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Diverse Summer Reading Picks For Kids

MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today we want to get their advice about summer reading. If you have small people or teenagers in your house, then you are probably already in the throes of summeritis. And yes, I think I just made that word up. It means that the kids are ready for the reading, writing and arithmetic to end.

But the research is very clear that summer reading is crucial if kids are going to come back to school ready to learn, and that can be especially important for kids of color. But it can also be more challenging for kids of color because they don't see themselves in many children's books. We wanted to talk more about this. And we are going to pay particular attention today to books for and about Latino children, who represent a growing share of America's elementary school population. With us now, Viviana Hurtado, founder of Latinas For - Latinas For Latino Lit. That's an organization that supports Latino authors and encourages literacy. You know her as the blogger-in-chief of The Wise Latina Club, but she also wants to make sure that you know that she is the tia loca to three of her nieces - nephews.

VIVIANA HURTADO: (Laughing) Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's Alt. Latino podcast. He is the father of two boys. He's here with us as well. Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is author of the bilingual children's book, "Good Night Captain Momma." She's also a former Air Force pilot and a mom of three. So don't call her if your self-esteem is feeling challenged. And Carmen Agra Deedy has written numerous children's books, including the 2008 Pura Belpre Honor Award-winning, "Martina The Beautiful Cockroach." She's a mom and a grandmother. Welcome to everybody. Thank you all so much for joining us.


HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: So Viviana, you know, we've noticed that a recent University of Wisconsin study revealed that fewer than 8 percent of children's books, in 2013, were written by or about people of color, which I think is a little surprising given that a growing percentage of American schoolchildren are children of color. I wanted to ask why you think that matters. And I also want to mention - if you're feeling self-esteem challenged, others, don't listen to this. In addition to her other accomplishments, Viviana also has a doctorate. Why do you think that matters?

HURTADO: Well, it matters because we know what the pedagogical power of education is. And so if you start to see, all of a sudden, yourself represented in books around you, in characters - not just the characters, but think about the situations. The locations - La Bodega, for example, in Latino culture, is a really strong - the little store on the corner. That can go so far in just building confidence - opening up imagination and curiosity to continue reading. So one of the things that Latinas For Latino Lit, L4LL, is really passion about is really promoting this incredible talent of U.S. Latino authors and illustrators - who, by the way, have been writing for at least 25 to 30 years - because what that's going to do - they'll be reading, for example, Graciela Tiscareno-Sato today, or Duncan Tonatiuh today, and tomorrow, the "The Iliad."


HURTADO: It's a gateway to learning, imagination and educational achievement success.

MARTIN: Felix, I'd like to ask you, though - particularly as a dad of two boys. Do you think it matters? Did you ever, when you were growing up, see a kid's book with somebody like you in it?

CONTRERAS: I didn't read anything with someone like me until I got to college and took a Chicano lit course. I mean, that's - you know - grammar school, middle school, junior high school and then high school. So yeah, it does matter. It does matter, especially in today's environment, where there are a lot of multicultural families - a lot of multicultural environments in the schools where we are, here in Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. area and all around the country. So it does make a difference.

MARTIN: Have you noticed with your boys - does it - does their interest pick up, you think, if they are exposed to stories that have some connection to them on that level?

CONTRERAS: My kids will tell you that I have too many stories.


CONTRERAS: So I'm always talking about when I grew up, or, you know, something that my dad told me, you know, when he was growing up, about my mother and father, you know. And they are curious to find stories that fit into that narrative, I think. You know, when we talk about, like, my father growing up as a migrant farm worker, you know. They're interested in finding stories about that lifestyle, you know - or growing up in an inner-city in Sacramento, in California - you know, dealing with some of the things I dealt with as a young kid. They're interested in finding stuff like that, I think.

MARTIN: Graciela, what about you? Tell us about, first of all, your experience of this - and what are your thoughts about keeping kids interested in reading? - and why you think it matters to have characters with different backgrounds represented in children's books.

