Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘multicultural literature for young people

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

BibiBelfordBibi Belford graduated with a B.A. in English and her masters in Bilingual Literacy. She worked as a playground supervisor for children of migrant workers and later as a literacy coach and reading interventionist for an elementary school in Illinois, before she retired and turned to writing middle grade novels. She’s also a mom of four grown children.

As a teacher and a mother, there was always something to do instead of write. When Belford finally got the time to write, she drew on those experiences to fill her fiction. Her students would always tell her that they couldn’t find any books they liked. Belford observed too that finding a book with a Hispanic protagonist tend to prove difficult. And so she wrote a story about Sandro Zapote, “whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork. His little sister has a heart ailment, and because his mom was born in the United States, she can take her back to Mexico for treatment.”

Find out more in my interview below and also check out my review tomorrow of her first novel Canned and Crushed. Save the date: March 24!

ALLISON: If you were to write the story of your childhood, what would be the highlights?

BIBI: My childhood was very strict, but because of the era, very free at the same time. After breakfast in the summer, we took off with our neighborhood buddies and roamed wherever we wanted to. During the school year, we rushed home, changed our clothes and disappeared for hours. We played baseball in the open fields, rode bikes on dirt roads with potholes, and invented all kinds of mysterious adventures that involved spying and treasure. We built our own ramps and sledding hills. We climbed trees and made forts with leftover lumber. When the six o’clock whistle blew, we hightailed it home for dinner.

BIBI: My father was a college professor and my mom stayed home with the kids, but she had a teaching degree. We were not allowed to say we were bored or they put us to work.

In today’s terms my family would have been considered low socioeconomic. I had two pairs of shoes. This year’s school shoes and last year’s school shoes. We drank powdered orange juice, called Tang and ate Spam. We helped pick fruits and vegetables and “put them up” which is nice way to say we ate our own canned produce because it was cheaper than canned goods from the grocery store. We didn’t own a TV until I was nine and most gifts I got for were used, but lovingly reconditioned by my mom or dad. One year they gave my brothers and me a huge chalkboard by painting the wall of the basement black. I made the mistake of saying I might want to be a doctor someday and that year I received a kid-sized microscope for my birthday. Weird!

ALLISON: Middle school is a time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult. How easy or difficult was that change for you?

BIBI: Well, here’s where having strict parents was not helpful. When other girls were wearing mini-skirts and listening to the Beatles, I wasn’t allowed to look or act like everyone else. I was very irresponsible and lost things frequently, so they made me carry a briefcase to school to stay organized. And my parents refused to let me quit playing a musical instrument, even though I begged them everyday. So, if you can imagine a very short, middle school girl with glasses, riding a bike to school everyday with a briefcase in the basket on the right and a clarinet in the basket on the left, you will get a good idea of the super nerd I was, back when being a nerd was not popular! Worst of all, I wore an undershirt instead of a you-know-what and at that time the Beatles big hit song was Ba-Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann. I won’t put in the details of the cruel song that kids sang when I rode by on my bike.

ALLISON: Why did you become a teacher? What is your biggest challenge in getting kids to read?

BIBI: I took a job working in a nursing home when I was in high school so I could get experience for my career as a doctor or a nurse. We were called candy-stripers. I quit after one week.

I realized I would never become a nurse or a doctor, so I decided I wanted to be a writer. I loved writing stories and my friends and I even had a little writing club. I graduated early from high school and my English teacher wrote a letter to the college I planned to attend, exempting me from basic college English, so I was able to start right out in the advanced level classes in January. I was in way over my head, but loved my professor and worked hard. The following year, I enrolled in journalism classes, but when I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper about the price gouging of the local grocery store compared to the stores downtown, the store manager called me and made me feel so bad, I knew I couldn’t be a newspaper reporter.

So…. that left me to fall back on the other thing I was good at. Teaching kids. In California, teachers had to have an academic major, so I got an English major and a fifth-year masters in Education. I also spoke Spanish, so I did my student teaching in bilingual classrooms and worked on migrant playgrounds while I lived there. I believe I’ve taught over 1,000 kids to read. The biggest challenge is finding the student’s strength and teaching them using that strength. So many times when a student is considered a struggling reader, they start to struggle with self-esteem. Building up both the self-esteem and the reading proficiency can be challenging.

ALLISON: You’re now in your sixties. What has been your favorite age—childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, senior? Why?

