‘Our Own Journeys’: The Growing Push for More Bilingual Children’s Books in Schools and Libraries

NJ Mvondo is a media diversity advocate who spent years working in an independent bookstore in Palo Alto, before founding Multiculturalism Rocks, an online platform that advocates for cultural diversity in media, especially in children’s content.

“Something I observed was that many families came in asking for these books, and they had trouble finding them,” she said. “But when these books would be on the floor, they would sell quickly. They would usually sell out.”

And when bookstores do stock these books, an added barrier is their cost, Mvondo noted.

“Some of the families that really need those books don’t have enough of a budget for them,” she said. “They’re focused on buying food, paying rent and taking the kids to school and all that.”

Many libraries also are struggling to acquire bilingual children’s books.

“People see a book and they’re like, ‘Well, I saw it on Amazon. How come you can’t just order it?’ And we really wish it was that easy,” said Elizabeth Perez, a children’s librarian at San Francisco Public Library.

Most bilingual titles are self-published or put out by indie presses, Perez said, which makes them hard to find on the approved-vendor lists the library uses to purchase books.

“Sometimes our own hands are tied,” she said.

Changing times

It doesn’t help matters that California voters in 1986 declared English the state’s “official language” with the overwhelming passage of Proposition 63. That was followed 12 years later by Proposition 227, which significantly restricted bilingual education in the state’s public schools.

However, since Prop 227’s appeal in 2016, the California Department of Education has worked to increase bilingual programs. Mvondo said together with this effort, she’s starting to see more bilingual titles with diverse protagonists addressing social justice themes. “It’s growing,” she said. “The No. 1 factor has been mobilization from children’s authors, illustrators and publishers.”

A volunteer from the ‘Jeepney of Hope’ project reads a storybook to an elementary school classroom in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Ana Maria Bacudio)

She added, “These books for kids are one of those very rare things in literacy that bring a whole family or community together.”

Inspiring real-world change

Such is the case with Mónica Brown’s “Waiting for the Biblioburro” — or “Esperando el Biblioburro” — which tells the story of a mobile library that travels throughout rural Colombia bringing books to children.

Brown said she was recently contacted by an educator in the Philippines who was deeply inspired by the story.

“When I read that book, it gave me an idea that I could replicate that,” said Ana Maria Bacudio, a medical technologist in the Philippines.

A few years ago, Bacudio launched a roving literary service for children in underserved communities around her country. There are no burros in the Philippines, she said, so she started out on a motorcycle and eventually upgraded to a jeep, calling it the “Jeepney of Hope.”

Bacudio said her mobile library features many bilingual books on social justice themes. When children from poor, rural communities get their hands on these books, they become aware of their rights, and start to dream, she said.

“It brings children joy, the joy of reading,” Bacudio said. “Most of all, it brings them hope.”

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