Known for his scholarship on Latinx popular culture and comics, Frederick Luis Aldama just expanded his repertoire with another book—this one on Latinx children’s picture books and Young Adult literature, inspired by the books he began reading to his daughter, Corina. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and released earlier this year, Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling includes a foreword by Jamie Campbell Naidoo, a preface by Norma Elia Cantú, and an afterword by Belinda G. Acosta.
Aldama’s introduction surveys the field of Latinx children’s and YA literature while also commenting on industry standards, the challenges of working with mainstream publishers, and limitations within national awards such as the Caldecott and Newberry Medals. Of course, Aldama examines alternative options that Latinx authors and illustrators may turn to: smaller or independent publishers such as Arte Público and Cinco Puntos Press, and awards such as the Pura Belpré Award, the Américas Award, and the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.
Unlike many anthologies that tend to prioritize authors engaged in literary criticism, this book highlights the unique perspectives of authors focused on creating fiction for children and YA. The culturally rich outcome is this collection of one-on-one interviews between Aldama and thirty-three contemporary Latinx authors and illustrators. They include award-winning authors such as Monica Brown, Angela Dominguez, Margarita Engle, Meg Medina, Yuyi Morales, Matt de la Peña, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Duncan Tonatiuh, as well as other essential narrators and artists. Many of the interviewees are extremely talented as both writers and illustrators, including Yuyi Morales and Maya Christina Gonzalez, who has also created her own independent book press. Aldama conducted the last interview with one of the great Latinx writers of our time, Judith Ortiz Cofer, not long before her untimely death.
I had the pleasure of asking Aldama a few questions for the readers of Latinx Spaces.
Of all the books you have read to your daughter, which one impacted you the most, and why?
Corina’s 11 (going on 12), so those cocoon-like sessions of reading to her while she tracked words but mostly melted into the razzle-dazzle of the visuals are, sadly, in the rear-view mirror of life. We still read together, but concurrently. On a Sunday, we’ll pick a comfy spot on the couch where we’ll dig into two of the same book (one usually on the iPad and the other from a bookshelf in the house). We’ll read cover to cover, pit-stopping for lunch, snacks, and bathroom breaks only. After the last page turns—and Corina usually beats me to the punch here—we talk about the themes and characters, usually just in time for that nightly ritual of the conversación de sobremesa.
Just this last Sunday we stepped into the shoes of the young Anita who experiences life in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo regime with my friend Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free. Corina has become very apt at spotting the technical tricks authors use to convey their meanings and emotions, and the words they most favor to shape their thoughts as materialized in their unique sentences. Like me, she refers to this complex activity and sets of choices as the author’s “will to style”—a concept I use in my other scholarship. Each time we have a blast talking about all of this.
But Isabel, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me wrench the clock hands back to that earlier time when we did envelope ourselves in the visual and verbal wrappings of Latinx children’s literature. Even before the coccyzus americanus dropped Corina off at my doorstep, I relished in the co-created bilingual children’s books of poet Francisco X. Alarcón and artist Maya Christina González. Off the cuff, I think of Laughing Tomatoes/ Jitomats risueñosand Iguanas in the Snow/Iguanas en la nieve. Alarcón’s English and Spanish poetic rhythms cascade down and float across González’s vibrant colors that sharply affirm the Amerindian ancestry we all absorb today in our daily lives and enrich with all sorts of resplendent new blends. I can recall vividly Alarcón and González’s bilingual dog/perrito: At home / we have / a bilingual dog // “guau guau” / he ﬁrst / greets you / in Spanish / and in case / you don’t / understand / him then // “bow wow” / he repeats / barking / in English.”
For many of us Latinxs, these carefully selected lines and line breaks speak worlds. The dog first speaks Spanish, then English. How amazing, too, that little ones and their parent(s) can experience the rhythms and syntax of Spanish as a vital language to create distinctively new storyworlds—and not just to think of Spanish (a la Dora the Explorer) as a tool of communication. And, there’s Pat Mora’s bilingual, Amerindian-informed The Race of Toad and Deer that affirms another mode of existing in the world: not as the individual who wins the race at any cost, but as a collective working together to accomplish a goal and positively transform the world. Another book that sits prominently on Corina’s bookshelf: Maya Christina González’s Call Me Tree. While aimed at our escuincle readers, [Corina] continues to find it fascinating how Maya chose gender neutral pronouns to gender-queer the Latinx protagonist.
