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Spanish-language books for kids have a new LA home

La Librería co-founders, Chiara Arroyo (left) and Celene Navarrete (right) at the opening of their brick and mortar store on West Washington Blvd in Mid-City, Feb 21, 2015. The store sells children literature in Spanish. Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

A new Mid-City store specializing in Spanish-language books for children may help chip away at a problem facing public schools expanding their dual-language programs and parents working to raise bilingual children: a lack of books beyond translations of "Curious George."

La Librería, the first children’s Spanish-language literature store in Los Angeles, opened Feb. 21 at a location on West Washington Boulevard. The brick-and-mortar is the dream of two moms who started out selling their volumes at book fairs.

When they first started out, co-founders Celene Navarrete and Chiara Arroyo couldn’t believe the lack locally of good, Spanish-language literature for children.

"Especially in Los Angeles, it was shocking to see the books that I read in Mexico, in my hometown, many of them were not available here," said Navarrete.

So Navarrete and Arroyo began traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Spain to find authentic, Spanish-language children's books.

"We found the classics, we found the books that we read when we were little," she said.

Although 64 percent of Los Angeles' children are Latino, locating children's works in Spanish beyond translations of popular books in English isn't easy.

This matters to educators who say young children need to read and hear language-rich stories to expand their vocabulary and engage with characters in settings they recognize.

“I’ve been a bilingual educator since the '80s, and as an educator you’re always striving to look for authentic literature,” said Norma Silva, principal of the UCLA Lab School, a dual-language pre-kindergarten and elementary school attached to the university's Graduate School of Education.

By authentic literature, Silva means books originally written in Spanish, using the “luscious language” of rich descriptions and vivid characters. These writings often come from Spanish-speaking countries.

Books translated from English to Spanish aren't enough, Silva said. Besides rich language, Silva looks for books from different countries — "because it’s important that we’re able to delve deeply in understanding differences,” she said. Silva believes books need to reflect the diversity among the children and their families.

Since books from Mexico use different language and tell different tales than books from Guatemala, Colombia or Spain, Silva wants the children at her school to experience them all.

So that’s what adults want.  

According to Scholastic, one of the largest sellers in the U.S. of children's books in Spanish, kids have strong opinions about what they want to read. In a just completed survey, Scholastic found 91 percent of kids aged 6 to 17 said their favorite books were ones they picked themselves.

And kids age 6 to 8 are more likely to want characters that look like them than older kids.

The majority of the Spanish-language books in the March Scholastic catalog are translations of popular English language books, with a few books written in Spanish. The March catalog includes "Clifford the Dog" and stories about Sophia, the Disney princess, in Español.

"Kids who are Latino, they don’t just want to read books that are Latino or by Latino authors or with Latino characters — they want to be exposed to the diverse literature that is out there," said Mariel Lopez, who directs Scholastic's Spanish section.

Lopez adds that teachers in dual language immersion schools request Spanish language books which are translated from English so they can use the same book in both languages.

Luis Orozco, who has represented authors of books for Latino children for years, said changes in the publishing industry haven't helped writers of original Spanish-language works.

"As a result of the advent of technology, a lot of our [U.S.] publishers were forced to consolidate. So a book about a popular character that did well in English was easy to translate," he said.

But Orozco believes there is a major market among people who are eager for their kids to succeed and want more book choices for their children.

“They come to this country because they have better opportunities here," he said. "And the fact of the matter is that the traditional channels of distribution don’t have sales people that speak their language, that can speak to the authenticity of that product.”

At a recent presentation to parents, Orozco talked about the story, “Del Norte al Sur,” written by one of his authors, Rene Colato Lainez. It tackles the issue of family separation due to deportation.

After his talk, he said he sold out of every book.

Navarrete and Arroyo have scoured the Internet and traveled to Spanish-speaking countries to find authentic literature to sell. They found them, to their delight.

“There is this explosion of small independent [children’s] publishers in Spain, in Latin American countries,” Navarrete said. The two carefully selected books that would resonate with kids growing up in Los Angeles, and brought them back to stock their shelves.

At their store's grand opening on Feb. 21, parents and kids flooded in, devouring the books. One mother, bouncing her 10-month-old in a baby carrier, asked if the store had books from Guatemala.

To her surprise, the answer was "yes."

Arroyo and Navarrete hope eventually they can find a way for children to borrow their books for free, like a library. They said their goal is to break down barriers so that any child can read a book that speaks to them.

4 tips for finding and reading Spanish-language literature

1. Look for small or independent publishers that promote Latino authors and illustrators. Here are a few to start with:

2. Rich language matters. Browse for language in books that is rich and expressive. Children are never too young to be exposed to words heavy in imagery, that have double-meanings, or are alliterative. Through vivid descriptions, children can learn words to explain their own feelings and experiences.

3. Engage your children with the language as much as you engage them with the story. Explain the complex words and talk about context and meaning. Rich language can also help early readers with social emotional development, said Norma Silva of UCLA’s Lab School.

4. Besides books in hard copy, look for audio books. There is a long tradition of oral storytelling in many Latin American countries. Stories are told and passed on through generations, and today some Latino writers are also performers. Author Jose-Luis Orozco produces music, rhythms and basic literacy in addition to his stories.