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Afro Latinx children’s books are still too rare. These four authors are trying to change that

"Drum Dream Girl" tells true story of a young Chinese Afro Cuban girl who became a drummer for Cuba's first all-female jazz band. Margarita Engle/Clarion Books
by CNN Style Staff


    (CNN) — A vivid homage to the graffitied streets of the Boogie Down Bronx and an interstellar quest for the perfect natural hair style are part of a new wave of picture books celebrating Afro Latinx culture and characters, in an industry where these stories are still few and far between.

“I want to show kids of diverse backgrounds that they can go on fantastical adventures, too,” said New York-based illustrator and toy designer Yesenia Moises, author of “Stella’s Stellar Hair.” She noted that in children’s media, stories featuring protagonists of color are often about overcoming struggle, or are “hyper-focused” on identity and race. “I want to step away from that for a moment to be able to show that … their worlds can be vibrant and full of color.”

Having grown up without picture books that reflected their own experiences, the Latinx authors and illustrators featured below are crafting and sharing those stories themselves, with colorful vivid imagery, prose and verse.

Here, four authors speak about their storytelling philosophies, and why kids need to see themselves in the pages of the stories they read.

Eric Velasquez

Eric Velasquez is an Afro Puerto Rican illustrator, author and educator. He has illustrated more than 30 books and has authored four, including “Octopus Stew,” about a boy named Ramsey who must save his grandmother from the gargantuan octopus she’s cooking.

My family comes from a strong oral storytelling tradition; we would gather together to share and listen after nights of dinner and music, and so it was something that I wanted to be part of.

My book “Octopus Stew” is essentially a tribute to that oral tradition. Whenever my dad would come over and cook for my friends and me, he would inevitably say, “Did Eric tell you about the day I rescued him and his grandma from the giant octopus?” Every single one of my friends knows that story because of him, and over the years, it just grew like a tall tale.

Grandmothers are central to many of my stories. I can trace my own career back to the summers I spent sketching in my grandmother’s living room in Spanish Harlem, surrounded by music.

Those summers inspired my book “Grandma’s Records,” and also taught me the importance of having heroes who look like us. I remember marveling at the musicians who would visit when I was young, including Rafael Cortijo, the prime architect of Puerto Rican salsa. When he came by, my grandmother told me only to refer to him as “maestro.”

“That man is a genius,” she said, “and he deserves to be treated with respect.”

In school, when we learned that Beethoven was a musical genius, I remember thinking, “I know a genius too! He loves rice with beans and roast pork, and he even entertains us with music after dinner.” I didn’t feel there was a disconnect between the concept of “genius” and what I saw around me.

But over time, I realized other kids struggled to do the same; at art school, when they pictured “heroes” they would never draw men or women of color.

That’s when I started to realize how important representation is. When you grow up with examples of diverse heroes, it affects your imagination. You start to believe that you can be part of this creative world, and I think that’s very important.

Yesenia Moises

Yesenia Moises is an Afro Dominican toy designer and illustrator. She is the author of “Stella’s Stellar Hair,” a book about a young Black girl with natural hair who travels the solar system in search of hairstyles.

When it comes to my hair, I spent most of my life trying to fit the mold of Eurocentric beauty standards by chemically relaxing my hair. Growing up, my mom, a fair-skinned Latina woman with the loose waves a lot of people aim for — not at all like mine — would always comment on how thick or unruly it is, or how it tangles itself.

It was only after I started letting my hair grow out in its full, natural glory that I grew to love it, but even then I realized that many kids today are still made to feel bad about their hair. So I created “Stella’s Stellar Hair” to celebrate the variety and creativity of Black hair across the African diaspora.

The whole concept of having aunties from the different planets came from one Black hair trade show I attended, which was full of older Black women with amazing natural hairstyles that showed their personalities. And I’d never seen that before. I was so used to making sure that my hair was as flat as possible, but here were all these older women who were just proud of the hair that grew out of their scalp. It really inspired me to show just how versatile and beautiful Black hair can be.

