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The Use of Children’s Literature in Puerto Rican Learning Institutions




Stock image of a teacher reading to her students


The need to support preservice teachers in building rich and deep knowledge of culturally relevant children's and young adult (YA) literature is something that has gained traction in Puerto Rico's university teacher preparation and library studies programs. Inspired by mounting calls for books that reflect Puerto Rican children's lives in the primary and secondary school English language arts curriculum, a new generation of English teachers, youth librarians and teacher educators across the Puerto Rican archipelago are examining their reading habits. They are also investing in their own continued growth, learning, and development as advocates of Puerto Rican children’s and YA literature, and youth literature more generally.

We are delighted to exclusively publish the below conversation between Yazmín Méndez Bonet and Dr. Melissa Lee García Vega, a middle school English teacher and a university English professor respectively, both of whom teach in the Aguadilla-Isabela-San Sebastián metropolitan area in northwestern Puerto Rico.


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Melissa: Thinking about children’s literature, my mind takes me back to second grade at Catholic school in New York City. I fell in love with books in our classroom reading corner and enjoyed meeting with my teacher for reading tutoring during the mornings. Once I was able to read independently, I started visiting one of the New York Public Library branches with a neighborhood friend. I would always select not one, but a few books to take home. My library card, the excitement of having so many books to choose from, and the library building remain clear in my mind. Those library visits played a significant role in my development as an early reader.

I also remember that in sixth grade, my dad saw my interest in reading and gifted me a copy of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea. Because my family did not have a lot of money (my self-sacrificing parents could just barely afford to send me to Catholic school), receiving a book as a gift was a big deal, however my younger self couldn’t completely identify with Anne’s life, or with the red-headed girl illustrated on the book’s cover. I began searching for books that spoke more directly to my experience as a young Puerto Rican girl living in a big city.

Today, I teach in the English Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Campus, where I also research Caribbean children’s literature. Shortly after my arrival on campus, I began teaching courses in children’s literature and was excited to share my teaching and reading experiences. During the first weeks of class, I always ask my undergraduate students to share their memories and experiences with children’s literature. These conversations have led to an ever-broadening understanding of how children’s stories support the development and shape the lives of individual readers.

Yazmin: I grew up in Rincón, a small town located on the west coast of Puerto Rico. From Kindergarten through twelfth grade, I went to public schools, and like my current students, I took classes in Spanish and was enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Reading was not something I used to do at home and my father only read the newspaper. I was introduced to books in my Kindergarten classroom where we read European fairy tales like The Ugly Duckling and Little Red Riding Hood. I don’t recall reading books in which I could see my Puerto Rican self and heritage reflected, at least not in English class. But I do remember María Chuzema, a Puerto Rican TV show that featured María Chuzema reading different stories to children.

Visiting a library wasn’t something I was
A shelf of children's books at the public library
in San Antonio, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico

encouraged to do as a child. There was a public library in my hometown, but I mainly used it to look up information for a school project or homework assignment. In middle school, I stopped by the school library several times and even participated in oratory events where I spoke about the importance of reading and the magic of books. Thinking back, I don’t recall seeing a story time session at the library or a children’s book display.

It wasn’t until I enrolled as an undergraduate student in the English program at the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Campus that I had the opportunity to learn more about children’s and young adult literature. However, even in the Young Adult (YA) Literature course, only a few YA books that portrayed Puerto Ricans were assigned, and they were mainly about the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. I decided to focus my master’s thesis on the use of Caribbean children’s literature in the English classroom in Puerto Rican schools. I am now an English teacher at the Profesora Juana Rosario Carrero Middle School.

Melissa: For many of my students in the Children’s Literature course, it was their first experience holding a picture book. In creating the course, my approach was to outline markers of quality in children’s literature. I tried to expand beyond Scholastic books and Disney’s picture books. I often got pushback from students since Disney stories were a big part of their childhood reading experiences.

One of the purposes of the course was to explore the intersection of learning, pleasure and language development in the reading of children’s books. In these respects, Yazmin, your experiences are very similar to my students’ experiences. You said that in middle school you participated in oratory events where you spoke about the magic and importance of reading. What were those experiences like for your younger self? What books or poems do you remember reciting? Do you remember choosing a story to read or did your teachers always assign them?