TISCARENO-SATO: Yeah, well, you know, I also didn't have a chance to read books that had characters that were anything like me when I was growing up. I'm the oldest of five children born to Mexican immigrants, so I don't remember any children's books like that that were part of my childhood. I remember reading, you know, biographies that my mom had on Jackie Kennedy Onassis. (Laughing) My mom liked to read different things - but just, really, as far as children's literature? I just didn't have it until much later. So - but I do have three kids now, and what I wanted to say is I've taken a slightly different approach to creating literature. And while, you know, we have the Cesar Chavez books, and we have the, you know, "Grandma's Chocolate," and then we have a lot of the heritage books, and they're important to me, just culturally - I have bilingual and biracial kids. So I want to produce literature that's forward-looking and aspirational, which is why I told my military story in a bilingual children's book because while kids are reading in the summer and all year, I want them to be looking forward to who they can become. I want the children's literature to inspire, you know, future professions, future careers that they have not been able to see themselves with, which is why we see, you know, a Latina in a military flight suit on the cover of the children's book that I wrote. And so that's how I approach it. And so our house is filled with books about, you know, the Latino culture, the Japanese culture, which is my husband's culture. We have Zimbabwean pictures, we have "Little House On The Prairie," and we have, you know, "What Does It Mean To Be Global?" So I want my kids to be global citizens, you know, big thinkers, and then see examples and role models from all kinds of cultures, all races, because that reflects who my kids are since they are not just of one culture, but several. So that's the approach that I've taken. And I always mix nonfiction and fiction. That's a big, big, big part.

MARTIN: OK, well, hold that thought for a minute because I want to hear more about some of these, kind of, practical tips for getting kids excited and continuing their interest, you know, over the summer. So hold that thought...


MARTIN: I want to hear more about that comment. OK, Deedy, what about you? You are kind of our - if anybody's read a book by a Latino author it might have been you because you have been writing them for two decades and also with a very, kind of, diverse selection of topics and themes. And to talk about that, you visit a lot of schools trying to motivate kids to read. What are some of the things that you've observed over the time?

DEEDY: Well, I grew up - yes, I'm the ancient lady on this panel. (Laughing).

MARTIN: No, no. You're just the most experienced diva, that's all.

DEEDY: (Laughing) Oh, no, no. Oh, I love that.

MARTIN: Not old, just our senior diva.

DEEDY: Oh, what a lovely title. I want a crown. Well, you know, I grew up in the South in the '60s. So I almost wanted to say, hola, y'all, as my way of introduction. And so my - when I was introduced, of course, to what we - in common parlance is now called, the Dick and Jane readers - and I remember looking and them. And it was always, see Dick run. See Jane run. You know, and I remember - who is chasing all these peoples?


DEEDY: And my - this poor woman. This poor first-grade teacher - (Imitating teacher) baby girl, ain't nobody chasing them, honey. And I said, where are the brown peoples? Well, baby, that's another book. Where is it? You're going to have to write it, honey. And so, you know, it was such a different experience. Though, I will tell you, I wrote - I read in Spanish at home. I read in English in school. It was different - you know, it was a different time. We didn't have this - you know, this plethora of material. And yes - we say, yes, it's only a small percentage, but it's there. Children do have access, now, to wonderful books. You know, authors like Alma Flor Ada and, you know, Lucia Gonzalez - and we have "The Bossy Gallito," and we have, you know, "My Name Is Maria Isabel," and - but my favorite book as a child - and I think it's telling - the one that turned me on to reading had nothing to do with my - the topography of my life, you know?

MARTIN: Right. Yeah.

DEEDY: Who would live next door, who did I play with - it was "Charlotte's Web." It was "Charlotte's Web" because I loved animals. And I think the thing, that catalyst that really - can just really start things moving in a child, especially a reluctant reader, as we call them - is finding what they love. What do they love? I mean, if it's a heritage issue - great. That's great. But if it's - what they love is, you know, outer space, iguanas - I think that it's really critical to connect the child with the book that ignites their mind, you know, really.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our regular parenting roundtable today. We're focusing on summer reading. We have a particular interest in books for and about Latino kids, but as Carmen Agra Deedy just told us, we're interested in exciting books in general. Our guests are the veteran award-winning children's book writer Carmen Agra Deedy, author and military veteran Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, Felix Contreras - that's NPR's Alt. Latino podcast, and Viviana Hurtado, co-founder of Latinas For Latino Lit. Somebody wanted to jump in? Viviana, I think you wanted to jump in on that point? So Carmen's gotten us started off by saying the main thing to start and can make that connection, is what's the child interested in? So sort of take us on from there. What are some of the other great books that you are recommending for the summer?

