ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
If you've been out buying books for kids this holiday season, you may have noticed bilingual picture books are huge now. Tens of millions of Americans speak a language other than English at home, and many of them are children. And a lot of parents today, regardless of background, want to give their kids a head start on a second language. Monica Brown has written more than a dozen books in both English and Spanish. She says her inspiration comes from her own upbringing.
MONICA BROWN: I was born the daughter of a South American mother and a North American father, so I was raised bilingually. And it wasn't until I had children - my daughters Isabella and Juliana - that I decided to write for children. And I knew I wanted to write stories that reflected the multiethnic, bilingual nature of my own family.
RATH: And I should make clear that when I saw your writing in English and Spanish - for people who haven't seen the books - these are bilingual editions. They're children's books - beautiful children stories - and you have the text in both English and Spanish right next to it.
BROWN: Yes. Two languages exist side by side on the page, which is a beautiful thing because it allows moments of multiple literacy. So a grandmother whose first language is Spanish or an abuelita whose first language is Spanish can share a moment of communication and delight with a child who is bilingual. And American-born Latinos who are learning Spanish can see two beautiful languages side by side on the page.
RATH: Well, that's one of the funny things about the books is that they're actually - they're great for the adults, for the parents and the adults who are reading them because one of the things with being children stories, the text tends to be simpler. And so I find myself learning a bit of Spanish, actually, as I'm doing this, because you can see the words that correspond and that sort of thing.
BROWN: Absolutely. In fact, I know my books have been used to help teach English language learners here in my own community. I think picture books are especially useful for English language learners because there's multiple cues to understanding. So not only are there the words side by side on the page, but there's also these beautiful images that are interpretive that allow for different types of translation and understanding.
RATH: I want to talk about my favorite character. This character, her name is Marisol McDonald. She has freckles and red hair and a funny name. Maybe you could tell us about her maybe by reading the description of her.
BROWN: Okay. My name is Marisol McDonald, and I don't match. At least that's what everyone tells me. (Spanish spoken). I play soccer with my cousin Tato, and he says, Marisol, your skin is brown like mine, but your hair is the color of carrots. You don't match. Actually, my hair is the color of fire, I say, and kick the ball over Tato's head and into the goal.
RATH: She literally has mismatched socks and clothing. And she likes to combine playing pirates along with playing soccer.
BROWN: Yes, absolutely. And she's a pirate princess, soccer-playing artist. So she really doesn't fit people's expectations. And I think it's hard for kids that don't fit into boxes.
RATH: And is this something that you've heard from a lot of people, like myself regarding my kids in my family, that a lot of mixed race kids identify with Marisol?
BROWN: Well, absolutely. I think in the 2010 census, over 9 million people reported multiple races. And in 2010, 15 percent of marriages were interracial. So this is the future. And I just did not see those books out there. And frankly, this manuscript, which was written, gosh, almost nine years ago, got more rejections than any other of the 14 books that I've ever published.
I think on the one hand, publishers were worried about potentially offending people because you can talk about challenging topics with children, but I think it's easier to go with books that depict, you know, television characters or sweet stories. And this is a sweet story, but it's also a different story. And I think people are afraid of what's different sometimes.
RATH: You know, you mentioned topics that make people uncomfortable. You've done some marvelous illustrated biographies of important figures. You have one of the soccer star Pele. One, though, I was noticing was Cesar Chavez. You have to deal with injustice and difficult things. And I imagine that would be something that would be hard to pitch as a kid's book.
BROWN: It's actually pretty amazing because if you look at one of the spreads where I write when Cesar grew up, he and his friends were hurt by dangerous tools and had mean bosses who sprayed the plants with poisons that made the farm workers sick. And those - to have that image in a children's book is important because it's part of our history.
RATH: That's Monica Brown talking about her bilingual books for kids. Her latest book is called "Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash."
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