Yazmin: As a young student, I was eager to participate in speech contests, and my teachers noticed this. I remember how my history teacher motivated me to participate in an oratory event organized by the school librarian. I wrote my own speeches on those old square papers everyone used in school back in those days. I memorized the words all afternoon and all night. I thought about my life experiences, how I had never had the chance to travel, but how books transported me to other places, allowed me to learn about other people’s lives, and sparked my imagination. I placed first in that oratory competition!

It is our responsibility as educators to share children’s literature that is provoking, that reflects our children’s lives, and that motivates them to read independently. This is the way to build lifelong readers.

Melissa: What you just said makes me think of the picture book The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López. The main character feels different because she spent the summer at home while her classmates were off “flying and sailing.” Yet, she realizes that through books she had also traveled to many places. As a child, you also experienced that sense of empowerment through reading.

Yazmin: Absolutely. To answer your question about whether the stories were assigned reading or not, my teachers chose most of the books and stories we read in class. I remember how in seventh grade my Spanish teacher took us to the computer lab and told one of my friends and I that he thought we would like El polizón del Ulises by the Spanish writer Ana María Matute. He gave us a copy and we read it and discussed it together. It was meaningful because the book exposed us to a different vocabulary and experiences outside of our own. I would also go through books at the school library by myself, even if I didn’t consider myself an avid reader. I liked reading both fiction and non-fiction, especially picture books.

Melissa: Now as a high school English teacher, how do your personal experiences guide or influence you when you are matching books to students? What are you doing to ensure that your students don’t view the public library as just a homework resource, and have access to story time, children’s book displays, and other things your younger self didn’t get to experience?

Yazmin: As teachers we often feel trapped by having to follow a curriculum and emphasize teaching practices that are “accountable”. Technology and media can be distractions that hamper students from reading books for pleasure; on the other hand, technology does allow more access to books, and I am able to present stories to my students in video format. However, the reality of Puerto Rican schools is that many lack the resources and support to integrate technology and digital media in the classroom. Often, we can’t put what we learn in professional development trainings into practice. But we always look for different ways to expose students to books. Recently, for International Day of Reading, I brought some of my own children’s books to the classroom so students could read them in small groups. It was an enriching activity for them, and for some, a new experience.

Melissa: Thinking about Puerto Rican cultural heritage and children’s literature, it’s tough to think that in the 21st century we still have an undersupply of books that present our heritage. We can make a distinction between children’s books that reflect island-based Puerto Rican experiences and those that reflect Puerto Rican experience in the United States. I discuss this with my students and learn from them about how the two perspectives and experiences are distinct, but also similar in some ways. There’s so much to explore within the “two branches” of the Puerto Rican experience.

Many of my students are not familiar with the life and groundbreaking work of Pura Belpré, who was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. In my course, pre-service teachers learn about her and review the Pura Belpré Award website to identify winning books and read them. I also assign chapter books that reflect familiar Puerto Rican childhood scenarios and immigration experiences such as Going Home and its sequel, Felita, both by Nicholasa Mohr. My students are drawn to the relatable settings and characters and consider the value of using these stories to teach English to their students.

Teaching and supervising pre-service teachers allows me to learn how to effectively incorporate best practices in teaching reading and writing into my course and professional development workshops. We discuss how students read some books over and over, how revisiting a text allows an engaged reader to explore their own path to learning, and how we should celebrate what seems like purposeless repetition because it is building independence. As an educator, I recognize that some challenges are beyond a teacher’s control, and yet, the art of teaching is finding space to celebrate learning within complex social realities.

Yazmin: Using Puerto Rican children’s literature, and children's literature in general, with my ESL students has helped me to build their enthusiasm for reading, and their ability to analyze and interpret themes portrayed in texts. Children’s books provide the opportunity to learn about the world from a child or teenager’s perspective. These viewpoints open spaces for conversations, reflection and even roleplay. Sadly, reading and ESL resources, including high-quality children’s literature, are not that accessible in Puerto Rico; many of the books my students read are books I have purchased myself. Also, not all public schools have a library, and those that have one often misuse the space for meetings, storage, or as a digital media center. This undermines the school community’s perception of the library.