HURTADO: Wow. Well, we have - L4LL - we have a summer reading program that launched, actually, on Sunday. It's a 10 week program that you can access online through mid-August. And we have reading lists. And Graciela and Carmen are on those reading lists, of our recommended reading list, 100 percent curated with U.S. Latino authors and illustrators. And what's terrific about this - for example, in the four to eight-year-olds, which is where Graciela's book is clustered - and they're going to be focusing on stories - you know, storytelling, the way Graciela was able to do that. And that's going to be furthering reading comprehension, reading and writing skills. But in addition to Graciela's book, I'm really crazy about anything that Monica Brown writes. We have "Side By Side: The Story Of Delores Huerta And Cesar Chavez," a heritage book, as was mentioned a little bit earlier. They're beautifully illustrated. And Monica Brown, by the way - and I think this is really important to note the talent of these authors and these illustrators that have, again, been writing for at least two, if not three decades. There's a literary canon from at least two to three decades ago. These are nationally recognized authors. Monica Brown was part of the National Book Festival. So they're writing amazing, imaginative, curiosity-peaking work that is also building all kinds of important reading and writing skills. But they're also telling a story for, really, anybody to enjoy.

MARTIN: OK. What about that - so Viviana's got a particular approach here, which is to say it's a 10 week, kind of, program. I think the idea is to, kind of, stay on track - maybe one book a week, maybe write a paragraph about it. A lot of jurisdictions are doing that, and public libraries are doing that. And they say, if you turn in your paper with your paragraph for each book, then you get, like, tickets for a pizza or something like that. Felix, does that work with your boys?

CONTRERAS: I think it will this summer.


MARTIN: I think they're going to need more than a pizza.

HURTADO: Maybe a Google Chromebook, which is what we're giving away as a reading incentive at the end of our program.

MARTIN: Oh, is that right? A Google Chromebook at the end of it.


MARTIN: So Felix, what do you find that works? Is it...

CONTRERAS: You know, for example, we have - my youngest is - I'm not trying to out him because he just said his class - his 10-year-old classmate listens to TELL ME MORE.


CONTRERAS: So - but he was - I think we'd consider him a reluctant reader. You know, we're trying to get him to read stuff and do less gaming, that kind of stuff. And what works for him - one of the things we tried was buying him a Kindle. Since he's already adapted to the technology and - the screen technology, we try to incorporate that into his reading. And he's - and I told him, you know, you can buy whatever book you want, you know, within reason, in order to accommodate that. And it did pick up a little bit, his reading activity.

MARTIN: How do you make sure that he's actually reading and not gaming? He's not slipping some "Minecraft" in there - not that we're against "Minecraft."

TISCARENO-SATO: Because he bought a Kindle. That's why - get the Kindle.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. It's just...

MARTIN: Buy the Kindle and not the iPad Mini.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: It's only for...

CONTRERAS: The Kindle's for reading. And you just - you know, looking over his shoulder. The old - you know, old-school, just, kind of, checking up on him - sneaking up on him when he doesn't think I'm around, that kind of stuff, you know. And, you know, like I said, he is - he's a reluctant reader, but, you know, he just went out and bought a whole series of books that he wants to read. And he's going to read that over the summer. I'd really like to get him involved in this 10-week program, as well as my 13-year-old.

MARTIN: Do you make them write something, too - to be sure that they've actually read it? - or do you just, kind of, let it go free?

CONTRERAS: They do that during the school year.

MARTIN: And so summer, you feel, should be different.

CONTRERAS: Summer - I don't know. I mean, there's...

MARTIN: Graciela, were you going to jump in here?

TISCARENO-SATO: Can I add something about the writing?


TISCARENO-SATO: I'd like to add something about the writing.

MARTIN: Yes, please.

