Latinx Heritage Month: Cultural Representation in Youth Literature

Latinx Heritage Month, also known as Hispanic Heritage Month, runs from September 15 to October 15 and celebrates the rich and varied cultural traditions of Latinx communities around the world. (To learn more about the history of the terms Hispanic and Latino, see the NPR story listed in the references below. This blog will primarily use the term Latinx due to its broader cultural and gender inclusivity). Latinx characters are underrepresented in children’s literature. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compiles data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens. In 2021, just over seven percent of books published in the U.S. for children and young adults featured Latinx characters. Through initiatives like Latinxs in Kid Lit (, advocates of diversity in children’s literature are seeking to increase the number of books by and about Latinx folks published annually.

Encouragingly, Latinx children’s literature creators have garnered recognition from major children’s literature awards in recent years. Three of the last seven Newbery Medal winners have been Latinx authors, including Matt de la Pena in 2016, Meg Medina in 2019, and Donna Barba Higuera in 2022. Additionally, the Pura Belpre Award, established in 1996, honors writers and illustrators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” The award is named after the New York Public Library’s first Puerto Rican children’s librarian, Pura Belpré, who was an engaging Spanish language storyteller. Belpré also translated Puerto Rican folklore into English to share these cultural stories with a broader audience. The books below are just a snapshot of the excellent contemporary Latinx literature featured in the S-Collection.