Melissa: I often run into former students, now teachers, working in public and private schools with or without libraries. We inevitably start talking about books they are currently reading, books they are using with students, and difficulties accessing books. I love learning about new titles, and learning from their teaching experiences. Our community of educators keeps growing. We aim to create and develop libraries, story time approaches, and book displays for children. Puerto Rican students should see the library as an empowering space that belongs to them.

Yazmin: It is our responsibility as educators to share children’s literature that is provoking, that reflects our children’s lives, and that motivates them to read independently. This is the way to build lifelong readers. Children’s books inspire readers to reflect on and question their own realities and social responsibilities. Libraries have been a part of educational reforms around the world, and to empower our Puerto Rican communities, we should advocate for fully engaged children’s and youth libraries in all our towns, municipalities, and cities. Going to libraries that serve as reading and writing centers, and as technology hubs, should be an essential part of our youth culture. We must begin from an early age to foster an appreciation of the value of literature in Puerto Rican society, and we must be active in the construction of movements that promote community empowerment and growth through reading.




About the Authors

Dr. Melissa Lee García Vega was born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from CUNY-Queens College and completed her doctoral degree examining postcolonial and global contexts in Caribbean children's literature at the UPR, Rio Piedras Campus. She is currently co-editing a collection of essays on children’s and young adult literature of the Caribbean and its diaspora. She teaches courses in English literature, as well as curriculum and instruction, at the UPR, Aguadilla Campus.

Yazmín Méndez Bonet has been a secondary school English teacher for the past ten years in Puerto Rico’s public school system, and has taught all grades from sixth through twelfth grades. She completed a bachelor’s degree in teaching english as a second language at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Aguadilla Campus and a master’s degree in English education at the UPR, Mayagüez Campus. As part of her professional development, Yazmín has been involved with the Maya West Writing Project, AFORMAR Academy and the WebTools Project, all at the UPR, Mayagüez Campus, and participated in the Pilar Barbosa Internship in Washington, D.C.. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction with a sub-concentration in instructional technology.




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Exhibit to Use Books to Help Children Make Sense of Hurricane María, Climate Change







I have many memories of the months we spent in darkness after Hurricane María, when we were trapped in the largest blackout in United States history and the second largest on record worldwide. Each day, as the sun started to slip out of the sky, we would race to prepare for long nights of solar lamps and candlelight, camp stoves and generators. Woven into the sound of evening preparations and generators starting up were also the sobs of my neighbors’ children, as they begged their mother, “por favor, mamá, no la noche.” After enduring those endless months without electricity, many Puerto Rican children still feel terror when the night comes and have learned to fear the rain.

As a professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, I am now leading a large-scale public humanities project with a group of student collaborators titled, “Mi María: Puerto Rico After the Hurricane.” The project uses biographical methodologies—with a special focus on oral history—situated within the contexts of critical disaster studies, environmental humanities, social justice, and climate justice to study the impacts of Hurricane María and its aftermath on the people of Puerto Rico. Through this academic research project, we seek to address children’s needs, in the hopes of beginning to allay some of the anxieties that have taken root in the aftermath of Hurricane María.

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with Voice of Witness (VOW)—a human rights nonprofit organization dedicated to amplifying unheard voices—and the Humanities Action Lab’s (HAL) Initiative on Climate and Environmental Justice, led by Columbia University, Rutgers University, and The New School. As the culmination of the project, we will publish a volume of oral histories of the hurricane and its aftermath in the VOW book series published by Haymarket Books, a social justice press in the United States, which will be accompanied by a curriculum that meets Common Core education standards.

By reading about characters involved in climate justice and saving the Earth, children can begin to cultivate a positive lifelong relationship with the environment.

We will also make a contribution to HAL’s international traveling exhibition, which will be based upon our collected oral histories and other, multimodal forms of auto/biographical expression used to narrate experiences of the hurricane: parranda and other song lyrics; radio broadcasts; photography; comics and graphic narratives; micro-narratives; podcasts, and more. The Puerto Rico segment of the exhibition will travel throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago, and a digital version of the entire international exhibition will be permanently held at Rutgers.

