How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Honest Portrayals of Raza Peoples

How to Tell the Difference is a work in progress. We welcome additions to these criteria. Please send them, along with full citations. 

Look at the Language Structure.

Does the book mock language and culture?

“Fossilitos, schmossilitos,” declared Poquito Tito, the smallest of the small ones. “We want to see los dinosaurios with our own ojos,” he said, pointing to his eyes.
“¿Por qué? asked Skippito.
“Because, Bobocito,” said Don Diego, the biggest of the small ones, “We hear they are reelly, reelly beeg, dude!”[1]


Does the book promote respect for the language and culture?

And Tito replied,                                                        A lo que Tito respondió
“No way, José! I won’t let you come in—                —¡Ni lo sueñes, José!
Not by the hairs of my chinny-chin-chin.”                —Por las barbas de mi abuela,
                                                                                                No entrarás aunque te duela.[2]

Is the dialogue forced and clunky, with literal Spanish phrases immediately followed by faulty English translations that are clumsy and confusing to Spanish-speaking children?

Cristál, Abuelita’s silver dog, rises on stiff legs to greet me. “Hola, perrita, mi amigita [sic]. Hello, little dog, my dear friend. Como estás hoy día? How are you today?”[3]


Does the language flow naturally, both in English and in Spanish?

When I ask Papá to explain,
he says if you don’t have blood
from one tribe, you have it
from another—El que no tiene
sangre del Congo
tiene del Carabalí.[4]

For bilingual or multilingual children, is fluency in English presented as more important and valuable than fluency in their own families’ language(s)?

“Say something in English,” a woman asks me, and everyone is quiet, waiting. I don’t know what to say. “It is good to be here,” I stammer at last. They laugh and clap. “Imagine, Consuelo! Your son—and all your children—speaking English. So smart!”[5]


Is fluency in English presented realistically, as a necessary tool?

Luckily, I had some English when I got here. “It is good to have Eeenglish in your pocket,” my parents pressed us always, “por las cochinas dudas.” For the dirty doubts, that is. Just in case. So, for the dirty doubts, we’ve all got a little English.[6]

Look for Fakelore.

Is the story described as an “original” story based on the folklore of a general region?

An original story based on the folklore of Oaxaca, here is a book rich with the customs and symbols of its culture.[7]


Does the story (or stories) have deep roots in the original stories of a particular people?

These stories, despite their importance as moral teachings for Mayan children, are also expressions of a millenarian tradition that has come from the deepest soul of the Mayan people. Some of the stories in this volume are very old, and they continue to be passed on while being reshaped to suit the current historical situation.[8]

Look at the Author’s Relationship to the Story.

Does it seem that the author is engaging in “cultural tourism” in order to gather material for the “multicultural” market?

In 1990, I went to Oaxaca (wa-HAH-ka), Mexico, where a friend introduced me to Leovigildo Martínez. A jovial spirit and a magnificent painter, “Leo” introduced me to Oaxacan markets and villages. As a fine artist, he had never illustrated picture books but suggested we collaborate on Oaxacan tales for children. The idea was to take threads of existing folklore, then create original stories to be understood universally. The region's phenomenal array of indigenous cultures—their pyramids, textiles, fiestas, and crafts—posed too delicious a challenge to turn down. Although I had never written for children, I told Leo, “Me gusta la idea.”[9]


Does the author have the kind of deep understanding of the story or stories that will result in an honest telling?

During my childhood, whenever I wanted to listen to my mother telling Mayan stories, I brought my small chair close to the kitchen fire where she cooked the tortillas, pleading: “Mother, let’s tell stories again. Please tell me the story of the injured little dove.” Then, my mother would laugh. This is the first story that I remember her telling me, and she knew that I liked her stories very much. So, while the firewood burned under the comal (a big circular clay pan) cooking delicious tortillas of yellow corn, my mother would recall her memories, and then, with the captivating voice of a storyteller, she would start her stories in our Jakaltek-Maya language.[10]

Look at the Author’s Background.

Does the author’s background seem devoid of the qualities necessary to write about the culture?

Matthew Gollub lives in Los Angeles, but has visited Oaxaca many times…. Mr. Gollub has lived abroad and worked as a copyeditor, newscaster, cultural liaison, and performing member of a Japanese drum troupe. [11]


Does the author’s background seem inclusive of the qualities necessary to write about the culture?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and noted Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum brings the world of her childhood vividly alive in The Girl from Chimel…. Menchú’s stories of her grandparents and parents, of the natural world that surrounded her as a young girl, and her retelling of the stories that she was told present a rich, humorous and engaging picture…[12]

Look at Descriptions of Ceremony.

Is ceremony described in an inflammatory and prurient way, absent any real information that could present an opportunity for empathy?

