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.


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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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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