Amescua, Gloria
Illustrated by: Duncan Tonatiuh
Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz-Jimenez, Daughter of the Nahua. 2021 (Picture Book).
This moving, beautifully illustrated biography tells the remarkable story of how model and teacher Luz Jiménez became a living link between the indigenous Nahua and the rest of the world. Growing up in Mexico, Luz learned how to grind corn and weave on a loom and listened to nighttime stories around the fire about her people’s joys and struggles for survival. When the Mexican Revolution upended their rural life, Luz and her family were forced to move to Mexico City where Luz became a model for painters, sculptors, and photographers such as Diego Rivera and Tina Modotti. Through her deep pride in her Nahua roots and her unshakeable spirit, the world came to recognize the beauty and strength of her people.
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Cartaya, Pablo
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. 2017 (Middle Grade Fiction).
For Cuban American Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and a few shifts as a dishwasher at his Abuela’s restaurant. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. When a shady land developer rolls into town and threatens to change the neighborhood, Arturo refuses to go down without a fight. As he schemes with Carmen, Arturo uncovers the power of community activism through previously untold family stories and the poetry of Jose Marti. Arturo’s relatable first-person narration includes plenty of Spanish words and conveys his dedication to family, community, and tradition.
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Elya, Susan Middleton
Illustrated by: Juana Martinez-Neal
La Princesa and the Pea. 2017 (Picture Book).
Author Elya adds a dose of humor, plot twists, and a plethora of Spanish words and phrases to this delightful spin on the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale. The prince is set to marry, and the queen oversees vetting possible candidates. When the prince falls in love with a maiden and the queen doesn’t approve, the prince ensures that the maiden passes the pea-under-the-mattress-test with flying colors. The rhyming text drives the story forward and makes for a great story time read-aloud. Martinez-Neal’s softly colorful illustrations establish the setting of this retelling in Peru, with clothing and textiles characteristic of several different indigenous Peruvian communities.
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Engle, Margarita
Illustrated by: Rafael Lopez
Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics. 2017 (Picture Book Biography Anthology).
This anthology features vibrant, graphically illustrated portraits and poems about famous and lesser-known Hispanics who have faced life’s challenges in creative ways. The eighteen individuals featured in this collection come from many different countries and backgrounds and include a musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot, and more. Engle’s first-person biographical poems celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to a collective cultural history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today. Poems spotlight César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, George Meléndez Wright, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, and Tito Puente, to name a few. The book’s back matter includes more detailed biographical notes.
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Higuera, Donna Barba
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance. 2020 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Guadalupe “Lupe” Wong wants nothing more than to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She has also advocated for causes her whole young life, like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few discrete categories. Lupe needs top grades in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. But when her PE class throws the curveball of a terrifying mandatory square dancing unit, Lupe isn’t going to let that slide. She begins a campaign to cancel the outdated tradition and reveals the racist history of one of the songs, but she also begins to jeopardize her closest friendships in the process. Readers will be drawn in by Lupe’s sharp and humorous first-person narration and will stay for her thoughtful examination of identity, equity, and social justice.
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Medina, Meg
Merci Suarez Changes Gears. 2018 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Eleven-year-old Merci Suarez has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students and don’t have fancy boats or second homes. Sixth grade is already presenting more challenges than expected: suddenly playing sports is seen as babyish and friendships with boys are socially taboo. When Merci gets assigned to show new kid Michael around school as a community service requirement for her scholarship, popular girl Edna channels her jealousy towards Merci. Things are also challenging at home with her close-knit Cuban American family. Merci’s beloved grandfather Lolo has started acting strangely, like forgetting important things, falling off his bike, and getting angry over nothing. No one will tell Merci what’s going on, so her worries begin to spiral. This Newbery Medal-winning novel is tender, multifaceted, and a luminously uplifting story.
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Morales, Yuyi
Dreamers. 2018 (Picture Book).
Author-illustrator Yuyi Morales tells her own heartfelt immigration story in this beautiful autobiographical picture book that is an ode to hope, resilience, and reading. In 1994, Morales left her home in Xalapa, Mexico to come to the United States with her infant son. The lyrical text highlights the obstacles many immigrants face when trying to survive in a country that isn’t hospitable to non-English speaking people of color. Mother and son eventually stumble into the children’s section of a public library and together they discover the transformative power of books and stories. The brightly colorful artwork is whimsically surreal and incorporates many Mexican traditions and mythic imagery. An author’s note expands on the details of Morales’ life story and clarifies that she and her son are not “Dreamers” in the modern political sense, but rather in the more expansive sense of hope that relates to building a life in a new country.
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Quintero, Isabel
Illustrated by: Zeke Pena
My Papi Has a Motorcycle. 2019 (Picture Book).
When Daisy Ramona zooms around her neighborhood with her Papi on his blue motorcycle (their nightly ritual), she sees the people and places she’s always known in their California town. She also notices a community that is rapidly changing around her: new houses in the place of old trees, and family businesses that have closed. But as the sun sets behind Daisy and her Papi, she knows that the love she feels will always be there. The softly dynamic illustrations depict a cinematic journey of a day in the life of this father and daughter in beautiful blue, gold, and purple hues. Although the story’s text is entirely told in English, dialogue speech bubbles incorporate both Spanish and English. This picture book is a young girl’s love letter to her hardworking dad and to a sense of home amid change.
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Raúl the Third
Vamos! Let’s Go Eat. 2020 (Picture Book).
In this lively sequel to Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, Little Lobo, an anthropomorphic wolf known for speedy food delivery, is back with his dog Bernabe, this time riding a brand new bike. Little Lobo is excited to watch a show with wrestling star El Toro in his bustling border town. After getting lunch orders from The Bull and with his friends to help prepare for the event, Little Lobo takes readers on a tour of food trucks that sell his favorite foods, like quesadillas with red peppers and Mexican-Korean tacos. The highly detailed, filled-to-the-brim illustrated scenes are peppered with Spanish vocabulary.
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Vasquez Gilliland, Raquel
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything. 2020 (Young Adult Fiction).
It has been three years since Sia Martinez’s mom disappeared after the ICE raids, a desperate phone call from Mexico, and an ill-fated walk across the Sonoran. Sia wants to emotionally heal, but it’s hard in her tiny Arizona town where people refer to her mom’s deportation as “an unfortunate incident.” Sia knows that her mom must be dead, but every new moon Sia drives into the desert and lights San Anthony and la Guadalupe candles to guide her mom home. One night, under a million stars, Sia’s life changes forever when a blue-lit spacecraft crashes in front of Sia’s car and it’s carrying her mom, who is very much alive. As Sia races to save her mom from armed-quite-possibly-alien soldiers, she uncovers profound and dangerous secrets in this inventive exploration of first love, family, immigration, and our vast, limitless universe. Make sure to note the content warnings listed at the beginning of the book but rest assured that the heavy topics are handled sensitively.
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References / Resources

ALSC: Pura Belpre Award
Learn more about the history of the Pura Belpre Award for representation of Latinx cultural experiences in children’s and youth literature, as well as more details about the award’s trailblazing namesake. Browse current and past winners through the link to the interactive award shelf from the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC).

CCBC: Books by and/or about Black, Indigenous and People of Color 2018-
This webpage shares tables of data compiled by the CCBC of books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and young adults. This is the most recent data, covering the years 2018-2021. Take a look at the “Diversity Statistics FAQ” link to learn more about how the CCBC collects and organizes the publishing data.

NPR: “Yes, We’re Calling It Hispanic Heritage Month and We Know It Makes Some of You Cringe”

This National Public Radio news story from 2021 chronicles the history of the terms Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx to attempt to linguistically encompass more than 62 million people from a wide variety of cultural heritages in the United States. None of the terms are without critics.

NPR: “New Groups Aim to Get More Latinx Stories to Young Readers”
This National Public Radio news story from 2020 describes the groups advocating for increased Latinx representation in youth literature. The story includes additional recommended books about Latinx protagonists.

NYPL: Pura Belpré: Library Storyteller
This New York Public Library blog post from 2020 shares more biographical details of the life, career, and legacy of 20th century Puerto Rican librarian Pura Belpré.