Literacy and Dia With Jeanette Larson

As a writer, literacy is important to me, but not just because I want to make sure there’s a market for my books — literacy helps children grow.

Jeanette Larson

Jeanette Larson

Author and librarian Jeanette Larson has been a supporter of the literacy celebration Día, which happens annually on April 30, since it was founded in 1997. So, who better to tell us about the program and why it’s important?

Jeanette wrote a book on Dia for librarians and teachers, El dia de los niños/El dis de los libros: Building a Culture of Literacy in Your Community Through Dia, offering easy-to-use programs that are adaptable for a variety of cultures. She’s also the author of the delightful Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas, published by Charlesbridge and telling fun stories about the amazing birds.

Me: Jeanette, tell us about Día and how the book celebration began…

Jeanette: Author and poet Pat Mora was in Tucson, Ariz., being interviewed in 1996 and someone asked her about Children’s Day. This is an international holiday, much like Mother’s Day, that recognizes children and started in 1925. It is a major holiday in Mexico but was unheard of and uncelebrated in the United States. Pat, who grew up in El Paso, was unaware of it. One of her major goals in her career has been to promote what she calls “bookjoy,” so she started thinking about combining the recognition and celebration of children with a celebration of reading, especially bilingual literacy. That became El día de los niños/El día de los libros, Children’s Day/Book Day.

A couple of librarians and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) loved the concept and started working with Pat to organize and promote it. The first celebration was held on April 30, 1997. I was working at the Texas State Library and had met Pat through several other projects and we were talking about how to help libraries implement Día celebrations. So my staff and I developed the first Día “toolkit” with ideas for librarians so they could create their own programs. My husband, Jim Larson, was even roped into creating a logo for it!

The goals of Día include a daily commitment to honor children and childhood, promote literacy, honor home languages and cultures, promote global understanding through reading, involve parents as members of the literacy team and promote the development of library collections that reflect the plurality of this country.

Día is celebrating 16 years this April 30, and it is moving to include more cultures and languages — whatever languages are important and relevant in your community.

Me: What happens on April 30?

Jeanette: In the beginning, April 30 was used as a day to really highlight and celebrate Día’s goals. Now it serves more as a culmination of a year’s worth of efforts for bilingual literacy. What takes place varies from very simple celebrations like a bilingual or multicultural storytime to full blown fiestas. In some communities, many agencies partner to put on a full day of events with storytellers, dancers, food, games, authors, singers, and other events that tie in to literacy and books. These partners can include the local consulates, public television stations, churches and synagogues, child welfare agencies, local businesses … anyone with a stake in our children! Often children receive a bilingual or multicultural book as part of the events.

Schools, libraries and other agencies that want to find ideas for ways to celebrate can look at the database that the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC is a division of the American Library Association) maintains. ALSC also provides a resource guide, which I helped develop. Some of the material has even been translated into Spanish and Chinese this year.

Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas book coverMe: Why are books so important for children?

Jeanette: Books and being able to read them are the great equalizer for children. Whether the books are fiction or non-fiction, we learn from what we read, and books bring the world’s knowledge to us in ways that television and movies just can’t. Reading is the basis for everything we do. Even if you are a computer whiz, you need to be able to read. (I’m fascinated by the fact that some of the biggest proponents of reading, books and literacy are the giants of the computer and technology industry.)

It’s almost become a cliché, but books bring us knowledge but they also bring us joy. They can bring friends to a lonely child and they bring us the world! But it is also important that children have access to books that reflect their own culture, that introduce them to other cultures, and that celebrate words and language. And Día really puts the spotlight on the importance of these ideas.

Me: What can adults do to encourage children to become readers?

A lot of the things are pretty obvious and I often say that really there is more that adults can do to discourage kids from reading, like forcing a kid to finish a book he or she is not enjoying!

Surround kids with books and they will read! Borrow books from the library and leave them around the house. The worse thing that happens is you take them back on the due date unread, but if books are around kids will find them.

Be a role model. It does no good to tell kids that reading is a great thing if Mom and Dad never read anything. Kids know what adults value by how we spend our time and money, so spend time reading together (even older kids enjoy being read to) or just sitting together with each person reading silently (maybe sharing a good passage or something funny if the mood strikes you). Buy books as gifts. They may not elicit immediate jumping for joy like a new bicycle or a videogame, but they last and they tell kids that you care about them.

Ask your child to recommend a book for you to read — show you are interested in their literature and value their opinion about books. Take kids to bookstores and let them select what they want to read. Even if you think it is “junk,” so what? No real avid reader only reads great literature. Bring your child to author events and library programs so they see that reading is fun and can be a real social activity.

Me: What can writers do to make sure children will enjoy reading?

Jeanette: Write good books! Don’t try to write a story that will teach the child something. If your story is good, they will learn from it without you preaching to them. Don’t underestimate children. Writers sometimes write down or dumb down material because it is for children. A good book for children should also be a good book for readers of any age.

Celebrate that children are reading. It can be hard to find the time to respond when kids write a fan letter or ask a question (and yes, sometimes the questions are silly or repetitious), but it’s important that children know that we love reading and writing and we love that they are reading our books.

Me: Great insights and advice, Jeanette. Thank you!

Celebrate literacy in your family and community. And remember Jeanette’s advice for writers: Write good books!

Is there anything you do to support literacy in children?


3 Responses

  1. Great interview ladies! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Austin SCBWI has partnered with World Book Night 2012 and we’ll be delivering thousands of books to children in the month of April. Some of the organizations to benefit will be Dell Children’s Medical Center, Inside Books, St. Louise, Safehouse and others. Another program to get good books into kids hands. Now off to go check out some of those links in your interview!

  2. Samantha says:

    Thanks, Carmen. It’s great to hear the Austin SCBWI is doing that. Wonderful news!

  3. Pat Mora says:

    Thanks, Samantha and Jeanette, for an excellent interview and for helping to spread the Día word. Hundreds of Día celebrations are held throughout April, and I encourage families to celebrate Día at home too. What a bookjoy memory- maker. My friend Jeanette is a Día Dynamo, and you can see why.

What do you think?