The body was cut up: the skin stuffed with cotton, went to decorate the façade of the palace where the priests lived; the right thigh went to the emperor; the head was impaled on a stake; the blood was smeared on the statues of the temple. The rest was eaten by the family of the man who had captured the victim or was thrown to the wild beasts kept in the palace….[T]he smell of decaying flesh and coagulated blood was masked by copal incense.[13]


Is ceremony described in a way that presents an opportunity for empathy?

When someone violates nature’s laws, when someone cuts down trees, stealing away the oxygen, or removes the vegetation around lakes so that they dry up, when someone cuts down the mountain brush so that the mountains crumble, then Rajaw Juyub’, the keeper of things, appears.

[I]f they apologize, if they ask for forgiveness and make an offering to the Creator, then they will live a long time. Their hair will turn white and they will become respected elders.

Sometimes Rajaw Juyub’ appears as a dog or a coyote or another kind of animal. Sometimes in the mountains we come across a creature roaming peacefully. It might be Rajaw Juyub’, the one who judges the way people treat nature.

This is why the grandmothers and grandfathers of the Maya lands bring him candles and flowers, a lot of honey and other offerings.[14]

Look at Descriptions of Belief Systems.

 Are there explanations of invented belief systems, described in New Age jargon?

See how the spirals of the heart reach out, giving themselves one to the other? It is by reaching out to one another that we, too, create something beautiful to last throughout the ages. No matter where life leads you … if you follow the heart your path will be one of wonder.[15]


Are belief systems described accurately and respectfully?

When the villagers had had enough to eat, they decided to honor the weasel…. The villagers agreed to give her the best hens, roosters and turkeys they had. Some brought her hens they had fattened with corn. Others brought roosters that had grown plump from pecking the new food, and still others brought their red-throated turkeys as an offering.

But since there are always cheats, some villagers hid their best hens and roosters and brought the weasel the smallest of chicks. The weasel noticed how miserly these villagers were and decided to teach them a lesson, for you must always give thanks for a gift.

That evening, as everyone slept, the weasel went back to the village. She snuck into the hen houses of the misers and stole all their fat hens, roosters and turkeys.

This is how the weasel taught us not to be miserly and to be grateful for what we are given.[16]

Look at Descriptions of the Culture.

Does the description embody the author’s paternalistic superiority and colonialist arrogance?

One reason the people of Yucatán treat their ancestors with such respect is that they have provided their grandchildren with an important source of income. People come from all over the world to see the wonderful stone structures the ancient Maya left behind. And when visitors come, they spend money on food, hotels, and souvenirs.[17]


Is the culture described from the perspective of someone who lives it?

I am Rigoberta. Chimel is the name of my village when it’s large, and Laj Chimel when it’s small, because sometimes the village is large and sometimes it’s small. During good times, when there’s honey and the corn is so heavy it bends its green stalks, when the yellow, green, purple, white and multicolored orchids bloom, displaying their beauty, then my village is big and it’s called Chimel. During bad times, when the river dries up and ponds can fit into the hollow of my hand, when evil men walk the earth and sadness can hardly be endured, the village becomes small and is called Laj Chimel. Right now, I’m remembering Chimel…[18]

Look at Contemporary Lives.

Do descriptions reflect outsiders’ value judgments and socio-historical misstatements?

Like most project tenants, Sonia’s family did not have a lot of money, but still she knew they were more fortunate than her cousins and aunts and uncles back in Puerto Rico, whom she visited every summer. Home in America, Sonia attended good schools…[19]


Do descriptions reflect how people see their own communities?

In Mayagüez, barefoot Sonia buys a cranberry piragua,
its crushed ice pyramid topped with sweet syrupy tamarind.
At Boquerón Beach, a sea wave gives Sonia a ride
on its mundillo-lace skirt; returns her to sun-bleached sand.
When the sky starts to rust, porch voices tell family stories.
Sonia plays jacks with her cousins.
Hundreds, no, thousands of tree frogs sing, “Kokee-kokee!
They lull Sonia to sleep.
When she returns to New York, she can’t sleep
without the kokee-kokee-kokees.[20]

Are external measures of poverty described as reasons for poverty?

People she’d grown up with were poor. And many of them weren’t as lucky as she had been: They’d had trouble learning to speak English, trouble finding jobs.[21]


Are external measures of poverty—such as unemployment, language barriers, alcoholism—set in their appropriate contexts?

When América gets home, she hears her dad yelling. He has been laid off from the factory. The family gathers for supper around a wooden table in the small kitchen. Her mother tells her father angrily: “I was called a ‘wetback’ at the market today. No matter what we do—we don’t belong.” Tio Filemón comes into the room, drunk and loud. “Never say you don’t belong,” he says. “We belong anywhere, everywhere. Once you believe you don’t belong, you’ll be homeless forever. Maybe we’ll go back to Oaxaca, maybe we won’t. For now, this is home.”[22] 

Look at the Lives of Agricultural Workers.

