Latinx Children's Biographies: Inspiring Transformation and Transcendence

By Brown, Monica | Language Arts, January 2019 | Go to article overview

Latinx Children's Biographies: Inspiring Transformation and Transcendence


Brown, Monica, Language Arts


When you think of borders, you may think of barriers, of boundaries, of militarization, of politics, of state-sponsored violence, of calls to build a wall. But today, when I think of the border, I think of both transience and transcendence. I also think of my own story. As the daughter of an immigrant, my South American mother, and a North American father, my life has been shaped by crossings and movement across borders, across language, identity, religion, community, nation. My own mother, born in Piura, Peru, came north to the United States at the age of 16, where she eventually met my North American father, the child of Italian, Scottish, and Hungarian Jewish immigrants.

My family's cultural history and their history of migrations inform what and how I write for children, including both my biographies about wellknown figures from throughout the Americas and my books focused on fictional characters like Marisol McDonald, Lola Levine, Chavela, or Juliana in Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposas en la Calle Carmen (2007). For each, migration is natural, as expected as the seasonal migrations of monarch butterflies that inspired me to write a story about the real-life Carmen Street in the Guadalupe Barrio in Phoenix, Arizona; this became a way of speaking back against the divisive rhetoric about immigration in my state. Very specifically, in this book, I used the butterfly as a metaphor for change, for survival, for regeneration and transformation.

But I'd like to extend this metaphor to our thinking about the role of Latinx children's literature, because Latinx children's books give children wings and act as tools for change. Certainly, children's picturebook biographies offer models of meaningful and soaring lives. Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Celia Cruz, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Pablo Neruda, Pelé, Tito Puente, Frida Kahlo, among others, inspired millions. I wrote picturebook biographies about them because I wanted to share their stories with children. The world was left better, more just, more beautiful by their gifts, and I want their lives to touch new generations. In this way, then, I conceive of my writing as giving young readers a means to imagine their own transformation and transcendence beyond their current conditions or the perceived limitations others place on them.

The very first children's book I ever wrote was a biography of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, someone I connected with across generations and the span of the Américas. Mistral was a writer and teacher, the child of a single mother, a woman who crossed many borders advocating for the education of girls and the poor, helping to shape public education in Mexico. I found it remarkable that as a teenager, she chose to change her name to Gabriela Mistral simply because she liked the sound if it. While writing My Name Is Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/ Me Llamo Gabriela: La Vida de Gabriela Mistral (2005), I struggled to narrate the becoming of a writer in a way that could be illustrated in action, expressing the whirling words and sensations of a poet-to-be for an audience of children. In Gabriela's voice, I wrote, "When I saw a butterfly fluttering, I noticed the way the words fluttering butterfly sounded together-like a poem/"Cuando vi una mariposa posando en una flor, noté que juntas las palabras posa mariposa sonaban como un poema." This was the first time butterflies appeared in my writing. John Parra's illustrations of butterflies and ribbons helped to evoke the mystical alchemy of words. In my later book, My Name Is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez/Me llamo Gabito: La Vida de Gabriel García Márquez (2007), children are introduced to the magical vision of the Colombian Nobel Prize winner. In addition to seeing an angel with enormous wings falling from the sky, children witness a trail of yellow butterflies singing songs of love.

In writing my first three books on Celia Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Gabriel García Márquez, I learned how powerful it was for children to connect to the early lives of writers and musicians, artists all around. …

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