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Experts and Authors: Diverse Books About Individuality and Identity Can Curb Bullying & Educate Parents

First Posted: Jan 02, 2015 09:30 PM EST
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Diverse Books About Individuality and Identity Can Curb Bullying & Educate Parents

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"Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" and "Made by Raffi" are distinctly different.

Yes, the two superb works tackle issues of identity, bullying, diversity and acceptance. But one tackles ethnic/racial identity in the midst of experiencing peer intimidation during the years of adolescence, while the other tackles gender norms and walking to the beat of one's own drum during childhood.

"Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" by award-winning Cuban American author is a young adult novel that tells a story about a Latina teen who has become the target of a bully at her new school. The book also explores identity and the pressing question, "Am I Latina enough?"

"Made by Raffi" by saloon singer, actor and author Craig Pomranz is a children's book that shares the story of a young boy named Raffi who doesn't care for sports. Instead, he likes to knit and sew ...a hobby that's normally associated with young girls. While tackling gender normativity, the book asks the bold question: "Am I normal?"

Diverse books are crucial, as they tackle themes of individuality and identity. These books aren't just important because they offer children and young teens tangible proof that there are others in the world who go through experiences just like theirs, but these important books educate parents, allowing them a window into their child's world, where they can see anything from struggles with budding sexuality to bullying.   

In December of 2014, Author Meg Medina shared a conversation with Dr. Andrea Romero, a researcher who focuses on social and cultural factors and the health disparities of Latino adolescents. As a part of Las Comadres' "Book of the Month" teleconference series, the two carried out a conversation about Medina's work, and they discussed bullying, cultural disparities, discrimination and how those themes intersect. 

Discrimination has an adverse effect on mental health and risky behavior in teens, yet adolescents with a strong ethnic identity tend to fair better. Bicultural stress can be determined based on the experience that some adolescents face when navigating more than one culture, particularly when discrimination, family conflict and being monolingual are concerned. And bicultural stress has been linked to more mental health and risky behavior for white, Asian and Latino teens, according to Romero.

For the last 40 years, Latinas have reported higher rates of depression and suicide attempts. Eleven percent of Latinas have attempted suicide and 20 percent have considered it. There's a growing need for Latino psychologist, school counselors and mental health professional. There is also a growing need for diverse books that address social and cultural experiences and show the updated experience of Latinos functioning in a world where social media can magnify or eternalize even the most remote events.

For these reason, Medina is excited that her books "Tia Isa Wants a Car" and "Mango, Abuela and Me" are available in English and Spanish, so that those book can be enjoyed by individuals from both sides of her experience.

"I write in English...I'm English-dominant, I read and I write in Spanish, but not as well as I do in English, and a lot of my work my own family can't read it. My mother passed away, but in her life, she was unable to read stories as deeply as they were written," Medina said during the Las Comadres conversation. "What I like about having my books in two languages is that a whole family can enjoy it. In our family, some speak Spanish and some speak English, and some speak a mix of both.  It's really important in bicultural families to have shared experiences."

"Sharing literature, especially young adult literature -which really speaks to the experience of growing up in this country as a teenager, can be really helpful for parents when talking about things with their kids. It's important that kids read books in a language that's comfortable for them, and it's important that parents read books in a language that's most comfortable to them."

Medina went on to say that a book that speaks to the heart of a child could be for more changing than a poster or a campaign. Teens and parents, alike, should use their books to challenge one another. Also children need to know how to find their support, family and friends; bilingual books can act as a bridge, drawing young people closer to their Spanish-dominant parents.

Diverse books act as educators, touching upon culture, bullying, autism and gender roles. "Made by Raffi" answers questions and educates parents and children on what are "appropriate" activities, being different and acceptance. Published in five languages and distributed in eight countries, the book is based on the real-life experiences of the writer's godson.

"When [my godson] was very young, he seemed to have a hard time, and I thought knitting might be one way for him to learn how to focus, and find some calm.  I bought him some needles and yarn and he really took to it.  He started creating things like scarves for everyone I knew.  He really liked to knit and sew and did it everywhere, on the bus and even at school," Pomranz said to Latin Post during an interview. "Other kids teased him, but he was so focused on his projects he eventually won their respect." 

Bullying due to the practice of non-traditional activities became the inspiration for the book, but the story grew into something much larger. One that could help kids, as well as their teachers and parents, talk about how to cope with being different and how to treat others well even though they are different.

 "One of the unfortunate parts of growing up is that we all have had some experience with teasing, bullying and unkind interactions with people of all ages.  Perhaps as a child because I was teased for my high voice and interest in theater, I was always sensitive to others being mistreated," said Pomranz. "However, I also had a focus, an activity I loved, as well as the attention from adults and others who appreciated what I could do with my voice and acting.  I believe this enabled me not to be a victim of other people's prejudices. I was the one who was outside the circle of 'cool' kids until they also recognized my particular talent.  Because of this past, I always tried to befriend the targets of teasing, especially the socially anxious loners."

The amazing thing about Raffi is that he does not see himself as a victim, nor does his parents. They simply tell him to do what makes him happy, and they support him. When Raffi questions if his actions are wrong, his parents assure him that there's nothing criminal about his passions. And for this reason, he able to ignore opinions that suggest that he succumb to ideas of how to behave. 

"The power of the story is that eventually the rest of his world comes around to his point of view, just by observing his passion, his skill and his refusal to succumb to their ideas of how he should behave.  I think the book is for everyone, because don't we all feel different when we are growing up?  Maybe we look different, have difference physical or intellectual abilities or any of the multitude of differences that seem so important when we are young," said Pomranz.

When researching for his book, Pomranz did a great deal of research and conducted interviews. He heard stories from parents and children about judgment and fear. And through his work, he confirmed long-held suspicions, such as bullying and teasing has long-term affects, and words and violence can irreparably undermine one's esteem.

Formative years are a difficult time to be mocked because children are becoming the people who they're going to be as adults. Young victims of bullying show signs of anxiety, depression and also conduct problems and psychotic symptoms. Also, problems related to children's mental health can persist even after the bullying has stopped, sometimes up until mid-life.  

"We all deserve the chance to try on different identities -- it is a normal part of growing up!  Perhaps even some adults who read the book will think about their preconceived notions of what boys should be like and girls should be like.  Home and school should be safe places to experiment," said Pomranz. "I would love for 'Made for Raffi' to be a catalyst for conversations in schools and at home.  Parents and teachers are looking for ways to teach their kids tolerance and kindness.  I hope the book will provide an entry point for them to talk about the pressure to conform and the importance of letting everyone be who they want to be."

To learn more about bullying and its damaging effect, check out Stopbullying.gov, theBullyProject.com, American Psychological Association, National Bullying Prevention Center, Latino Literacy and We Need Diverse Books.

© 2015 Latin Post. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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