TISCARENO-SATO: So I want to just explain the ages that I have in my home. So I have a son who's seven, and I have a daughter who just turned 10 and then a daughter who's blind, who's 12. These are three very different characters - very different kids. So what I do is I ask them, OK, we're going to be reading a lot the summer. And we're going to read some lists and stuff, but tell me what you really want to know more about this summer. I just had this conversation with them. My son said, I want to know more about water insects - one thing. OK, so we're going to go find some nonfiction books on water insects.

My daughter's into hummingbirds, all birds. She wants to be a future bird scientist. And my 12-year-old's into languages. So we're doing Braille plus Spanish and English books, OK? So very different types of interests. But what I just thought was very important is, you know, how they like to read. You know, we've got paper readers. We've got Kindle readers. We've got, you know, tablets. Let's honor that. Let's give them those options because whatever it takes to get them to read, right? But then, I don't want to make them do book reports in the summer - just my own choice. I mean, you know, they'll write a couple of sentences. I have my kids journal in the summer about what we're doing - three sentences, or longer if they're older. So they can read separately from the writing, so it doesn't feel so school-y for them, you know? But yet they're still writing about the things that we just do naturally in the summer.

MARTIN: I think that's a great idea.

TISCARENO-SATO: So we get both done...

MARTIN: Get both done...

TISCARENO-SATO: But we're starting again with their interests and their experiences. So it doesn't feel like a chore to them. It's just something that we do. And again, that mix of fiction and nonfiction reading, I think, is also very important.

MARTIN: OK, Carmen...

TISCARENO-SATO: I just wanted to add that as well.

MARTIN: Carmen, we have time for a final word from you. And I do want to mention that we are interested in reader - in listeners' and your suggestions, so reach out on Twitter. Tweet us @TellMeMoreNPR and share your summer reading picks. And those will be available for everybody to share. So, Carmen, final thought from you?

DEEDY: You know what? I just want to plug some great books I love.

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

DEEDY: All right. So for picture books - and by the way, picture books are critical for younger children, for K-5. For many children, this is their first introduction to fine art. Not everyone considers illustration fine art - I do. I've met too many incredible illustrators. Gary Soto, "Too Many Tamales" - oh my God - Christmas story about Maria, who puts - borrows her mom's ring and loses it in the masa - the dough.


DEEDY: And then they've got to eat the tamales to find it. It's fantastic.

CONTRERAS: From Fresno, California.

DEEDY: I know. I love it. Pam Munoz Ryan, she has - this is more of a middle-grade reader - "Esperanza Rising." Of course, esperanza means hope, so it's a play on words - hope rising. And it's a well-to-do Mexican girl who, through the vagaries of life and various family tragedies, ends up as an itinerant worker. And then, "American Subversive." I love "American Subversive."

MARTIN: OK, that sounds good. OK, that's all we...

DEEDY: Every book doesn't have to have the Latina itinerant worker or the Cuban refugee - I'm from Cuba...


DEEDY: Or whatever, for heaven sakes.

MARTIN: (Laughing) OK.

DEEDY: "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile," people, by Bernard Waber - an oldie but a goodie.

MARTIN: All right.

DEEDY: It's about a crocodile who moves into a neighborhood, and the neighbors just aren't....

MARTIN: All right, well, that sounds great. And then - we've got a bunch there. We'll put them all on Twitter for you. So we heard from Atlanta, Carmen Agra Deedy. She wrote, "The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens Of A Tale" - too bad she didn't mention that one. Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is with us. She's the author of "Good Night Captain Momma." She joined us from her home in Hayward, California. Felix Contreras, co-host of NPR's Alt. Latino Podcast was here. Viviana Hurtado, co-founder of Latinas For Latino Lit was here. They were here with us in Washington, D.C., so thank you.

And before we go, I have to take a moment to remember a woman who helped make reading and learning fun for millions of kids in this country - the actress Lee Chamberlin. You might remember seeing her singing and dancing on the groundbreaking children's television show, "The Electric Company." She entertained and educated young people, along with a couple of other people who wound up doing a thing or two in the arts, Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman. She never stopped working to spread the power of words. At the end of her life she lived in Paris, helping African American playwrights develop their productions for the stage. She passed away last week at the age of 76, while visiting her son in North Carolina. We just wanted to remember Lee Chamberlin.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.