Are the lives of agricultural workers portrayed as without much hardship, without much danger, without having to struggle for equal rights? Are complex issues, such as racism, poverty, and horrible working conditions, minimized?

When they needed food, César’s parents shopped in the nearest town. Signs over some stores said White Trade Only. César’s family was Mexican. They could not shop at those stores. César missed Arizona. He wanted to ride a horse. He wanted to climb a tree.[23]


Sometimes the fields smelled of pesticides. The farmers sprayed pesticides to kill insects that might eat the plants. Some of these pesticides made the workers sick.[24]


Are the lives of agricultural workers portrayed realistically? Are complex issues, such as racism, poverty, and horrible working conditions described honestly?

The towns weren’t much better than the fields. WHITE TRADE ONLY signs were displayed in many stores and restaurants. None of the thirty-five schools Cesar attended over the years seemed like a safe place, either. Once, after Cesar broke the rule about speaking English at all times, a teacher hung a sign on him that read, I AM A CLOWN. I SPEAK SPANISH. He came to hate school…[25]


[Cesar] was small and not very strong, but still a fierce worker. Nearly every crop caused torment. Yanking out beets broke the skin between his thumb and index finger. Grapevines sprayed with bug-killing chemicals made his eyes sting and his lungs wheeze. Lettuce had to be the worst. Thinning lettuce all day with a short-handled hoe would make hot spasms shoot through his back.[26]

Look at the Issue of Migration or Immigration.

Does the book ignore the issues of documentation, stating or implying that citizenship is easily attainable for all migrants or immigrants?

Before becoming citizens, newcomers to this country must qualify to live here as permanent residents…. After five years, or three if married to a U.S. citizen, law-abiding permanent residents over eighteen can apply for citizenship for themselves and their children under eighteen…. The new citizens can vote, serve on juries, compete for all government jobs, travel freely outside the United States, and sponsor parents and brothers and sisters who wish to come live in the United States![27]


Does the book show the pain and confusion of children whose families do not have documentation?

Yesterday as she passed Miss Gable and Miss Williams in the hallway, she heard Miss Gable whisper, “She’s an illegal.” How can that be—how can anyone be illegal! She is Mixteco, an ancient tribe that was here before the Spanish, before the blue-eyed, even before this government that now calls her “illegal.” How can a girl called América not belong in America?[28]

[1] Schachner, Judy, Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones. Dutton Children’s Books, 2007.

[2] Salinas, Bobbi, The Three Pigs: Nacho, Tito and Miguel/ Los tres credos. Piñata Publications, 1998.

[3] Córdova, Amy, Abuelita’s Heart. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[4] Engle, Margarita, The Wild Book. Harcourt, 2012.

[5] Bunting, Eve, Going Home. Harper, 1996.

[6] Johnston, Tony, Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio. Scholastic, 2001.

[7] Gollub, Matthew, The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats. Tambourine Books (William Morrow), 1993.

[8] Montejo, Victor, The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables. Curbstone Press, 1991.

[10] Montejo, Victor, The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables. Curbstone Press, 1991.

[11] Gollub, Matthew, The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats. Tambourine Books (William Morrow), 1993.

[12] Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Dante Liano, The Girl from Chimel. Groundwood, 2003.

[13] Helly, Mathilde, and Rémi Courgeon,  Montezuma and the Aztecs. Holt, 1996.

[14] Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Dante Liano, The Honey Jar. Groundwood, 2006.

[15] Córdova, Amy, Abuelita’s Heart. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[16] Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Dante Liano, The Honey Jar. Groundwood, 2006.

[17] Staub, Frank, Children of Yucatán. CarolRhoda Books, 1996.

[18] Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Dante Liano, The Girl from Chimel. Groundwood, 2003.

[19] Winter, Jonah, Sonia Sotomayor: a judge grows in the Bronx/ la juez que creció en el Bronx. Atheneum, 2009.

[20] Bernier-Grand, Carmen T., Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice. Marshall Cavendish, 2010.

[21] Winter, Jonah, Sonia Sotomayor: a judge grows in the Bronx/ la juez que creció en el Bronx. Atheneum, 2009.

[22] Rodríguez, Luis J., América Is Her Name. Curbstone Press, 1997.

[23] Wadsworth, Ginger, César Chávez. Lerner/ First Avenue Editions, 2004.

[24] Wadsworth, Ginger, ibid.

[25] Krull, Kathleen, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Harcourt, 2003.

[26] Krull, Kathleen, ibid.

[27] Herald, Maggie Rugg, A Very Important Day. Morrow, 1995.

[28] Rodríguez, Luis J., América Is Her Name. Curbstone Press, 1997.

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