When I was growing up, my favorite book was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. At first glance, that declaration seems simple enough, until you dig a little deeper into the vast differences between Billy, the main character, and me.
Billy was a white boy (with a part Cherokee mother) growing up in the Ozark Mountains somewhere in Missouri. I was a Mexican girl growing up in a small city along the Texas-Mexico border. For all practical purposes, Billy and I were from two different planets. At the time I read the book for the first time in fifth grade, I had never eaten salt pork or cornbread; I'd never hunted a "coon"; and I'd never seen mountains. I lived in the flattest piece of land in the US, the Rio Grande Valley, in one of its poorest counties.
As a kid, the gaping gender, ethnic, and geographical differences between Billy and me did not matter to me. I understood Billy. The book touched my heart because I saw so much of myself in Billy's story. I loved my dogs and had experienced the pain of losing a beloved pet. I respected the land where I was growing up. I had a close knit relationship with my family. I believed in legends, magic, and the power of love.
Can you imagine if a teacher or librarian had discouraged me, the daughter of Mexican immigrants growing up in a barrio, from reading Red Fern because he or she thought I would not be able to relate to Billy, a character from a background so different from mine? I would have missed out on one of the greatest children's books ever written. I read Red Fern with my kids recently, and they loved the book. We laughed and cried along with Billy. My daughter is a strict vegetarian, and she did not even blink at all the hunting in the story. All that mattered to her was being able to experience the love between Billy and his dogs.
I recently read Guadalupe Garcia McCall's beautiful retelling of The Odyssey, Summer of the Mariposas. If you have not read this YA magical realism novel featuring five Mexican-American sisters living along the Texas-Mexico border, please do so. The prose is striking, the pacing is perfect, and the blending of Aztec and Mexican culture into the story is done seamlessly. I could relate to Odilia, the main character, because she was essentially me. When I finished this brilliant book, I could not help but wonder if there was a young boy in the Ozarks reading this book and relating to its themes of sibling bond and rivalry, forgiveness and redemption, and emerging emotionally intact after parent's divorce with the determination for a fresh start. It would be such a shame if a teacher, librarian, or other adult discouraged a boy or a child of an ethnicity other than Mexican, or someone who does not live along the Texas-Mexico border, from reading Mariposas for concern that they would not be able to relate to these characters.
Following the advice of write what you know, I write books where my main character is usually a young Mexican-American girl, like the sisters in Summer of the Mariposas. My protagonist usually speaks Spanish as well as English. She eats beans, tortillas, and chilaquiles. She loves. She hurts. She fails. She has flaws. She dreams. She makes mistakes. She redeems. She has thoughts and experiences that any one can understand, regardless of their gender, orientation, race, or geographical location. #WeNeedDiverseBooks to show readers that deep down inside, we are not that different after all.
Readers, do not be afraid to read books whose characters look, think, or act different that you do. Parents, librarians, and teachers: take the time to put books with diverse characters in the hands of the children in your charge. Don't discourage them when they do pick up a diverse book for themselves. If you work in a library or bookstore, display these books prominently and with pride so kids have easy access to them. For great lists of diverse books or more information about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, visit their website.
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