Un mensaje de los niños: Screw Newt

The Texas Bluebonnet Award is a special dignity that third- through sixth-graders do not bestow lightly, if I remember my overly serious days in elementary, reading heavyhitters like Judy Blume (1982 Bluebonnet winner for the little brother disaster tale Superfudge) and the story of a starving stray puppy that Bill Wallace (1983 Bluebonnet winner, A Dog Called Kitty) wrote to break little kids’ hearts.

For the past 28 years, the pool of Bluebonnet candidates have been selected by librarians, who put together a master list of 20 titles they’ve observed their tiny charges checking out or that teachers recommend. Eight- to 12-year-old critics commit to reading five books from the list — making the Bluebonnet the largest children’s reading program in the country. According to its sponsor, the Texas Library Association, more than 170,000 kids did the reading and 23,580 cast a vote for their favorite: 2006-07 Bluebonnet winner Ghost Fever/Mal de Fantasma by Joe Hayes.

It’s the first time a bilingual book was selected. And in a state where 16 percent of school-age children have limited English skills, a figure that is expected to grow, this could be the dawning of dual-language Bluebonnet books.

“I feel like my bilingual approach to storytelling has helped Spanish-speaking children feel proud of their heritage and at the same time has helped non-Hispanic children open up to and appreciate the Spanish language and Hispanic culture,” wrote Hayes, a native of Pennsylvania and current New Mexico resident, in an email. “I think it’s really important that my own heritage is not Hispanic. It defuses the ‘us and them’ way of looking at language. For Hispanic kids I’m one of ‘them’ honoring ‘our’ language, and for non-Hispanic kids it’s one of ‘us’ honoring ‘their’ language. Barriers are lowered; rigid attitudes are softened; a better sense of community is fostered.”

Tell that to former House Speaker and presidential doubtful Newt Gingrich, who dubbed bilingual education “the language of living in a ghetto” last month, and whose recent pained YouTube apology en Español seemed as wary of the Romance language as Téa Leoni is of a good role.

“Newt Gingrich is appealing to people’s fear of change,” says Hayes. “It’s the old ‘there goes the neighborhood’ paranoia with a new twist. As those of us who lived through the era of the civil-rights struggle know, old attitudes die hard. But change does happen. People of good will work to channel the change in positive ways, rather than try to build dams and hold it back.”

I doubt the kids who cast Bluebonnet votes at 1,700 libraries across the state consciously voted for change. They probably just dug the story of un inquilino, a renter, his daughter, and the ghost in the quinceañera dress — the symbol of Latina becoming — whose “head was twisted around at a crazy, unnatural angle, like her neck was broken. And the flesh just seemed to be dripping away from the bones of her face.”

For all the xenophobic gestures Gingrich and his GOP party make — from proposing bills to deny automatic citizenship benefits to American born babies of undocumented immigrants (Texas’s House Bill 28, courtesy Tyler alarmist Leo Berman, who railed against “anchor babies” in the Houston Chronicle: “We’ve been invaded without firing a shot.”) to bills that would do away bilingual education requirements in schools (HB 3617, by Representative Bill Zedler from Arlington) — it’s reassuring to see kids can’t resist a good old fashioned gross-out cuento, en cualquier idioma. 


The Texas Library Association will honor author Joe Hayes at its 2007 Texas Bluebonnet Award luncheon Thursday at noon at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.


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