By Janine M. Schall, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
So far this month we’ve had blog posts about Latinx children’s books that tell stories of immigration or non-conforming gender identities. For this week’s post, I’m turning to a more festive topic: winter holiday Latinx picture books.
There is an unfortunate tendency in children’s publishing to focus on “issues” books whenever a person of color is the main character. Books with African American characters are all too often about slavery, civil rights or life in poverty-stricken urban environments. Books with Asian American characters are about immigration and assimilation. Books with Latinx characters are about immigration, migrant life or learning English. There are outstanding children’s books on all these topics—and these books need to exist and be read with children because they share perspectives that will affirm the lives of some readers and help other readers learn new ways of thinking about the world.
However, they also represent limited perspectives on the lives of people of color. Yes, some Latinx people are migrants and many Latinx people have immigration stories in their recent family history. These are important stories to tell. But Latinx people—like people in all racial and ethnic groups—have busy, full, varied lives which should be represented in children’s literature in all their richness. We need the stories about immigrants and about migrants; we also need stories about Latinx kids getting a new pet, worrying about a math test, making a friend and celebrating holidays.
Given the time of year, I decided to focus on Thanksgiving and Christmas books with Latinx characters. It’s a sadly small set of books! However, the number of books wouldn’t grow much larger if I added in books about other holidays. While there are some fantastic books about Day of the Dead, I’m not aware of any books about other holidays that feature Latinx characters. If you know of any, please mention them in the comments!
While it doesn’t directly mention the holiday, Gracias/Thanks by Pat Mora and illustrated by John Parra is a wonderful book to read at Thanksgiving. In this Spanish/English bilingual book, a young boy gives thanks for different people and things in his life.
For my little brother, who threw mashed peas at my sister and made me laugh so hard I fell off my chair, thanks.
Warm illustrations complement the text in a charming portrayal of important people and small moments worthy of gratitude.
There is a larger set of Christmas books with Latinx main characters, beginning with the well-known Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto and illustrated by Ed Martinez. Originally published in 1992, this realistic fiction picture book tells the story of Maria, who loses her mother’s diamond ring while making tamales on Christmas Eve. The cultural tradition of making tamales at Christmas time will be familiar to many Latinx children while many other children will be able to relate to Maria’s misbehavior and the gathering of a loving, extended family.
Two other older picture books provide explanations of Christmas traditions. Published in 1994, The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola retells a Mexican legend of how the poinsettia flower came to be associated with Christmas. The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya and illustrated by Edward Gonzales, published in 1995, is historical fiction account of how a little girl invented farolitos, a New Mexican tradition of turning paper bags, sand, and candles into lanterns that decorate houses and light pathways at Christmas time.
In more recent work, A Piñata in a Pine Tree by Pat Mora and illustrated by Magaly Morales adapts the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas in a colorful, bouncy, codeswitching rhyme. The traditional gifts of golden rings and partridges are switched out with items that will be familiar to many Latinx children such as tamales, pastelitos, and piñatas. ‘Twas Nochebuena: A Christmas Story in English and Spanish by Roseanne Greenfield Thong and illustrated by Sara Palacios is another loose adaptation, this time of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. Spanish words are incorporated into the rhyming text as the reader experiences Christmas Eve with a young girl and her family.
The remaining three books share Christmas stories from different Latinx communities. The lively fantasy Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid by Xavier Garza is set in South Texas, where Mexican American Pancho helps out his cousin Santa Claus by delivering gifts along the US/Mexico border. La Nochebuena: A Christmas Story by Antonio Sacre and illustrated by Angela Dominguez, is set in a Cuban American community in Miami. In this realistic fiction tale Nina visits her father and extended family for Christmas and learns how the Cuban side of her family celebrates. Finally, Miracle on 133rd Street by Sonia Manzano and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman is set in a multicultural community in New York City. Puerto Rican José and his family almost have Christmas ruined when they realize that their roast is too big to fit in their oven. The results of their ingenious solution help bring the lonely and curmudgeonly people in his apartment building together for a joyous Christmas celebration.
The books mentioned here all portray Latinx characters during a special time—the winter holidays—in their daily lives. They also show some of the diversity of the Latinx people, with stories from New Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban communities. Latinx children will find things in this set of books that affirms their culture and families, but all children will benefit from reading books that feature Latinx people in a broader range of situations and settings than is often experienced through children’s literature.
What other holiday picture books have Latinx main characters? Let me know in the comments.
Children’s Literature Cited
Anaya, R. (1995). The Farolitos of Christmas. New York, NY: Hyperion.
dePaola, T. (1994). The Legend of the Poinsettia. New York, NY: Putnam.
Garza, X. (2008). Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
Manzano, S. (2015). Miracle on 133rd Street. New York, NY: Atheneum.
Mora, P. (2009). Gracias/Thanks. New York, NY: Lee & Low Books.
Mora, P. (2009). A Piñata in a Pine Tree. New York, NY: Clarion Books.
Sacre, A. (2010). La Nochebuena: A Christmas Story. New York, NY: Abrams.
Soto, G. (1992). Too Many Tamales. New York, NY: Putnam.
Thong, R. G. (2014). ‘Twas Nochebuena: A Christmas Story in English and Spanish. New York, NY: Viking Books.
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