Texas Tech University

International Literacy Day: Education Professor Finds Passion in Bilingual Novels

Heidi Toth

September 8, 2015

The lack of Latino representation in American literature inspired René Saldaña Jr. to write children’s novels.

René Saldaña Jr.

Half a century ago, UNESCO designated Sept. 8 as International Literacy Day, inviting people the world over to rejoice in reading and raise awareness of those who can't read. The cost of illiteracy is estimated at more than $1 trillion worldwide, and people who are not functionally literate face limited employment opportunities, welfare dependence and greater propensity toward crime. Illiteracy is most common among women and girls, though it is found in both genders, among all races and in every country.

One way Texas Tech University education professor René Saldaña Jr. found to help people enjoy reading was to write books geared toward Spanish speakers. He found when he created characters who looked like his readers, more readers were drawn to those characters. He saw the importance of this first-hand, since he was working on his master's degree the first time he saw a book with a Hispanic last name on the cover.

He was so excited that he sent Sandra Cisneros' “The House on Mango Street” to his sister, telling her she would love it. She wrote back, including a book she'd never returned to her high school English teacher – “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya.

In the next few years he found more Hispanic authors – Denise Chavez, Julia Alvarez – but the number remained small. It wasn't just authors, either. He found few books with Latino characters.

“This is why I write these Latino characters, because these stories do exist and they're important to share with readers,” he said.

Saldaña, an associate professor of language literacy in the Texas Tech University College of Education, is the author of 10 children's books, which are a mix of fiction, short stories and a mystery series about fifth-grade detective Mickey Rangel. The Mickey Rangel series is published in both English and Spanish and crafted in such a way that both languages get a book cover. It's a novel idea.

“I jumped at the chance,” Saldaña said of writing in this format.

History of writing

The Jumping Tree
Saldaña's first novel.

Saldaña's educational background is in creative writing, and he taught creative writing before becoming a professor at Texas Tech. His first novel, published in 2001, is called “The Jumping Tree,” a semiautobiographical tale told through a collection of short stories.

The book he enjoyed writing the most is “A Good Long Way,” which tells the stories of three children, all in different voices and points of view and tied together through the voice of an omniscient narrator. Three publishers told him the work was too experimental to be successful until Arte Público, a Houston publishing house, picked it up.

That relationship led Arte Público's children's publishing house, Piñata Books, to pick up the Mickey Rangel series, which are experimental in a different way. Saldaña said he wrote the books in English, but when he approached the publisher, Piñata Books staff suggested making the children's novels a flip book. Instead of a front and back cover, the books have a Spanish cover and an English cover. To read in the other language, a reader simply flips the book over.

This was a change from most bilingual books, which have one page in English and the same page following in Spanish. That seemed to relegate the Spanish to a less important place, Saldaña said.

“The idea is language is such a political issue, and traditionally in translations you get one page in English and the second in Spanish,” he said. “Visually it does create this notion that there is a first language and a second, and a kid picking up a book shouldn't have to see his familial language in a secondary position.”

Saldaña loved the idea. He liked that readers could experience the Spanish novel as an independent work, but also because his mother, who neither reads nor speaks English, could read the books. Up until this point, he'd give her a book and she'd take it, wait the amount of time reading the book would take, then call to say the book was wonderful.

“Now that they're coming out in bilingual form she gets to read a lot of my stuff,” he said.


A Good Long Way
The book Saldaña enjoyed writing most.

Saldaña's teaching experience runs the gamut, from public education to teaching would-be teachers how to teach to teaching doctoral candidates the philosophy behind language literacy, which is his field. Without this teaching experience, he said, his writing experience would be much different.

“I think I would have run out of ideas for kids stories if I wasn't in the system itself,” he said.

He still spends time around children, as he frequently speaks at schools about his books. Often a student will tell him how much he or she enjoyed Saldaña's book. Later, the student's teacher often tells Saldaña about that student's struggle with reading or feeling left out in the schools. They tell him his books are making a difference.

He doesn't assign his books to his students, but now that he's mostly teaching teachers, he tells them to do read-alongs and frequently demonstrates the skill to his teacher candidates. This year he also assigned a book to his education students: “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez. It focuses on how cultural diversity affects the classroom. The writer came to the United States as a young child who spoke no English, but he went through the system with a mix of good and bad teachers. It's a good way for would-be teachers to think about how they will address cultural diversity in their classrooms, a necessary skill in every classroom in the United States.

“One thing I would recommend is to get to know the children as quickly as possible,” Saldaña said. “Get to know them as individuals instead of as a block of one heritage. Make classes as inclusive as possible.”

How to pick a book

The Case of the Pen Gone Missing
The books have a Spanish cover and an English cover. To read in the other language,  simply flip the book over.

Saldaña has always enjoyed mysteries, and now he's reading Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbø. His wife, who is Swedish, introduced him to Swedish mysteries, so he decided to branch out through Scandinavia.

While he does get a number of book recommendations, though, that's not his only method for choosing a book. Sometimes he hearkens back to his middle school days, when his book selection took a methodical turn.

He'd start with the first bookshelf, top shelf, far left book. He'd pull each book out. If the cover looked interesting, he'd read the first line. If the first line was interesting, he'd read the first paragraph, then onto the first page. If by the first chapter he was still interested, he checked out the book.

If at any point in those checks he lost interest, he'd put the book back and move to the next one, moving down the shelf each time he went to the library.

“Teachers would say, ‘Don't judge a book by its cover,' but that's what I did,” Saldaña said. “If it wasn't interesting looking I wasn't cracking it open.”

It still works, he said, particularly for a child who may walk into a library and find the sheer volume of volumes overwhelming.

He does not reread many books, but before teaching and children, he had a few classics that he tried to read each year, including “Beowulf,” “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises.”