BIBI: Whew. That’s a loaded question. If I created people, I think I would do it backwards. Start them out old, and then as they learn and mature, give them more time to enjoy life by having them grow younger. I love the wisdom I have about life, but hate the wrinkles and the arthritis that goes along with it. I would definitely not go back to those middle school days, but my college days opened up whole new worlds. I learned to surf and mountain climb. I babysat for some famous people and became a nanny. Being a mother of four kids ranks right up there with the best years of my life.

ALLISON: What is it like to be retired but essentially starting a new career?

BIBI: At first I felt very isolated and unmotivated. I missed all my teacher friends and wondered if I made the right decision, but the rough draft was due to my editor in January, so that kept me going. I decided to volunteer at a school in Chicago two mornings a week and Fridays at my old school and that has been wonderful. It keeps me in touch with kids, allows me to share my expertise, and gives some structure to the week. I’m not great with the whole marketing, publicity thing, but I’m learning and that also keeps me busy.

ALLISON: What advice would you offer to other aspiring mature authors?

BIBI: The biggest thing people say to me is, “I’m writing a …” and I say, “Is it finished?” They always say, “No.” Until you finish the story, you can’t evaluate whether your character has completed an arc. You can’t edit or revise. Don’t get hung up on carving out the perfect writing schedule or space. Know your target audience. Then just sit down and write. Get a routine. I eat pistachio nuts and write outside when I can. I always read some inspirational material, either from a devotional, a writing magazine or one of my favorite writing books.

ALLISON: You write for middle-grade students. Any thoughts of writing for other ages? Why or why not?

BIBI: I originally thought I wanted to write for the YA market. I pitched a story about two girls from completely different backgrounds who both have self-injury issues and meet in therapy. However, it wasn’t edgy enough and I had not done my research on the market expectations. The girls were a little young for the YA market, but their problems were a little too mature for the middle-grade market. So, when the agents and editors I was pitching asked if I had anything else, I quickly summarized Canned and Crushed, even though it wasn’t half done. Now that I’ve been reading middle-grade and writing middle-grade, I really love that age and the range it offers.

ALLISON: What experiences did you draw to write Canned or Crushed?

BIBI: Most of the events in Canned and Crushed either really happened to me as a teacher, or are a combination of things that really happened. I really did have a student who spit down the stairwell from the third floor. I really did have a student whose father collected road kill. One of my neighbor’s sons was hospitalized for Kawasaki Disease. And one of my students had no insurance and missed two weeks of school because she went to Mexico for eye surgery and stayed with her grandparents. Of course, some experiences come from my children’s lives, but what happens in the family, stays in the family.

ALLISON: Both your current novel and your upcoming novel fall into the category of multicultural literature? What drew you to this type of literature?

BIBI: I actually wrote Canned and Crushed for one of my former students. I was walking in the fourth grade hallway and he came up to hug me. He had worked really hard for three years, learning to read in my reading program. I asked him what he was reading now that he was in fourth grade and he told me he couldn’t find anything he liked to read. I asked him what he wanted to read, and he said, you know, books with kids like me. I asked him if he would read a book if I wrote it, and he said yes. That’s when I started writing Canned and Crushed and one year later, I was able to read the chapters of Canned and Crushed to his fifth grade sheltered/bilingual class before it was published. He was pretty excited. And he did read it!

I think kids want to read about real people with real problems. When they relate to a character, they just might be able to triumph over life’s problems like the character, and be their own hero. I want to write books about characters whose stories just have to be told.

The second book, Crossing the Line, deals with prejudice, and how we all must “cross the line” to stand in the gap when groups are marginalized. My husband and I were biking along the lake shore and stopped to read a dedication plague to a boy named Eugene Williams. When we got home I started researching and my heart broke when I realized his death was the inciting event in the worst race riots in Chicago. And yet, here we are today and what have we learned? Chicago is a very segregated city with a lot of racial prejudice.

I wanted to write a book showing how friendships can bring about change. A group of fifth graders just finished reading the first draft for their literature circle book and they gave me their annotated copies. They all identified the theme as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And many of them added, “We have the same problems they had in 1919.” I’m working on a companion book to Canned and Crushed right now, and it’s about a little girl learning to deal with her new diagnosis of diabetes and worrying she won’t be able to do the things she loves to do. One of my favorite girls at school had this problem and her mom told me that there’s a very high incidence of diabetes in Latinos, which I didn’t know.

ALLISON: What else do you like to do besides write?