Keep in mind that up till this moment in the 1990s when we began to see Latinx/Chicanx authors and artists creating bilingual Spanish/English children’s books—I add to Alarcón and González other seminal creators like Juan Felipe Herrera, Lucha Corpi, Pat Mora, Jorge Argueta—most up till this moment were not bilingual nor bicultural per se. Most were translated (rather poorly) from English to Spanish (usually a hired-hand from Spain); most were culturally appropriative and misrepresentative of our complex mestizo existence yesterday and today; and while few and far between, when there was a visual portrayal of a Latinx/Chicanx character, they inevitably had the thin, upturned nose more characteristic of Anglos than mestizo Latinxs. None of these non-Latinx/Chicanx children’s book actually opened wide those windows and doors for Latinx/Chicanx children to relish in the recognition of themselves in vitally new, expansive ways.
When we moved from Mexico to California in the 1970s, my brother and I were physically punished for speaking Spanish—and English with that “dirty Mexican” accent. The swish and smacks of rulers have left indelible phantom scars all over my hands. To this day, I hesitate to speak Spanish. To combat this and other racialized maligning, our single mamá put herself through Sacramento State to become a teacher. It only got worse. Prop 227 made it illegal—made it a crime—for our mamá to teach Spanish to new gen. Latinxs who, like me and my brother, first spoke Spanish; and, instead of supplying her with books to teach, the authorities spent monies hiring a person to walk the elementary school hallways (by decree of the principal, all classroom doors were open), punishing teachers like our mamá who slipped in a Spanish word here or there.
These draconian measures that policed the way Latinxs learn across languages are not a thing of the past. It’s why those books by Alarcón and González and many others became so important in the early life of Corina. It’s why I can’t point to any one book that had a special impact on us.
Corina sounds like an avid reader becoming more interested in chapter books or Young Adult (YA) novels as she gets older. Can you tell me more about her adventures into books that emphasize words over images?
Isabel, publishing Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling comes after years of walking lock-step with Corina in her discovery of how Latinx/Chicanx authors and artists reconstruct the building blocks of reality—beginning with the visuals as the dominant mode of triggering the imagination (pre-K-3rd grades) followed by a phase when the words become dominant and with visuals still present (4th-5th grades) followed by the current phase (6th grade-onward) where the alphabetic is the dominant in the making of the story.
As a result, I, too, have read and explored the exquisite ways that storytelling can and is shaped by words and images. For instance, as she moved more into the world of words, I shared in her delight of encountering Rhode Montijo’s Gabby Gomez (The Gumazing Gum Girl) as she learns to sharpen her chewing gum prowess into a stretch-tastic superpower used to subdue villains. And with Monica Brown (writer) and Angela Dominguez’s (artist) more word-dominant Lola Levine book series, Corina and I first met then became friends with a smart, athletic and mischievous Latinx protagonist.
Today, with the exception of those Sunday marathon reading sessions, Corina’s out running me by a long shot. I have to say that our public library, a block away, helps tremendously here. We’re fortunate. It’s a local library system, but one that’s also keyed into the greater Columbus Metropolitan library system. In short, when she comes across an author she likes, she can easily and quickly get her hands on the book, from an Alvarez to a Medina to a Ben Saenz to you name it. This is not the case for all our kids and communities. Across the country, public libraries suffer. First to the chopping block: those books that have not made it through the nearly all-Anglo mainstream reviewing, awarding, and publishing gates.
