Stories from Afar: Using Children's and Young Adult Literature to Teach about Latin America

Article excerpt

"A soul is like a deep longing in you that you can never fill up, but you try. That is why there are stirring poems and brave heroes who die for what is right."

--Minerva, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

An evocative piece of literature has the potential to move, rouse, and incite. Teachers have long noted that students who ordinarily are not interested in reading the classroom textbook, can become interested in an event, time period, or culture, when introduced to a richly descriptive storybook or novel. Some educators are now asserting that providing students with books that interest them may even help close the achievement gap. (1)

In teaching about Latin America and the Caribbean, bringing a human dimension to the study of the region is essential. Texts on the region can be dull and lifeless or even biased and skewed. (2) Introducing students to the region by exploring prose, poetry, and picture books helps to illustrate the rich diversity found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and helps to give a human face to people who are often exoticized or ostracized.

For Hispanic students, incorporating culturally relevant texts into the curriculum can be especially beneficial. Students' engagement in reading tends to increase when culturally relevant literature and nonfiction are provided. (3) This type of print media helps students understand the sociological aspects of language, further strengthening and developing language skills while allowing them to explore ethnic identity. (4) Hinton and Dickinson argue that providing students and teachers with print media in which cultural awareness and sensitivity are apparent--books with multicultural characters, settings, and themes--is critical in our efforts to close the achievement gap. (5)

While it was at one point difficult to find high quality trade books about Latin America and the Caribbean for young people, teachers today have a plethora of excellent literature from which to choose. Many books have been translated from Spanish, French, Portuguese, and other languages and made available in the United States. Reading books that were written by people from the region can lend further authenticity to the study of a culture and can capture nuances in language and customs.

Picture Books and Children's Literature

In the elementary classroom, incorporating children's literature is an effective way to develop children's knowledge about the world around them. Creative teachers can use trade books to help students process information, examine alternate points of view, differentiate fact from opinion, and solve problems. (6) Further, picture books not only stimulate student interest in culture, history, and geography, but can also bolster understanding of geographic concepts and historical events. (7)

As in other regions, folktales abound in Latin America and the Caribbean. Legends that reflect myths, folklore, and traditions are an excellent way to introduce students to the history and beliefs of a people. In addition to highlighting the unique differences of a culture, folktales can also draw attention to universal human themes. Llama and the Great Flood by Ellen Alexander, for example, is a Peruvian folktale about the Great Flood.

Since children delight in rhythmic language, books that feature rhymes, chants, and poetry capture students' interest while simultaneously imparting information about traditions and customs. A collection such as Arroz con Leche, by Lulu Declare, introduces children to popular Latin American songs and chants and has an accompanying cassette tape to assist the teacher in presenting the bilingual text.

For older elementary students, biographies can be especially compelling since students in the upper elementary grades identify closely with biographical characters. (8) Latin America and the Caribbean have their share of fantastic, larger-than-life personages to inspire and ignite students' imaginations. …