At the core of the larger research project is the work of approximately one hundred and fifty undergraduate students from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Last semester, we trained approximately one hundred students in the ethical collection, transcription, translation, and editing of oral narratives. Currently, over fifty additional students are working to collect multimodal narratives for the HAL exhibition. Four of these students, Yarelis Marcial Acevedo, Adriana Montes Pacheco, Francheska Morales Garcia and Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer, comprise the Children’s Literature Team, and together with the help of team mentor, Melissa García Vega of the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla campus, and Joan Baker González of Mayagüez Children’s Library, we are developing a section of the HAL exhibition specifically geared toward the “María Generation” of children who have survived the hurricane and are mired in its aftermath.

The Children's Literature Team: Adriana Montes Pacheco, Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer, Francheska Morales Garcia, Yarelis Marcial Acevedo (from left to right)

This part of the exhibition is focused on using children’s literature to educate children about problems related to climate change. It will include approximately thirty English, Spanish and bilingual books related to different topics under the umbrella of climate change, including recycling and working together. Although the HAL exhibition is geared towards an adult audience, it is important to include a component that addresses climate and environmental justice with children.

We are interested in picture books, and will select books with engaging illustrations that help children connect with the issues in an impactful way. Illustrations not only help children understand books, but also help them become immersed in the story, something that is even more essential when teaching children about complex issues like climate justice. It is important for us to develop effective means of speaking with children, in order to mold their attitudes during childhood, the period when most of our beliefs are formed.

We will research, select, and oversee the purchase of the books. We also plan to ask for donations of additional relevant books that will be displayed in a small bookcase and available for children to read at the exhibition. Afterward, we will donate the collected books to the Biblioteca Juvenil de Mayagüez (Children's Library of Mayagüez) and host an activity on-site.

The main goals of our work are to assist children who lived through the hurricane. We will do this by engaging them in discussions about, and actions related to, climate justice; developing their interest in environmental protection; and instilling a sense of empathy for, and connection to, others. We will encourage children who see the physical exhibition or its digital version to recognize that they are fully capable of making a positive difference in their communities, no matter how young they are. By reading about characters involved in climate justice and saving the Earth, children can begin to cultivate a positive lifelong relationship with the environment. This project will not only serve as a means to educate children, but parents and educators too, including elementary school teachers and librarians in and outside of Puerto Rico who are looking for resources to help children learn about fragile ecosystems and what they can do to help protect them.

Our final idea for the exhibition is the creation of our own children’s picture book. This children's book, titled Maxy sobrevive al huracán/Mazy Survives the Hurricane, will be written in English and Spanish, and the illustrations will be done by one of our team members. The book will reflect children’s experience of the hurricane through the eyes of a puppy, Maxy.

We want to write the book from a puppy’s point of view so that all children can relate to the story, and also to ease some of the tension surrounding an experience as harrowing as a hurricane; hopefully child readers will come to believe that they, like the puppy, can find a way to deal with such a situation. Luckily, two social workers have agreed to read the draft of our book and provide feedback on how we can produce a thoughtful, effective book that will aid the children of Puerto Rico and other children who have gone through similar situations.

We believe that this part of the larger HAL exhibition is very important for the contributions it will make to children and for the resources it will provide for parents and teachers. We want to address the lasting psychological and emotional impact of the hurricane and its aftermath, and make a contribution to the island’s recovery by instilling in children a love for the environment and an understanding of the ways in which local and global decisions impact nature.

Visit the Facebook page of the Mi María: Puerto Rico After the Hurricane project at www.facebook.com/MiMariaPR and their website at www.mimariapr.org. To donate money or children's books to the project, contact Dr. Ricia Anne Chansky at ricia.chansky@upr.edu.




