Building a Culture of Literacy through Día

Library events celebrate bilingual bookjoy

March 22, 2011


A group of children gather in the children’s area to listen to a story. At first glance, this could be a program occurring any day of the week in any library across the country. However, it is a special day, April 30, and the children are enjoying books like Book Fiesta! by Pat Mora and Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup Caldo, Caldo, Caldo by Diane Gonzales Bertrand. They are singing songs like “Juanito” along with a recording by José-Luis Orozco, and they are reciting rhymes like “Tortillitas” and “Chocolate.” They are celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros, the culmination of a year’s worth of activities that promote and support bilingual literacy and reading in any—and every—language.

Bate, bate, chocolate,
Uno, dos, tres, CHO!
Uno, dos, tres, CO!
Uno, dos, tres, LA!
Uno, dos, tres, TE!
Chocolate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, bate, bate,
Bate, bate, CHOCOLATE!

Fifteen years ago, author, poet, and literacy activist Pat Mora began talking to a few friends and colleagues about a celebration that would link children to languages, reading, books, and cultures. Her idea to celebrate bilingual literacy and children’s books grew out of a conversation about Día del Niño, a holiday in Mexico and other Latin American countries that celebrates children and their well-being. Wondering why there was no similar celebration in the United States, Mora decided to extend the concept of Children’s Day and use the celebration to promote the joy of books, especially bilingual books. She added another ingredient—a connection to literacy, an essential element to the well-being of children.

In most Latin American countries, Día del Niño is celebrated on April 30, and Mora decided that would be a good day for her literature and language–based American celebration. It also marks the final day of National Poetry Month, another celebration of importance to Mora. Libraries began to embrace her ideas and on April 30, 1997, the first annual El día de los ninos/El día de los libros was celebrated in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

Why celebrate bilingual reading?

Librarians such as Oralia Garza de Cortés, Veronica Myers, as well as members of Reforma, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, have long seen the need to improve bilingual literacy in the Hispanic and Latino communities and immediately supported Día. But other communities need attention as well. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, almost 11 million school-age children speak a language other than English at home. Research also shows the value of children having access to books that reflect their culture and the language spoken at home, and endorses the idea that a child who is literate in one language can be literate in others. Día embraces these concepts, but of equal importance is Día’s support of “bookjoy”—the sheer pleasure of sharing a book.

Living in Germany for several years as a child and working in libraries in Texas and the Southwest inspired my involvement in Día and in promoting a culture of literacy that recognizes the beauty of stories written and read in languages other than English. The exciting potential to connect libraries and communities also drew me to the celebration. At the heart of Pat Mora’s vision of Día, and what sets it apart, is the event’s transcendence of culture and ethnicity; Día is a celebration of inclusion. Library programs and celebrations must promote books that reflect our national plurality and the many cultures represented in our communities. While in Germany, my family regularly code-switched between English and German. In Texas, I frequently hear and read Spanish, but in other communities Russian, Hindi, or Navajo might be the cultural language celebrated.

As El día de los niños/El día de los libros approaches its 15th anniversary, celebrations grow across the country. More than a third of libraries do some type of program, either on or around April 30, and some throughout the year. Others are beginning to plan. Librarians can find a pool of resources, many available online, to help them put together multicultural and multilingual programs. The events can be very simple—expanding on existing library programs like storytimes and after-school programs—or more elaborate, spanning several days and including activities held at various locations outside the library.

One of my favorite ideas is from Kenton County (Ky.) Public Library. To celebrate the rich diversity of languages in the community, volunteers read the same book in multiple languages, moving seamlessly from one language to the next until the same page has been read in all the represented languages. Using books like The Swirling Hijaab by Na’íma bint Robert or Splash! by Flora McDonnell, which are available in multiple languages, simultaneous readings can be conducted in many languages. If you prefer to use a book that is not commercially available in a specific language, ask a volunteer reader to do some translating. Demonstrations of dances from Kuwait, Morocco, and Lebanon, songs from Israel, and salsa dance lessons can round out the day’s events.

Broward County (Fla.) Library hosts a Children’s BookFest each year in recognition of El día de los niños/El día de los libros. Building on past experience, the program has expanded from a single-day, in-house program to one held over several days and celebrated at multiple locations around the county. The library hires well-known performers, storytellers, and authors such as Laura Simms, Kuniko Yamamoto, and David Diaz to appear at various events and locations. The day’s activities include a book giveaway so that each child receives a book to read at home. (If your funding or community donations don’t permit a book giveaway, libraries might want to offer a craft program that encourages children and caregivers to make their own family book. This concept fosters bookjoy while allowing the participants to create a book that reflects their own family and language.)

Creating a Book

Materials: 3-by-5-inch index cards in various colors; a hole punch; binder rings; pencils, colored pens, or crayons; stickers (optional); rubber stamps and ink pads (optional).

Directions: Distribute several index cards to each participant. Have them punch two holes along the top edge of the cards, making sure that they line up. Family members can use pencils, pens, and crayons to write short stories, poetry, or words in whatever language desired and use rubber stamps and stickers to decorate the book and create a nice cover card. To finish the family book, have participants “bind” the cards with two binder rings.