BIBI: I would love to say something really grand, like scuba dive or rescue rhinoceroses, but I guess I’m a little boring. Read at the beach. Watch movies and eat popcorn. Sew for my granddaughter Hazel, the princess! Facetime with my grandkids: Hazel and Hank. Bike along the lakefront in Chicago. Go out to eat with Groupons. There’s sooooo many restaurants in Chicago.

Fifteen books later, I have finished with my first year of writing reviews for MOSAIC, a local committee which was formed within my school district to evaluate multicultural materials available to children and youth. Posting on a daily basis, either in the form of cultural information or book review, proved demanding on my time and energy but also rewarding  because of the gems which I found.

To my surprise, picture books were the winners! Of the seven sent to me, all of them I recommended for inclusion in the MOSAIC collection and gave at least a “Borrow” status to at my blog. They hailed from authors living here in the United States or Canada or from Africa or Latin America. Two addressed religious traditions, one Jewish and one Tibetan. If I had to pick a favorite, it might be Because Amelia Smiled. The clever way in which David Ezra Stein created a positive tribute to cultures by taking readers on a whimsical trip across the world brought to memory a childhood game called World Wide Travel. Oddly enough, the only reason I even agreed to read picture books is that I thought reading fifteen regular books in one month might prove impossible.

To my disappointment, chapter books were the most lackluster. Okay, that might not be a fair statement, given that I only read two of them. Yet these two have not been the first for which I’ve been tempted to excuse the simplistic style as being appropriate because of the age of its audience. The majority of the picture books blew me away by the beauty of their diction–and yet those for our youngest readers. Multicultural or not, I’m still waiting for chapter books to excite me.

Last, there were the juvenile and young adult books. These formed a mixed collection. Of the five sent me, three I recommended for inclusion in the MOSAIC collection and gave at least a “Borrow” status to at my blog. All but one hailed from authors living here in the United States; the exception is The Glass Collector which is by English author Anna Perera. However, two described cultures outside of North America, one being about Egypt and the other set in Japan. Finally, one focused on Latin American students, while another portrayed a soccer team composed of refugees from all over the world. Unlike with the picture books, I don’t think I can pick a favorite from the three I recommended. You should seek out all of them!

Ironically, one thing I tried to avoid at my blog is setting aside one month to read multicultural books. Rather, I prefer to pick diverse selections throughout the year. Unfortunately, by using my spring break (and the subsequent weeks) to focus on books from MOSAIC, I do risk falling into the trap of compartmentalizing my reading selections. Laying ahead of me now, however, is a long stretch of months where I’ll review classics, best sellers, advanced copies, student favorites, and other groupings. Hopefully, these will also have their own diversities.

For your convenience, listed below are the books which I reviewed for MOSAIC. By clicking on any of them, you can find my review, links to other reviews, and links to background information that can help you make your own decision about whether the author accurately portrayed the culture they wrote about.

Evaluating Multicultural Books


Jimmy the Greatest by Jairo Buitrago

The Herd Boy by Niki Daly

Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue by Heidi Smith Hyde

Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockcliff

Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure by Naomi Rose

Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein

The Matatu by Eric Walters


The Hijab Boutique by Michelle Khan

The Paper House by Lois Peterson


Fighting for Dontae by Mike Castan

The Glass Collector by Anna Perera

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town by Warren St. John

Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

After my multicultural reading experiment of last spring, I joined a local committee called MOSAIC which was formed to evaluate multicultural materials available to children and youth. As part of my membership, I attend meetings where I see presentations on multicultural books, hear speakers from diverse backgrounds, and receive handouts which help me to better analyze books. Last, along with others, I write reviews of the new books sent to MOSAIC.

This March, I’ll take my first stab at that last commitment. In doing so, I’ll read fifteen books from MOSAIC’s  2013 preview list of multicultural books. When I sent in my request for books, I specified that my main interests were:

  • fantasy for girls or boys
  • realistic fiction with male leads
  • books from cultures less often represented in American children’s fiction

Although the lady whom I contacted tried her best to oblige, she had to stray somewhat from my request due to the limited number of books that met my criteria. For instance, few fantasy selections were submitted to MOSAIC this year. With my request for books from cultures less often represented I was more successful, to the point that I started to feel overwhelmed.

That’s when I began to question my abilities to handle this task. Will I be able to discern cultural bias? Will I be able to recognize if the culture is accurately portrayed?

These are the challenges faced by other members of MOSAIC too. In response, some members restrict themselves to books from one or two specific cultures. So far, I haven’t, but that leaves me with the challenging task of researching numerous cultures.

To start that process, I collected links to websites about evaluating multicultural literature. If you have recommendations of others, please post in a comment.

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