I should mention that while Corina’s now running at her own quicksilver pace, gobbling up books at every turn, she’s agnostic in her tastes—not only genres but also formats. She’s as gravitationally pulled toward alphabetic fiction (and nonfiction) as she is to comics and graphic novels. She just finished The Breadwinner in both its novel and graphic novel forms. She remains fascinated by how the image-driven comic book or graphic novel can use its particular syntax, diction, pace, panel layout, setting, perspective, geometric shape to create powerful stories. In her quick comparison between the two formats of The Breadwinner she’s captivated by how the graphic novel stretches wide the storyworld spaces and speeds up and slows down the narrative pacing of the original novel.
In your book, you mentioned that “deep immersion in storyworlds by and about Latinos can lead to greater plasticity in the reader’s cognitive schemas about the world”. Can you elaborate further?
We often talk about the importance of children’s and young adult fiction and nonfiction as important spaces where doors and windows can open into recognizable, yet imaginatively wondrous and enrichingly new places. Some also add the concept of the mirror: that for Latinx children and youth, it’s important to see themselves in these storyworlds, not in a restrictive, isolationist and closed sense but as a first warm welcome to a journey that will take them through thresholds (doors and windows) into exciting new affective and cognitive experiences.
Research in childhood and teen cognitive development shows over and over again that the more of these mirrors, doors, and windows there are in the psychological and social growth of children and teens, the more flexible, open, and imaginative they will be as adults. To put it concretely and in Latinx terms, if a child is raised in a household where the dominant schemas of Latinxs are that we are lazy or exotic or a threat or a sexual object, it’s likely that this will harden into an affective and cognitive adult self that’s underdeveloped and shaped by alienation, hate, and even racism.
Of course, human beings are not grown in petri dishes. No matter how confined a child is, the complex world mostly finds its way into the development of the child. And, children and youth (even adults) generally are not passive sponges. They are active re-creators of all that they encounter. However, we can also work to be sure that children and youth generally have access to a whole multiplicity of experiences—Latinx included. We can do this in so many ways, including fighting in solidarity for a planetary diversity as materialized in libraries and librarians, teachers, curricula, and publishing industries. Imagine a library filled with polycultural and polylingual fiction; where all readers experience how the crisscrossing of languages carves out new sound systems and deploys new narrative and rhetorical strategies to engage the readers.
Absolutely! One of your reoccurring questions pertained to risk. What would you say are some of the risks you took in organizing this book as you did—with interviews at the center?
This is an excellent question, Isabel, and one that goes beyond the way I conceived of this book. In the rather recent history of the shaping of academic literary studies writ large, the author and creator fell out of favor. There’s a whole bunch of stuff here that I can’t go into in detail. Compressed in a few sentences, I can mention a sequence of sorts that started with a reaction against a belletristic examination of literary texts and a spread of the so called new criticism in academia, followed by modes of interpretation based on proclamations about the death of the author and the concomitant “libertarian” approach of “anything-goes” in matters concerning textual analysis. I’ll save you and me from this exhaustive and exhausting story that lasted decades. Suffice it to say that this way of working with texts became very popular in literature departments but focused almost exclusively in white (mostly male) authors.
Some scholars rejected this approach and kept alive the interest in the creative process and the author. Such was my case. Early on in my career I was aware that Latinx lit. crit. never really had gotten a chance to affirm the Latinx author as willful creator of rich, complex narratives with the potential to open eyes and move readers. So quite early on I published books like Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists,as well as a critical biography of author, poet, and scholar Arturo Islas entitled Dancing with Ghosts. It’s also why later on as a scholar I continued forging new concepts and new approaches to further this work in ever diverse fields, for instance by center-staging Latinx comic book creators in my analyses and by amplifying means to reach new readers while launching new book series such as “Latinx & Latin American Profiles,” with University of Pittsburgh Press. This series is thriving precisely because there are so many of us who want to learn from the experiences and wisdom of our Latinx creators.
Let me add to this reflection that I was able do all this because to a certain extent I found ways and means to jump through the approved academic hoops. My tenure book was very text-only oriented; it was also, to my mind, very difficult to read. This clashed with my intellectual aspirations and led me to set my sights on writing Islas’ biography, devoting a series of books nearly exclusively to Latinx creators, and establishing a Latinx profiles academic book series. A hard look at the existing options and a firm decision to create new ones freed me from the straight-jacket of academic surveillance structures that tend to control what counts and doesn’t count as valid in the tenuring system.
