When I was growing up in México, my parents worked hard to keep our bookshelves full. They pushed me and my sister to learn English as a second language, sure of the power that came with being bilingual. I remember trips across the border to shop for books we couldn’t find in México and I have great memories of sitting with my mother while she read to me in both languages, practicing day after day. In the books of my childhood, I didn’t often stumble upon Mexican characters, or characters who spoke like I did, with a healthy dose of Spanglish. I always assumed that to write about Mexican culture, you could only write about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It seemed only young, white, blue-eyed girls got to be babysitters and amateur spies, and only white boys went on big adventures. When I wrote my own stories, my characters spoke only English—it didn’t occur to me to create characters who reflected who I was or where I came from. That came much later.
I’ve come to appreciate the impact and value of seeing yourself in literature, as well as reading about characters who don’t look like you at all. Now, as a reader and a bookseller, I love reading writers of color and authors who aren’t afraid to get creative with language and style. Below are a few of my favorite books for children by authors and illustrators of color, including some bilingual picks for English and Spanish speakers.
RAIN! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson (board book)
Christian Robinson stole my heart many moons ago, and I now own every book he’s ever illustrated. He tends to lean towards a more subdued color palette, but his illustrations are so playful, always full of energy and charm. In Rain!we meet a young boy who splashes in puddles and a grumpy old man who curses at the sight of ‘em. We learn that two people can view the same day totally differently—and hope the boy can cheer the man up when their paths cross. Robinson’s artwork activates this simple story, bringing to life the emotions of light and dark.
Little Owl’s Night by Divya Srinivasan (board book)
Divya Srinivasan is one of my favorite Austin-based artists. With work in film (Richard Linklater’s Waking Life), magazine (The New Yorker), and music (videos for They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic), Little Owl’s Night was her first book and it quickly became a bedtime classic. Srinivasan has a bold style that ties beautifully with this story about Little Owl, who loves fluttering through the moonlit forest and visiting all of his friends, until the day begins and he falls fast asleep.
Salsa by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (picture book)
Some of my most vivid memories of home take place in the kitchen. My mother was always a magnificent cook, and the mere thought of her salsa verde still makes my nose crinkle. Jorge Argueta’s Salsa, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, comes alive with the smells, colors, and flavors of a great home kitchen. Perfect for storytime or to read aloud while grinding chiles in a molcajete, this is part of Argueta’s bilingual series for foodies, which includes Sopa de frijoles, Arroz con leche, Guacamole, and Tamalitos—but Salsa remains my (spicy) favorite.
Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh (picture book)
I know, it might seem unfair to name Duncan Tonatiuh twice on this list, but his work is just that good. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyotewas originally going to be a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, but due to the double meaning of the term “coyote”—someone who smuggles people between the México and U.S. border—Tonatiuh ended up writing about the dangerous journey undocumented migrants go through when crossing into the United States. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyoteaddresses an important issue in an accessible way, as Pancho fights obstacle after obstacle to find Papá Rabbit, who traveled north to earn more money for his family. With Spanish words sprinkled throughout, the book also includes a glossary and references to learn more about the difficult issues undocumented children face on a daily basis.
Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (picture book)
Niño Wrestles the Worldis, hands down, my go-to read aloud. Niño takes on all of his opponents—la Momia de Guanajuato, Cabeza Olmeca, la Llorona—knocking them down one by one with a ¡POW! a ¡ZOK! and a mighty ¡PACHATAS! Morales has such a great sense of humor. Paired with bright and bold illustrations young luchadores will love, this makes for a loud, action-packed reading that will have listeners cheering for more. Note: If you love this book, you have to check out Rudas, in which Niño faces the toughest competition—his little sisters.
Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (picture book)
I loved when my grandmother came to visit and I got to explore the dark depths of her purse, home to all sorts of mysterious treasures and trinkets. I feel like so many children can relate, which is why I adore Grandma’s Purse, an ode to grandmothers around the world! You never know what Grandma Mimi will have in her giant bag—fancy lipsticks and jewelry, delicious treats and her signature scent—and she’s always happy to share with her curious granddaughter. Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s style and heartwarming illustrations make this a lovely gift for young and older readers alike.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (chapter book ages 8-12)
As a young Chinese-American girl who always felt out of place, Grace Lin rejected her culture for years, until she found English translations of Chinese fairy tales and fell in love. Now, all of the author’s stories stem from her Chinese culture and she hopes to teach readers to embrace their own. In Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, we meet Minli, who’s inspired by her father’s old folktales and sets off on her own journey, encountering a bunch of magical creatures along the way. I love Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, with its full-color illustrations, elegant storytelling, and unforgettable heroine, because it’s perfect for readers looking to get hooked on a new adventure— plus, companion books When the Sea Turned to Silver and Starry River of the Sky are equally brilliant.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia E. Pérez (chapter book ages 8-12)
Ah, Malú. I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with this punk-rock Mexican chica, who’s into rock and roll, skateboarding, and creating her own zines to express her obsessions as well as her frustrations. The First Rule of Punk is an awesome book for all readers, no matter the age, who appreciate characters with larger-than-life personalities—weirdos, if you will—who are just trying to figure life out. Spunky, witty, and wonderfully creative, The First Rule of Punk will have readers begging for more Malú in their lives.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (graphic novel ages 8 & up)
I credit Gene Luen Yang for opening my heart up to graphic novels, and it’s all thanks to American Born Chinese. Jin Wang is the new kid at school—and just so happens to be the only Chinese-American student. He dreams of being an All-American and dreads being associated with the new Taiwanese kid in school, Wei-Chen Sun. Basically, Jin just wants to fit in, is that too much to ask?! Gene Luen Yang brings us a relatable, funny tale of self-confidence and friendship that comics fans will gobble up and newcomers to the genre will love.
Patina by Jason Reynolds (chapter book ages 8-12)
I had to include Patina in this list! Even though Jason Reynolds’ entire track series is fantastic, Patty Jones might be my favorite of the three characters we’ve met so far. Patina is fast—crazy fast. Fast enough to be in line for the Junior Olympics. But Patty is also dealing with school, her mom’s diabetes, taking care of her little sister Maddy, andthe track team. Dedicated to all the young girls who have to grow up too fast, Patina is classic Reynolds: filled with humor and wit, style and rhythm, with characters who are achingly familiar yet totally unique. Don’t miss Patina, Ghost, and Sunny.