CLACS summer series introduces Latin American kids’ lit

The International Youth Library was established in Germany in the aftermath of World War II. Founder Jella Lepman strongly believed that children’s books were one of the best vehicles with which to raise children in a world of empathy and understanding.

Today, Julie Kline tears up when she thinks about that mission.

“There are a lot of people in children’s books with good will who are really keen to make connections,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons she and Natasha Borges Sugiyama were so excited to virtually host children’s authors for this year’s annual CLACS summer series.

Kline is the associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UWM, and Borges Sugiyama is its director. As part of the Center’s mission to provide outreach and support for Latin American education in the region and around the world, they organize the CLACS summer series each year, which focuses on a unique aspect or issue pertaining to Latin America.

This year, the focus was on children’s authors. CLACS was well-poised for such an event; for 18 years, the Center administered the Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Books which recognizes authors who “authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.”

Arranging authors

The summer series spanned six sessions, each held virtually in both English and Spanish. Starting in June and taking place periodically throughout the summer, each talk was hosted by a moderator and invited book authors and illustrators to discuss their stories.

Kline worked closely with the International Youth Library to coordinate the events.

“It’s the largest of international children’s books in the world. It’s an associated project of UNESCO,” Kline explained. “I wrote to Jochen Weber, the person there in charge of the Latin American section, and said, I have this idea; could we work together?”

Weber was delighted; he suggested six authors and also suggested moderators to lead the sessions, resulting in lively conversations.

“A partnership with an organization in Germany to identify authors based in Latin America – it’s really this global reach that Julie was able to pull off, which is so incredible,” Borges Sugiyama said.

Meeting each author was inspiring and educational, but for Kline, Brazilian illustrator Roger Mello particularly stood out.

“He has a lot of books that deal with social justice issues in Brazil and youth. One of his books is called ‘Charcoal Boys.’ It examines youth who make their living by producing charcoal,” Kline said. “The visuals are so incredible. It takes you into a story you likely didn’t know before.”

The one downside to discovering so many wonderful new Latin American book creators, she added, is that so few of the books are available to audiences in the U.S. Many have not yet been translated to English.

Connections worldwide

But this was exactly the point of the CLACS summer series, said Kline – to expose attendees from around the world to literature they may have never seen before.

And truly, she said, they were from around the world. As the series wrapped up, CLACS counted 500 unique guests from more than 35 countries and every continent except for Antarctica. All attended via Zoom, with some exceptions.

“We had some Cuban participants sign up at the very beginning. I had not known that Zoom was not accessible to Cubans in their country,” said Kline. “We did some playing around and set up Facebook Live for them, because they could access Facebook.”

Audience members, especially those from Latin America, were excited to see a U.S. university shine a thoughtful spotlight on Latin American culture and literature.

“The series has provided a true mosaic of current Latin American literature for children and young people. It has brought together some of the most representative voices and has managed to cover different literary genres,” wrote Denise Ocampo Alvarez, a faculty member at the University of Havana in Cuba. “In short, the series has been an example of quality and plurality and an extraordinary opportunity for its audience.”

Even though the summer series has concluded, the world will still be able to learn about these authors and illustrators. The U.S. Board on Books for Young People has asked to link to CLACS’ recordings of each talk, and a foundation in Chile has expressed an interest in doing so as well.

It’s a gratifying feeling, said Borges Sugiyama.

“We might often think about films and music and dance, but I do think another piece of that cultural production … that maybe is underrecognized, is the young adult and children’s book field,” she said. “This is such a great opportunity for us to highlight different stories, different voices, different perspectives.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science