Lately I’ve been thinking of a challenge that has come along with the many wonderful things that surrounded the publication of Martí’s Song for Freedom. It’s the day-in and day-out confrontation with the inequalities that surround children’s lives. These inequalities aren’t news to me or anyone else, but because in any given month or week I’ll visit a range of schools, I’m now swimming in it.
On a Monday, the Parents’ Association in an affluent school district will invite me to give an author visit. The children will ask me if I am friends with a handful of very well-known authors, and then tell me about how they met them when they visited the school last year, last month, sometimes even last week. The librarian will be an immediate kindred spirit who knows children’s books inside and out, and the library will look like a fairy-tale palace. On a Wednesday, sometimes through Title I funding, sometimes through a lovely and generous foundation, sometimes through the fundraising efforts of the community, I’ll be invited to give an author visit in a school where the majority of children receive free or reduced-price lunch. The library will have been closed due to recent budget cuts, and the school will rely on foundation visits, donations to their classroom libraries, or a nearby public library system to get books into kids’ hands.
With the exception of my trips to Miami (a majority Latinx city) the Monday schools are likely to be mostly white kids, and the Wednesday schools are more likely to be black and brown, and to speak my language (literally). In both scenarios, many of the faculty and staff are likely to be white, so I become a sort of cultural intermediary: racially, culturally, and linguistically more connected to the students at the poorer schools, but carrying a fancy education and the status of an author that makes white professionals much more likely to accept and identify with me. Because I am a bilingual Latina, I am, very rationally, more likely to be invited to schools whose demographics are more Latinx, which I adore. For someone who has felt all my life as if I didn’t belong, it heals my soul to be in a room full of Latinx children celebrating our experiences and history.
I am enormously, profoundly grateful to the people who make these visits possible for poorer schools. I am moved by the #KidsNeedBooks movement and author/educator collaborations that get books to children. But I wish we could all take a step back and reflect for a minute on how many things have to go wrong in a society before teachers and authors have to take it upon themselves to get books into kids’ hands for summer. I love these book drives and everything they represent: a collective commitment to literacy, a grassroots movement.
And. And. I’m really furious that this is what we have been reduced to. Because there is no reason on earth why these children should not have adequate media access, three hundred and sixty five days a year, year in and year out, through their schools and public libraries. We are a fabulously wealthy nation. We have a long and beautiful history of investing in public institutions, a history that enabled previous generations of poor immigrants to succeed and to become responsible citizens of a democracy. If we made that same investment in the education of Latinx children, then book drives would be extras, wonderful special treats. But sometimes I fear that book drives are all that’s making up for the lack of investment that the American public at large should be making in book access for kids. I love these book drives. And we shouldn’t need them.
If kids are getting books through charitable drives instead of public education and libraries, there are kids who will never be reached. But more importantly, these drives do little to change the power dynamic between white professional and brown student. Because I don’t believe that books for kids should be a nice unusual treat. I think children’s books are the lifeblood of democracy. They are the first and most important tool in learning. We don’t ask carpenters to build cabinets with only an occasional donation of plywood, and we shouldn’t ask anyone to learn to read without steady access to books.
I believe that kids deserve books, just like I believe that kids deserve healthcare, adequate food and appropriate shelter. I believe they deserve it so deeply that the reason we all work should be precisely so we can pay the taxes that allow us to further our tradition of school and public libraries. I’m still angry at this administration’s new tax law because of the children it will leave with even fewer resources in their schools, even less access to media.
I think I’m angrier than the average author because it’s not just any kids who don’t get what they deserve when we refuse to make a public investment in children. It’s my type of kids: some not insignificant percentage of the kids in question here are Latinx kids, many of whom speak Spanish at home. They will grow up thinking that they only deserve books when some well-meaning white person decides to give them books. I hate that. They deserve books every day of the year. They are children, they are growing, they are learning, and they are living in a wealthy nation that can well afford to buy them books.
I think it is good for children’s authors to donate books. I think it is good for teachers to donate books. But I think it is most important for us to be politically engaged and remember that all of our statements about diverse literature are empty statements until we become advocates for public investment in children’s media access.
By Emma Otheguy
Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
Lee & Low Books
Publication Date: July 1, 2017