 6 and up
Author: Francisco X. Alarcón
Children's Book Press: $7.95
Downtown Boy
Ages: 10 and up
Author: Juan Felipe Herrera
Scholastic: $16.99
The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child
Ages: 10 and up
Author: Francisco Jiménez
Houghton Mifflin: $16.00
My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aquí hasta allá
Ages: 6 and up
Author: Amada Irma Pérez
Children's Book Press: $16.95
My Very Own Room/Mi propio cuartito
Ages: 6 and up
Author: Amada Irma Pérez
Children's Book Press: $7.95

 

About the Author
Phillip Serrato is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University and is on the faculty of SDSU's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His area of specialization is Chicano/a children's and adolescent literature and culture.

Don't Miss
An Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera is a well known Latino poet and the author of several dozen books. A number of these are bilingual picture books and three are adolescent novels written in verse. In anticipation of the Cinco de Mayo holiday, Parents’ Choice met with Herrera to discuss his work.

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