How did your prior interest and scholarship on comics influence this book?
Today, Latinx creators have many options for telling stories. With the digital and Internet revolution having come into its own, we now see Latinxs crowd sourcing funds to create high-production looking webisodes like Brujos—a show that’s streamable on open platforms like YouTube. However, there’s nothing cheaper than a pen, pencil, and paper for creating stories. Now, given the histories of Latinx exclusion from storytelling centers of production—from East Coast titans like Norton and Doubleday to Marvel and DC—there is a deep, long, and vital tradition of Latinxs going guerilla-DIY style in the making of narratives. We see this with comics like Los Bros Hernandez’s Love & Rockets in the early 1980s to Laura Molina’s Jaguar in the 1990s and so many others then and now.
Of course, storytelling in comics and other media usually demands considerable amounts of time as well as much individual talent and much work done in creative combinations of crafts. To produce a visual and verbal storyworld often requires the meeting of creative and empathetic minds with the ability to join efforts in the same endeavor. In Your Brain on Latino Comics, I not only wanted to alert people to the significant presence of our Latinx comic book creators, but I wanted to begin to lay out a way to appreciate just how their visuals (dominant) and verbal (subordinate) choices worked to engage our imaginations.
Obviously, the main generator behind children’s narratives is the visual. Us parents usually read the words out loud while the child meanders imaginatively in and through the visuals; clearly, children do this near-automatically. If a children’s book is on hand, children don’t require someone to read it to them at all. They just pick it up and freely move from page to page, from image to image co-creating any and all kinds of storyworlds as triggered more or less contingently by the visuals in keeping with age and other variables.
While the visuals play the main role in children’s narratives, they play an almost equivalent one in comics. The marked difference between them is in the way segmentation is done. No matter how a creator of children’s books chooses to segment, or break up the visual units—usually units of action and interaction—there is always the concern to allow visuals a large breathing space and thus to systematically allocate for a single action or scene a whole page or even two consecutive pages. This is less the case with comics where the segmenting or visual breaks usually happen multiple times per page. Generally, a comic book cuts up the page with gutters that segment the action into 6 frames or panels. There are moments that are highlighted by omitting segmentation within the page and allowing a single action to take over an entire page, but it’s not the norm.
These and other differences are significant and do make a difference with respect to the role and the interpretation of images; they remind us it is important that we pull ourselves away from the strong tendency to analyze the verbal aspects only or almost exclusively. For those of us trained in literature departments this can be an especially difficult challenge. We need to step over into the world of how art (perspective, line, color, angle, trace width, segmentation and so on) geometrizes the narrative. We need to do this with comics just as we need to do this to enrich our understanding of how children’s books work.
Apart from graphic novels, Young Adult (YA) literature tends to prioritize text over illustrations. Why was it important for you to combine children’s picture books with YA lit within this collection of storytellers?
I’m following Corina’s chronology and lead here, Isabel. On the one hand, there are of course significant differences between children’s books and YA literature. I knew this intuitively a long time ago just by looking into my own development from niño to tween to teen. Much later I was able to see it directly in Corina’s evolution as I followed her along the path she was creating for herself in seeking to satisfy her insatiable appetite for all things narrative, from her constant awe and curiosity and concentration in diapers to her near-total autonomy and ever more omnivorous proclivities today.
However, along the way and as I see things today with Corina, this is far from being a hard-and-fast teleology of interest and desire to read: a straight line from visual-dominant to alphabetic-only narratives. The fascination with fiction is capacious and knows no borders, neither mental nor physical. Corina’s bedside stand currently has: Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and Medina and Angela Dominguez’s Mango, Abuela, and Me. She makes distinctions on the basis of perceived merits, she doesn’t discriminate against genres. Nor should we.
Many of the interviewees are both authors and illustrators. Were you surprised by that? Why or why not?