I think it’s really important for young readers to feel seen more than anything else. As a dark-skinned Afro Latina, it wasn’t until 2018, when I saw Miles Morales become Spider-Man in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” that I saw someone with my background represented in the media I watch. I really loved how the director made a choice to exclude English subtitles for the conversations Miles had with his mother. When you add subtitles, it makes the experience feel foreign; but in their household, it was natural — just like it is in mine. That really floored me.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is a poet and author whose works celebrate her Cuban heritage. Her book “Drum Dream Girl,” illustrated by Rafael López, is inspired by the true story of a young Chinese Afro Cuban girl who became a drummer for Cuba’s first all-female jazz band.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to Cuba, where my mother is from. We would go back in the summers to visit the extended family, but we were cut off from them because of travel restrictions after the missile crisis. When I was finally able to go back as an adult in 1991, I found that I wanted to write about the experience.

I know that, all of a sudden, we’re not supposed to hyphenate things anymore in our writing. But I felt like I lived on that hyphen, and the compound word “Cuban-American.” It was a bridge and an abyss at the same time; by the time I was a teenager, it felt like it was easier for a US citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives in Cuba.

Music is a recurring theme in my books. My picture book “Drum Dream Girl” is based on the life of Chinese Afro Cuban girl Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who played the drums in Cuba when it was forbidden to girls.

I read the memoirs of her older sister and there were these amazing photographs of this all-girl band — the first of its kind. In the 1930s, most of the jazz bands had been men, and here was one made up entirely of sisters. And the youngest was a 10-year-old girl who wanted to play the drums.

Even today, in certain cultural traditions that come from West African religion, women in Cuba have to fight for the right to play certain types of drums. But in Millo’s case, for entertainment, she really opened that door. The band became very successful, and everybody loved her drumming, so, after a while, many other women drummers followed.

I was inspired by her courage and her perseverance. When I talk to children about that book, I ask the boys, ‘How would you feel if society said you couldn’t drive monster trucks, or only girls could motorcycle race?’ And all the boys immediately give up their right to be the only one to do something. They instinctively understand that this isn’t fair.

Charles Esperanza

Charles Esperanza is an Afro Puerto Rican illustrator and author whose new book, “Boogie Boogie Y’all,” published this summer. The book is a brightly colored depiction of his home borough of the Bronx, as well as a tribute to graffiti.

I’m interested in telling stories and taking something about our culture — as a Black and Latino person, and as a Bronx resident — and de-stigmatizing it. What inspired “Boogie Boogie, Y’all” was an awesome graffiti piece outside of the community center where I teach. I took a photo of it to show to my students; it turns out none of them has seen it before. I said, “Y’all don’t really look around and take in all of the awesome things that are on the street.”

I’ve asked my students what they’ve heard about graffiti and a lot of the answers were recycled from decades ago: It’s gang symbols; it’s vandalism. I wanted to give them another perspective about it; I pay homage to a lot of contemporary street artists in the book like “Gully” and “Modus,” who can be seen all over the Bronx and the rest of New York City. They’ve seen the book and have expressed excitement about it.

I think kids need to be able to see themselves in the books that they read, and they need to be able to see themselves in the art they look at. As a teacher, I notice many of my Black and Brown students create White characters. Instead of preaching to them that they should use people of color, I show them examples of amazing Black characters, created by artists like Yesenia Moises, LeSean Thomas or Geneva Bowers to inspire them.

I get a lot of inspiration just walking around the Bronx, and I definitely wanted to capture that. I love the borough for its grittiness and personality. We are known for our cultural contributions through hip-hop, but we have so much more in food, fashion, art and music that’s waiting to be shared with the world. All of our communities — old and new — are adding their vibrant tag to the wall that is the Bronx.

When I was first trying to get into the business. I heard some really wild things about why publishers wouldn’t have a Black child as the protagonist. I remember one editor told me that for picture books, they would rather have an animal like a panda or something as a main character, because every kid could relate to that. I was blown away, realizing that the underrepresentation was intentional this whole time. So I’m glad that we have so many artists now that are coming in and knocking down the door and doing awesome things.

Each author’s personal statement was edited for length and clarity by a member of the CNN Style team.


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