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BOOKSHELF / FOR YOUNG READERS

A Fine Blossoming of Bilingual Offerings

January 01, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subject of bilingual education stirred deep passions among teachers, students and parents last year and figures to remain a hot-button issue in 1998. But regardless of bilingual education's fate at the polls, the fact remains that Southern California has become a place with two distinct dominant languages.

A number of small imprints, such as Texas' Arte Publico Press, recognized the need for quality bilingual children's books long ago and have done an impressive job meeting the demand. Now, according to Publishers Weekly, many of the big publishers are making a major effort to penetrate the market, offering everything from Spanish-language translations of popular titles to English-language stories that spotlight Latino culture to side-by-side English-Spanish books that bridge both languages.

Clearly the best side-by-side children's book I've run across is Ofelia Dumas Lachtman's "Pepita Talks Twice/Pepita Habla Dos Veces" (Arte Publico Press, 28 pages, $14.95), first released in 1995. It's the story of Pepita, a bilingual girl. Everyone from the corner grocer to her grade-school teacher relies on her for interpretation.

Eventually she grows weary of the responsibility and vows never to speak Spanish again "because I'm tired of talking twice." But that promise proves easier to make than to keep, and Pepita comes to appreciate her special talent. Beautifully illustrated by Alex Pardo DeLange, the story shows how bilingual skills allow children to move seamlessly from one culture to another, experiencing the best of both as they go.

"Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English" (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 37 pages, $16) pairs the talents of noted children's author Alma Flor Ada with the richness of Simon Silva's artwork. Using the letters of the Spanish alphabet as a template, Ada (a Fulbright scholar and professor of education at the University of San Francisco) takes readers into fields and orchards via 28 poems that celebrate the history and heritage of the farm worker.

However, the words pale next to Silva's inspired illustrations, heart-rending gouache paintings drawn from his own childhood memories of life in the fields. The son of a migrant farm worker, Silva began picking crops near Holtville at age 8.

"Because of the lack of respect for this type of labor," he says, "I grew up with a certain amount of shame about who I was."

The power of his work in "Gathering the Sun" can't help but leave readers with a deep respect for those who work the fields.

"Where Fireflies Dance/Ahi, Donde Bailan las Luciernagas" (30 pages, $19.95) comes from Children's Book Press, an impressive nonprofit publisher based in San Francisco and specializing in multicultural and bilingual literature for children. In this book, author Lucha Corpi recalls (in Spanish and English) childhood memories of growing up in Veracruz. She also shares the tale of Juan Sebastian, a local man who was called away to fight in the Mexican Revolution. The book is richly illustrated by Mira Reisberg.

Not all bilingual children's book tell stories. Some, like Susan Middleton Elya's "Say Hola to Spanish" (Lee & Low Books, 28 pages, $14.95), are more intended to teach than to entertain. Elya's book is a Spanish-language primer aimed at English-speaking children. Its bouncy text introduces them to more than 70 simple Spanish words. A glossary and pronunciation guide are included.

For older readers, the bookstores are rich with stories in English of children learning to succeed in a new culture while still honoring an old one. Two of the best come from Arte Publico. In "White Bread Competition" (180 pages, $7.95), Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandez follows Luz, a young Latina from San Antonio, as she tries to qualify for the national spelling bee. Her success forces her to confront some unexpected reactions from her family and her Anglo friends.

Beatriz de la Garza's "Pillars of Gold and Silver" (260 pages, $7.95) offers a twist on the theme of fitting in. Blanca Estela goes from the comforts of life in California to her grandparents' home in Mexico, where poverty and a different language make her life difficult. Unsure of her Spanish and uncomfortable without the amenities she took for the granted in the U.S., she stays mostly to herself at first. But over time she joins the neighborhood children at play, opening the doors to another language, another culture, another world.

For young adults whose primary language is Spanish, the search for quality books in such normal haunts as department stores or bookstore chains can be more frustrating than fruitful. Recently two of Mexico's largest publishing houses have stepped into the void, setting up subsidiaries in Southern California.

Fondo de Cultura Economica, the massive government publisher known for its scholarly titles, has begun expanding the number of children's offerings available through its San Diego office ([619] 429-0455), while Fernandez Editores, among Mexico's leading distributors of educational materials, has a distribution center in Carson ([310] 233-4920) well-stocked with everything from dictionaries to translations of such literary classics as "Oliver Twist," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Gone With the Wind."

* Kevin Baxter reviews books for children and young adults every four weeks. Next week: D. James Romero looks at books on pop culture.

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