Isabel, part of the, say, scholarly work to understand how the visuals operate in comics and children’s books also entails the need to put the artists in the spotlight. Often, they get short shrift in mainstream reviews—and by critics and scholars who only interpret and analyze the alphabetic parts of the narratives. By not attending to what I call the geometrizing of the narrative one risks amputating the story altogether.
Even before I conducted the first interview, I knew that I wanted the artists to be heard—and loud. It’s amazing the kind of insight they bring. We learn of the challenges Joe Cepeda faces “to make sure that with each turn of the page, the paintings carry the story along in a satisfying and gratifying way.” The careful visual choices Angela Dominguez makes to create images that are “bold but not overworked.” How Rhode Montijo takes his practice of thumbnail sketching in different directions to create his comics and children’s books. Why Yuyi Morales chose to illustrate Viva Frida! with puppets. And, how Duncan Tonatiuh hand-draws, scans, creates multiply textured digital collages to at once honor the past and make visual narratives that engage today’s Latinx children.
There’s such a repository of know-how and insight into the different and unique ways visuals are made into powerful generators of narratives by each artist that it becomes unavoidable to develop a keen interest in their worldviews, their experiences, their technical achievements, their creativity and their ambitions. How could we not attend carefully to the artists themselves, don’t you think?
When Latinx authors create for young children who are already in the full swing of literacy, the visuals continue to play an important albeit somewhat diminished role in triggering the child’s gap-filling processes. Art in children’s books suffers a decrease in prestige when compared with alphabetic content in “serious” books. But this does not mean relinquishing art. The visuals for middle-grade readers tend to fall more on the comic book or cartoon side of the representational spectrum—and not toward the realism of a photograph.
For instance, in Monica Brown’s Lola Levine series of books, the visuals punctuate a dominance of text narrative. And these visuals express character and theme in, say, a more comic book drawn and geometric format. The artist Angela Dominguez chooses to distill from the building blocks of reality Latino children as brown-skinned kids bearing big heads and displaying saucer eyes and small body frames.
In the book, you also mentioned that Gabby Rivera, author of Juliet Takes a Breath (2016), was not available for an interview. In addition to Rivera, which other authors and illustrators would you have liked to include, and why?
Every book begins with a strong desire and an ideal conception. At this stage, Gabby was one of the authors I strongly wanted to interview. Not only because of her much-needed Latinx queer intervention into the YA fiction marketplace, but also to hear about her invention of America Chavez: she was tapped as the writer for Marvel’s launch of the first Latinx lesbian protagonist-led comic series, America. Like others on my dream list—such as Julia Alvarez, Carmen Tafolloa, Junot Díaz, Cristina García, Rigobeto González, and Helena Maria Viramontes—Gabby Rivera was just too busy. Others like Nicholasa Mohr proved impossible to find—even with all the information circulating on the Internet today.
There were many others on the list who I would have loved to be the cypher for but who remain with us as ever-present and yet distant paradigms: Gloria Anzaldúa, Mario Suárez, María Cristina Mena, and Tomás Rivera, for instance. Fortunately, I was able to reach Judith Ortiz Cofer just before she died and this immense author is present in the pages of the book. And, there is the curious case of Gary Soto. After he wrote the story “Marisol” (based on the American Doll of the same name) and was viciously and opportunistically attacked, he decided to get out of the children’s and YA literature business. He told me that if interviewed, he would have nothing but vitriol to share.
Anything else you would like to add?
Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling is about putting our creators front and center. It’s also about helping to build a level, scholarly playing field. Latinx children’s and YA literature deserves as much scholarly attention as adult literature. If we give it this, professors, critics, editors, librarians and our current and future generations of readers will see just how exquisitely and conscientiously they shape our complex connections to the present and past; to our land, cities, nations, and languages; to our abuelxs and bisabuelxs; to hardship and healing; to situations of deep shame and trauma; to nonbiological kinships and to the achievements of the human species as a whole. It can open eyes to the wondrous and resplendent ways that Latinx children’s and YA literature clears spaces for affirmation, healing, and happiness.
Thank you for sharing these passionate words with all of us!
Isabel Millán is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Oregon.
Frederick Luis Aldama is University Distinguished Scholar as well as Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University