About the Authors

Dr. Ricia Anne Chansky is professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. She is co-editor of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and editor of the new Routledge Auto/Biography Studies book series. She is the author of recent and forthcoming essays on critical disaster studies, disaster pedagogy, climate and social justice, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, as well as on oral history, transnational and diasporic identity constructions, contested national identity, and gendered identity constructions. Yarelis Marcial Acevedo is studying English with a concentration in linguistics. Adriana Montes Pacheco is studying agricultural economics and wants to specialize in art. Francheska Morales García is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics. Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in physics. Pictured above, they are all undergraduates at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus.




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The University of Puerto Rico's Learning Resource Center Promotes Culturally Relevant Childhood Literacy






*Lee una traducción al español de este artículo aquí.
*Read a Spanish translation of this article here.


The Learning Resource Center (Library) at the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus is a space dedicated to study, research and the sociocultural enrichment of all our visitors. Our library offers access to information in many different formats, and our personnel educate our community on how to effectively search for information, and its ethical and critical use. Our community consists of five thousand undergraduate students, faculty, non-academic staff and the children who attend our campus preschool.

Housed in the library, in the Sala de Niños y Jóvenes Isabel Freire de Matos (Isabel Freire de Matos Children's and Youth Room), is a special collection of Puerto Rican and international children’s and youth literature. With this collection, we hope to foster a love of reading and plant seeds of cultural self-awareness in the children who will hopefully make up the university’s student body in the future. We aim to give them an unforgettable and formative experience by exposing them to a variety of books and helping them to see the library as a space for learning and positive socialization.

Since 2014, we have been celebrating the
Dr. Delgado-Cordero at CELELI's Reading Marathon

Maratón Puertorriqueño de Lectura (Puerto Rican Reading Marathon), an island-wide reading marathon organized by the Centro para el estudio de la lectura, la escritura y la literatura infantil (the Center for the Study of Reading, Writing and Children's Literature, abbreviated as CELELI) of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. The goal of CELELI is to promote, enhance and increase research focused on reading, writing, and children’s literature.

The Maratón Puertorriqueño de Lectura is a day devoted to celebrating the phenomenal benefits of reading, and we are proud to participate in this annual event. The marathon is organized as a series of interesting and enjoyable activities that allow children, teens and adults to read for pure pleasure, in an uninterrupted manner.

This past year, we celebrated the 13th edition of the Maratón by inviting Puerto Rican children's author-illustrator Isset M. Pastrana Andino to the center. She is a young educator with a degree in preschool education who grew up and attended public schools here in Bayamón. It was really special having a “daughter of Bayamón” to celebrate the reading marathon with us!

We hope to foster a love of reading and plant seeds of cultural self-awareness in the children.

On September 7th, we hosted an event where Pastrana Andino read her book, En el patio de Lucas, to our preschoolers. The tale features a boy named Lucas who enjoys close contact with nature. He loves to observe, analyze and investigate his surroundings. He decides to sow a seed he finds in his backyard and takes care of it with love using what nature gives him: water, sunlight and wind. Doing so, he discovers through the plant’s germination process that it is a beautiful miramelinda flower.

Isset entranced the children with an engaging read-aloud of her book. As part of our activity, we visited a nearby nursery garden and bought some miramelindas plants and seeds to recreate Lucas’ journey. The children learned about the life cycle of the plant, and at the end, each child planted a seed to take home.


At the Learning Resource Center, we are committed to the crucial work of promoting childhood literacy. We enjoy every part of designing our programs, because seeing the preschoolers’ happy faces is the best reward for our hard work.

Visit the Facebook pages of the Center for the Study of Reading, Writing and Children's Literature (CELELI) and the Learning Resource Center (Library) at the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus at www.facebook.com/celeli.lectura and www.facebook.com/UPRBayamonBiblioteca respectively.




About the Author

Dr. Mercy Delgado-Cordero has been a librarian since 2008, and has worked in academic libraries in both private and public institutions. For the past five years, she has been in charge of the Puerto Rican Collection in the Library of the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus, from where she vigorously promotes reading in adults and children. She has a bachelor's degree in comparative literature with a minor in art history, a post-graduate certificate in editorial arts, a Master's degree in library and information science, and a doctorate in leadership of educational organizations from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. She has been a national and international speaker on the topics of library leadership, the responsibility of the librarian in the promotion of reading, and the sociocultural function of libraries.




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Interviews