Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones

Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones

Article excerpt

This study illustrates the presence of Mock Spanish in some English-based picture books and the ways this usage misrepresents Latino people, language, and culture.

AS THE LATINO1 POPULATION in the United States increases each year, the number of children's books published by and about Latinos grows much more slowly. In 2011, of approximately 3,400 multicultural books received at the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) only 52 were by Latino authors and/or illustrators (Horning, Lindgren, & Schliesman, 2012). Moreover, among books written about Latinos, especially by cultural outsiders, not all represent Latinos' languages and cultures in ways that promote cultural understanding and avoid stereotypes. Unfortunately, when it comes to books about cultures different from our own, we as readers sometimes feel at a loss, lacking criteria to recognize whether a book promotes understanding and acceptance of others or contains stereotypical images. This challenge has special implications for teachers trying to mediate their students' transactions with multicultural literature, literature that challenges the existing canon by including the stories, experiences, and perspectives of traditionally underrepresented groups (Cai & Bishop, 1994; Fox & Short, 2003). To support teachers' efforts in selecting and integrating high-quality literature in their classrooms, it is crucial to continue developing language for examining stereotypical representations of characters and cultures in children's books. This article considers how language in general, and Spanish in particular, can be examined in English-based picture books as we evaluate their success or failure in representing Latinos and their language.

For example, many teachers, librarians, and parents have raised doubts about the Skippyjon Jones series of children's stories by Judith Byron Schachner for its depiction of Latino characters and language. Some of their objections can be found in reviews of the books on the Amazon website, written mostly by parents. The books are highly rated by customers, although the proportion of negative to positive reviews increased between 2003 and 2009. The low ratings are accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.

Over the past six years, teachers and librarians taking my classes have shared their concerns about Schachner's series. For instance, a librarian in my graduate course "Latino Literature for Children and Adolescents" brought to class a copy of Schachner's (2005) picture book Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse and questioned the ways Mexican characters were represented in the text. The book's main character is a Siamese cat named Skippyjon Jones who speaks with a Spanish accent and wants to be a Chihuahua dog. Wearing a mask and cape and describing himself as "the great sword fighter" (n.p.), like the Spanish TV character El Zorro, Skippyjon Jones embarks on an adventure to rescue Chihuahuas from difficult situations. The book, in its pictures and words, is full of references to Mexican culture and language. For example, there are 80 instances of Spanish word use (involving 38 different words) and 60 instances in which the author incorporates Spanish elements into English words. The librarian, self-identified as Caucasian and a resident of the southwestern United States, where many Mexican Americans live, felt something was wrong with the representation of Mexicans in the book but could not name the problem.

The Skippyjon Jones series is widely available in U.S. schools and public libraries, and new books are continually published. An online search of public libraries in the states of Washington, Arizona, Texas, and New York reveals a high number of copies available for children, which suggests that many children read these stories. On November 23, 2012, the King County Library System in Washington held a total of 126 copies of Skippyjon Jones (2003), with 71 available to borrow. …

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