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Authors, educators call for quality, diversity in children's books

Between the merry music and captivating storytelling at KPCC's event Sunday on diverse literature, came this observation from the guest panelists: the publishing industry needs to undergo change before quality books in multiple languages can make their way into the hands of more children.

Our guest authors and musicians entertained a roomful of adults and children with Spanish-language songs and books, just the kind of material that educators say helps elevate the literacy of young kids.

But as event moderator and KPCC early education correspondent Deepa Fernandes reported in February, parents in Southern California struggle to find quality books in languages other than English. Translations of children's books may be of poor quality or disconnected from the experiences of kids who are bilingual, educators say.

Celene Navarrete, co-founder of LA Librería, a new Mid-City bookstore specializing in Spanish-language children's books, said Sunday that the issue is not just finding books in Spanish, but finding good books. 

When she and her store co-founder, Chiara Arroyo, began looking for books to sell, they were shocked at how few outlets offered stories in Spanish. The quality of the books that were offered, particularly English to Spanish translations, "was very poor, I would say," Navarrete said.

She and Arroyo traveled to different countries and sought out the books with the quality and cultural diversity they wanted in their store. They found them in countries like Mexico, Spain and Guatemala. Even when some books contained words that might not be appropriate in other countries, she said they chose to offer them because the stories opened the door to other cultures.

“It is part of being a cultural citizen, a global citizen,” she said. 

Both Navarrete and Luiz Orozco, Academia Cultural artist manager who represents Spanish-language writers, said decision-makers in the book publishing and distribution industry tend to be white. That lack of diversity, they said, explains in part why it's hard to find quality, non-English language books in mainstream stores and websites.

“So this lack of diversity is impacting what our kids read,” Navarrete said. 

Luiz Orozco said when he meets with publishers, it's clear that there's a need for people of color to be working in publishing. But he also believes there is a big opportunity for investors to capitalize on the growing population of Spanish-language readers in the country. 

His father, Jose Luis Orozco, a bilingual educator and popular musician, entertained the Sunday crowd with his spirited children's songs. He said the U.S. is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, suggesting a large market for diverse books.

But not any kind of books.

Luiz Orozco said while publishers are “looking for the fast buck,” there's a niche to be filled for books that speak to the unique social culture of Spanish-language families and the lives they experience. Examples of these are written by René Colato Lainez, a teacher and author of multicultural children’s books who draws on his own experience having emigrated from El Salvador.

Lainez treated the KPCC audience to a lively reading of his book “The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez,” a tale about the Tooth Fairy's encounter with her Spanish and Latin American counterpart, the tooth-collecting mouse El Ratón Pérez. 

Books like Lainez' aren't always easy to find, but are worth seeking out, the speakers suggested. 

“Hopefully we can make [them] easier to find,” said Sara Quintanar, a teacher, singer, and founder of Music With Sara, who with her daughters performed at Sunday's event.