by Jeanne Fain, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
One of the questions that I often ask children when we are reading bilingual books, is what language do you focus upon? Do you look at both languages in the book? Students have told me that they read the language that they know. Or if they have a question, they read both languages to make sense of the text. We were interested in knowing Yuyi’s process as an author and her views of bilingual texts when English Only is not just sentiment, but the law in many places.
Jeanne: You use code switching (alternating back and forth across languages) often in your books. What process do you use when writing? Do you write in English and then shift to Spanish or vice versa? Have you had to advocate for the use of Spanish in your books?
Yuyi: When I decided that I wanted to write stories, I was already an adult living in the USA and at the time I only spoke Spanish. My very first attempt at writing a children’s book was a little story I wrote about the fantasy of my baby son magically flying to meet my family, my parents and my siblings in Mexico, from whom we were separated at the time. Of course I wrote it in Spanish, and I even ventured at making some drawings to go with it, just like in the picture books I saw at the library. My mother-in-law and my husband then asked me if I could make copies of that handmade book so that we could give them to my son’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother as Christmas presents. Grandpa and Grandma received the copies I made and they even enjoyed my rudimentary drawings, but they weren’t able to understand the stories because they only spoke English, just like almost everybody else I knew and who cared for me here in the USA. Soon it became more and more obvious that if I ever wanted to share my stories with others, I was going to have to learn how to write in English. In the previous 25 years while I lived in Mexico, I had never attempted to write anything remotely creative, and so, when I began writing my stories in English and eventually taking classes in creative writing, English became my first language for writing books.
But Spanish is the language of my heart. To me nothing ever sounds as heartfelt as when it is written or spoken in Spanish. Nowadays, I feel very committed to the things I love. But at the beginning, I always thought that in order to get my foot through the publishing door, I had to write in English. And it might have been true for me at the time. But once my books started to come out and win awards, my own editors began suggesting that my books were published in Spanish as well. It was their idea and I tip my hat to them.
At this time, I can declare that both English and Spanish are powerful and inspiring elements of the creation of my art, and I will make use of them as they beautifully serve their own purpose in the telling of stories.
Jeanne: There are many English Only laws in the United States, how do you think your books can support bilingual children in our classrooms?
Yuyi: You know, I have never in my life met anybody who thinks that he or she is going to come to the USA and never learn English. I knew I was going to have to do it too, and I didn’t expect it to have it made easy for me. So, when I realized that bilingual books were integral part of strong bilingual and immersion school programs, I was in awe once more! I had never imagined that in this country children could have the opportunity go to school and learn in their native language as well as in English. Here schools were making sure that children found their way to success in a diverse nation while providing its children with more instead of less. But you see, to me bilingual books aren’t only for learning about another culture or about learning in another language. To me bilingual books should be cheered for their power to give readers what they need in two languages. Furthermore, the bilingual book gives a place in the printed pages for the reader to belong. There you belong if you speak Spanish just as much as if you speak English, or both, or none. The bilingual book tells us that all languages are equal — none of them above the other, but all powerful, beautiful, valid, just like the people who speak them, write them, and read them too.
Jeanne: We absolutely agree with Yuyi’s views on books and the power of supporting all learners in schools. I especially appreciate her thinking about the power readers gain when provided multiple languages. Readers are given the opportunity to see themselves in the literature and use what they know to make powerful connections.
Next week, Yuyi breathes life into Señor Calavera and discusses possible plans for his future.
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