• Grace McKinney

¿Por qué no los dos?: A Note on Bilingual Books

This week, Gaby and I had the pleasure of leading another Parent Education discussion for a small toddler Montessori school here in Cambridge, MA. We offered our typical presentation—how to choose and use beautiful books in an inviting, encouraging way—but we also had something new to tackle. We were presenting to a group of parents and educators raising their toddlers in bilingual, and some multilingual, homes.

Now, I don't know how Gaby would slot herself, but beside my barely passable collection of French and Spanish phrases, I am decidedly monolingual. This rendered me a little apprehensive about what to offer the group in terms of books to encourage and promote the effective learning of two or more languages in a child's earliest years. Yes, children below age six are in a sensitive period for language and are particularly capable of learning more than one. But how can books best help in the process? Is it best to have books fully in one language or the other? Should Spanish words (the second language in many of this school's homes) be framed and defined by a largely English narrative? But what about the children whose primary language is Spanish? Will that make them feel secondary or distanced?

Frankly, I was stuck on a simple question: What the heck makes a bilingual book? Sure, you can find any number of translations of the most popular English books for children in Spanish, French, and other widely spoken languages, but that doesn't make it bilingual... It just makes it translated. And, yes, there are books that include the narrative fully in both Spanish and English, tactfully (or... not so tactfully) placed alongside one another on the page. Is that, in the most literal form, a bilingual book? Or is it bilingual when at least some of the words and phrases are in a second language? When is it enough of the other language, though?

Or is the book made bilingual in how—or by whom—it is read?

Are you catching on that this article is mostly based in questions?

In our search for options for the bilingual home and classroom, we found examples of everything from books fully translated from English to Spanish, books which integrated English and Spanish in a single narrative, as well as books which included the text fully in both English and Spanish. The execution of each varied, and we hoped that what we found ultimately would be useful, and, of course, enjoyable, in the classroom and the home.

In the fully-translated camp, we gathered Soñadores by Yuyi Morales and Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre by Juana Martinez-Neal. Both narratives about characters from a Latinx background and by authors of similar backgrounds, these picture books seemed like natural choices for examples of narratives that would translate beautifully, though it's obviously hard-to-impossible for me to judge the Spanish side of things. When it comes to finding translated books, it's possible that authors who speak both languages have done the translations themselves, which means you could be in for a more artfully rendered, honest translation.

Among the books that opted for the more integrated approach, we found Marta! Big and Small by Jen Arena, illustrated by Angela Dominguez, and Round is a Tortilla: A Book of Shapes, along with its siblings Green is a Chile Pepper and One is a Piñata, by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by John Parra. Each of these books sprinkle Spanish vocabulary into largely English text, making them more helpful for basic concepts like size, shape, and opposites in the Spanish language for English speakers. The illustrations were critical in these, providing context and visual cues for the vocabulary being introduced, and Dominguez's playful Marta and Parra's stunning detail in his signature illustrative style do not disappoint.

Finally, Viva Frida, another Yuyi Morales title, and a board book called Los Pollitos / Little Chickies by Susie Jaramillo, just one in her series of Canticos texts, served as our examples of texts fully in English and Spanish. Viva Frida is one of the many picture book renderings of Frida Kahlo, but Morales' spare text and captivating multimedia illustrations make this a really compelling choice for toddler readers. The Spanish words appear almost as shadows behind the English text as the reader follows Frida and her pet monkey through her garden. It's as rich with tiny illustrative details as it is brief in words, making it all the more exciting for little curious eyes. And, though we didn't have Jaramillo's board book from the library in time for our presentation, it was such a joy to unfold—literally. Its accordion shape made the lift-the-flap book readable in English from one side and Spanish from the other, a pretty perfect way to make a single book do double duty for the bilingual reader. Though there are many, many options out there for more test-heavy English/Spanish bilingual books, these fit the bill for the toddler audience we were looking for this time.

One thing we learned from the Head of School during the evening was that a child learning more than one language should have consistency in who speaks that language with them. Meaning, if Dad is fluent in Spanish and Mom's strong suit is more along the English-to-Spanglish spectrum, let Dad be the face of Spanish and Mom take the reins on English. With a whirlwind of vocabulary, accents, and grammar to sort through, maintaining a single face for a single language seems to be best practice for the young child.

This tidbit of information left me puzzling over whether or not the case may be the same for a book. It could maybe, possibly, mean that a book should stick to a single language so that it, like the face of a parent, teacher, or loved one, offers the child a single story in a single language—consistency in its story and solidarity in its position as an object.

But it's also possible that that's not the case. Perhaps it's helpful to show the young child that a story can be told in many ways and in a variety of languages, capitalizing on the Rosenblatt argument that "books don't simply happen to people. People happen to books." I'm no expert, as I hope you've come to realize through this little piece, but I am certainly hoping and willing to learn.

Give us your take! What makes a book bilingual? (Please help.) And what are some of the best ones out there—Spanish, French, and beyond?

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