El día de los niños/El día de los libros programs and events offer many great opportunities to develop partnerships, offer outreach services, and publicize the richness of the library’s resources. Planners of successful Día programs remind us that we don’t have to do it all, and we don’t have to go it alone.

Día programs are popular with parenting organizations (especially those that support new immigrant families), cultural groups, service clubs, businesses, and churches and other religious institutions serving those who speak languages other than English. Look for media outlets in the community that reach bilingual or non–English speakers. Many people in these communities speak English fluently or understand it, but have an interest in retaining and preserving their cultural language and will support the library’s efforts. Public and school libraries that host Día programs find that such partners not only help to build a community of literacy but also to support the library in general.

When the whole community gets involved in the celebration, activities are amazingly diverse and enriching. Farmington (N.Mex.) Public Library hosts a long day of celebrations that includes a tailgate party in the library’s parking lot to accommodate vendors and partner organizations. They distribute information about their programs while providing educational literature-based activities, games, and crafts for families.

School libraries may not be able to support a major event or series of events right around April 30 because of end-of-year testing. It is, however, acceptable to set your own dates for Día programming and to intersperse bilingual activities throughout the year, as does Alma Ramos-McDermott, school librarian for Pollard Middle School in Needham, Massachusetts. Although Pollard is predominantly English-speaking, Ramos-McDermott views Día activities as teachable moments. She recognizes that bilingual literacy introduces her students to literature they would not normally be exposed to and that reading books in Spanish helps them to make connections between their own language and new languages. She also views Día activities as bridges between cultures. Pointing to April as School Library Media Month, Ramos-McDermott suggests that bilingual programming and books be incorporated into already-planned activities. Because she works in a middle school, she refers to El día de los niños/El día de los libros as El día de los jóvenes/El día de los libros, reflecting young people rather than children as the audience. In fact, her school celebrates for a week (Semana de los jóvenes/Semana de los libros), and she works with different teachers and students each day.

Another idea for incorporating bilingual literacy into school activities is to offer a short choral reading or reader’s theater activity during lunch or as an assembly. Aaron Shepard presents scripts for many of his books and stories in both English and traditional Chinese. Grace Lin provides a script for a theatrical adaptation of her book, The Ugly Vegetables, that elementary schoolchildren can perform for parents and classmates. While Lin’s script does not include Chinese words, the appropriate vocabulary for the vegetables is included in the book’s glossary and can easily be shared with the children.

Many children and adults enjoy learning languages and playing with words, and their natural interest works well with the idea behind Día. Whenever we travel, my husband and I try to learn a few words and key phrases in the languages of the countries we will visit. Like children, we find bookjoy in recognizing words we see written on signs, in newspapers, and in the literature around us. Having even minimal bilingual literacy skills helps us feel part of the surrounding community.

If you have not yet hosted a El día de los niños/El día de los libros program at your library, check out some of the toolkits mentioned below and in El día de los niños/El día de los libros: Building a Culture of Literacy in Your Community through Día (ALA, 2011). If you have been involved in Día programming, look for new inspiration in these same resources and share your successes with others by contributing to the ALSC Día celebrations database. Reforma is another helpful, inspirational resource. Each year the group presents the Mora Award to an exemplary program celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros.

Since the event’s inception 15 years ago, I have been involved in or been an observer at many Día library programs. I’ve seen the wonderful spirit of bookjoy, participants’ great enthusiasm, and community building at every one of those celebrations!

Librarian’s Tool Kits and Manuals for Día

Random House (PDF file)

Getting Started with Día Programming

  1. Be sure you have administrative support for the program. Does your administration appreciate the value of bilingual literacy?
  2. Involve your audience and the community. Don’t start planning with preconceptions about what you can or cannot do. Also don’t assume that you know everything about a culture even if you are part of that cultural group or feel you are pretty familiar with the people and their beliefs. The best programs include the attendees in the planning.
  3. Begin small. It’s easier to grow a program than to overcome the negative effect of a poorly executed program that didn’t succeed.
  4. Determine what resources you will need. It’s possible that some of the supplies are already available in your budget, but new funds may be needed.
  5. Identify potential community partners and invite them to a brainstorming session. Be prepared to give a brief overview of Día, and recognize that some bilingual activities may already be taking place in the community.
  6. Keep it entertaining. Whether your program is small or large, one session or a full day of events, keep it fun. Choose books that match the cultures represented in your program, but be sure they are ones you enjoy and ones that will work well for group reading. Include food if possible. Invite local storytellers and performers to participate.
  7. Ask for help. Few of us are fluent in more than one or two of the languages spoken in our communities, but community members are usually willing to help translate key words to include in our Día activities.
JEANETTE LARSON is an independent library consultant and trainer. She writes regularly for Library Media Connections and Book Links. Her children’s book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas, was published earlier this year by Charlesbridge. El día de los niños/El día de los libros: Building a Culture of Literacy in Your Community through Día, will be published in April by ALA Editions.