Book Review: Once Upon a Cuento, Bilingual Storytimes in English and Spanish

Martín Blasco, Washington County Cooperative Library Services, OR /

When I was asked to review Once Upon a Cuento, Bilingual Storytimes in English and Spanish by Jamie Campbell Naidoo and Katie Scherrer, I have to confess that I was skeptical. The idea of reading and reviewing another book with samples of bilingual or monolingual storytimes was not on my radar. Although I don't personally know the authors, I know of their excellent work and credibility. My concern when I began reading the book was that there would be a clear theoretical framework of why a bilingual storytime should be used instead of one in a single language.

Following the practices of Every Child Ready to Read 2, especially the practice of Talking, I know the importance of parents speaking to their children in their native language. The result is more fluid conversation, the building of more vocabulary, and better familial and social interaction.

Campbell Naidoo and Scherrer provide statistics to show the importance of addressing the literacy needs of Latinos and Spanish-speakers. There is no doubt that the country is going through a rapid demographic change which is modifying the cultural landscape. As librarians, we have to be prepared.

Latin@s constitute 17% of the total population, however, no more than 2% of books published in the United States have significant Latino content or are by Latino authors, and not necessarily in Spanish. Latin@s, like any cultural population, need to see themselves reflected not only in publications but also in library programs that are sensitive to their needs.

This book covers many fronts, from outreach to planning and implementing bilingual storytime, as well as ideas and samples appropriate for all age groups, even families with mixed-age children.

Although offering this kind of program may be daunting for non-Spanish speaking librarians or library staff, the authors make clear from the beginning that this book is directed to everybody who is interested or has the need to implement bilingual programs. They give sound advice on how to break the language barrier.

Children whose first language is Spanish have the challenge of learning a new language. For instance they need to acquire the skills necessary to gain knowledge in English. If they have been exposed to practices of early learning in their home language, they will have a smoother transition learning the second one.

Parents whose native language is Spanish sometimes force their children to speak English. By doing this, they are not taking advantage of the child's background knowledge to support literacy in the new language. This creates a gap between the child's home and school, therefore their confidence and self-esteem may drop.

In contrast, bilingual storytime allows Latino children to develop their identities and make the transition between their home and their school smoother. Bilingual storytime also exposes other children to a new culture, thus broadening their English literacy knowledge and appreciation. Latino and non-Latino children can feel comfortable in different cultures.

It is important to note that not all Latino children speak Spanish, especially those whose families have been here for generations. The hora de cuentos will allow these children to feel more comfortable within their culture.

Another problem is the lack of titles written by Latin@s whether in English, Spanish or bilingual. This can negatively affect the identity and self-esteem of Latino children when they cannot see themselves reflected and represented in the library's collection. Books written by Latino authors do not necessarily have to be in Spanish if they have a culturally appropriate content.

"There is no doubt that the country is going through a rapid demographic change which is modifying the cultural landscape. As librarians, we have to be prepared."

The organization of this program requires a fundamental step: outreach. Latino/Spanish-speaking families who attend an activity like a bilingual storytime may acquire a positive perception of the public library. This would bring families into the library who are not aware of the services. The authors emphasize the relevance of targeting the community, of getting out of the library's physical space. They not only explain why outreach is important, but also give plenty of suggestions of how to implement outreach, including marketing and advertising strategies. In this manner, the library makes a critical difference in the community.

Campbell Naidoo and Scherrer are aware of, and address, the limitations that many libraries have, like limited personnel, the lack of bilingual and bicultural librarians, and the low number of published books by Latino writers and illustrators. Nevertheless, this does not have to be an impediment, and the authors provide plenty of examples and resources of how to reach out and to provide bilingual storytimes as well as displays of the collection.

The authors make sure to emphasize that either bilingual or Spanish-only storytimes have benefits. Librarians have to be sensitive about the conformation of the community: Are the Latino families attending storytime bilingual, or English or Spanish-speakers only? Who else is attending the program? This is the aspect with which I was concerned. This book provided me with the answers for why, how, when and where to use bilingual storytime, as well as the appropriate program according to children's ages (babies, toddlers, preschoolers and mixed-age).

They also include a chapter on the use of digital media.

The second part of the book, almost half of it, is about "ready-to-use" models and examples for bilingual storytimes for different ages with an emphasis in bilingual books and Latino writers and/or illustrators. It includes routines, books, songs, movements and resources that are practical, easy and accessible for everybody working with preschoolers or families.

Finally, the authors offer print and online resources to use in storytimes.

This is a unique book, and I recommended Once Upon a Cuento to anyone interested in implementing bilingual storytimes in English and Spanish.


About Martín Blasco

A native of Argentina, Martín Blasco, has worked with underserved communities for many years. Before becoming a librarian, he carried out ethnographic and social research among drug users in New York City. He pursued his studies in librarianship at Long Island University, NY. Upon receiving his MLS, he began working in Peekskill, NY, where his outreach work began not as an official title, but by necessity to serve new immigrants, especially the undocumented. He is working now as an Outreach Librarian for Latino and Youth Services Program at Washington County Cooperative Library Services, OR.

Before Bilingual Storytime

If you are new to bilingual storytime, or would like to increase attendance in an existing program, WebJunction has a place to start!

Katie Scherrer, consultant and co-author of Once Upon a Cuento: Bilingual Storytime in English and Spanish, and Lauren Simon, Community Librarian at Tualatin Public Library, presented the webinar Before Bilingual Storytime: The Outreach Bridge to Engaging Latino and Spanish-speaking Families, covering strategies for library outreach to and engagement with Latino and Spanish-speaking communities and laying the groundwork for successful programming.

Read a summary of the webinar (with lots of great additional resources).

Watch the webinar recording for free here.