Despite budget cuts and insufficient bilingual staffing, United States libraries continue to invest money expanding Spanish-language children’s and YA collections to meet the growing need of their patrons. In 2013, nearly one out of every four children in the U.S. is Hispanic. In 2011, a record 23.9% of pre-k through 12th grade public school students were Hispanic, with similar numbers in public kindergartens and nursery schools.

It’s true that the monolingual zeitgeist of yesteryear may have once pressured immigrants to acculturate by speaking only in English. But in the globalized information world of today, where we’re connected to our homelands more than ever before, being multilingual is a cultural and economic asset. This might explain why Spanish-language easy readers, picture books, and board books continue to register higher circulation numbers in the nation’s libraries than the adult collections. This upward trend means more bilingual Hispanic patrons seeking books in Spanish from their local libraries. Though it’s not only Hispanic children checking out Dr. Seuss’s Huevos verdes con jamón.

According to Alex Correa, CEO and president of the Spanish-language book distributor Lectorum, non-Latino parents wanting to teach their kids Spanish is also driving demand in this category. Close to 70% of Lectorum’s sales are in children’s and YA materials, and he credits the rise of dual language systems in the nation’s schools for fueling his current business. “It’s not only Latino children who are reading these books, but non-Latinos learning Spanish,” says Correa. He adds that though sales to public libraries have been flat in the past three years, business has occasionally gone up when it comes to children’s books.

Standing at the forefront of this rising demand are American librarians, multicultural-minded gatekeepers who carefully select which kinds of domestic and international Spanish-language books make it onto the shelves. They are the ones building these collections from scratch in parts of the country with new and rising Latino populations, like South Carolina, or ever expanding mammoth ones, like California, Texas, and Florida. What do librarians look for when buying books in Spanish? What are the challenges they face? Here’s what careful librarians bear in mind when building their Spanish-language kids’ collections.

The Quest for Universal Spanish

All the experts PW spoke to agreed that language is one of the most important factors in selecting books for kids. Given the wide range of regionalisms in Latin America and Spain—local expressions, idioms, varying vocabulary—librarians have to keep their language radar on with every book they consider. Rejecting or including a title with regionalisms often comes down to a case by case basis. Maria Gentle, youth services librarian at Arlington Central in Virginia, looks for that “one word that is used in a special way in Spain that means something completely different in Latin America. In a picture book, with only five words on a page, it stands out. In a novel, it’s no big deal,” says Gentle.

A community’s demographics also comes into play in selection, and a librarian has to know what countries her patrons hail from in Latin America. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the largest Latino community in the U.S. are people of Mexican descent, with 33.5 million (64.5% of all Latinos), followed by Puerto Ricans at 4.9 million, Salvadorans at 2.0 million, Cubans at 1.9 million, and Dominicans at 1.5 million. Choosing to include titles from and about Mexico is a smart idea for any collection nationwide, but there are still all the countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean to consider in a collection as well.

The distributor Linda Goodman, of Bilingual Publications, is well aware of the red flags she must search for in her selection process. “Without a doubt, an interjection such as Spain’s ¡vale! (okay) will appear strange to a child from Peru or Puerto Rico or any child from Latin America, for that matter, who is not Spanish. Latin Americans are more accustomed to hearing ¡de acuerdo!” In response, most good distributors will make a note in their electronic catalogues advising librarians if a book contains regionalisms. For instance, Brodart’s Nerissa Moran examines each book placed on Brodart’s monthly and quarterly lists, and writes annotations to accompany the book, including a language indicator for her customers that will sometimes read: “Of interest to Spanish speakers of all countries.” This way, librarians who can’t get their hands on an actual copy to view will be assured they’re purchasing a title with a neutral Spanish.

But as children grow and build their vocabulary, books with sprinklings of regionalisms, especially in fiction titles, aren’t the end of the world.(It’s like an East Coaster reading a book by a Southern or a British author.) In fact, a well-rounded collection should aim to include plenty of universal Spanish titles for youngsters learning how to read and a careful selection with local flavor from Colombia or Guatemala. This way, children reading Spanish can be exposed to not only the sounds of their homelands but those of their Latino peers.

Librarians are vigilant not only about imported books. If a title is translated from English into Spanish by a domestic house, they are also checking for poor translations found too often in U.S. published titles due to the lack of in-house Spanish-language editors and copyeditors that work the text after it’s been sent out for translation. What are some indicators of a poor translation? If the translator is not listed on the title page or on the copyright page. Or if the illustrations and the text alongside do not complement each other.

Librarians Opine:Their Community and Their Wants

Aside from evaluating the Spanish, librarians will also ask themselves questions like these before purchasing a children’s book. Are the illustrations wonderful and do they draw the reader in? Is the story complete or does it leave readers hanging? Is there a good balance between text and image? Is this book sturdy enough to withstand all the circulation? Is the typeface placed on a clear background so that every word is readable? Is this nonfiction book accurate and are the descriptions developed for a child? Most specialists will also look for books with images that represent Latino children in a sensitive and realistic manner. An entire collection made up of books with illustrations of children with fair hair and light eyes will not connect as strongly with children who have predominantly brown hair and dark eyes.

For instance, books like the ones written by the three-time Pura Belpré Award honoree Lulu Delacre are always a success with the Latino community at Arlington Public Library’s reading events. Delacre writes in English, but the stories and illustrations have a Latin feel. And according to Gentle, “When her stories are translated into Spanish they’re great and speak to a wide range of age groups.” Her favorite? Cuentos de Sazón (Salsa Stories), a Scholastic paperback, that includes short stories about several Latin American holidays and customs.

Arlington’s Spanish-language collection keeps growing with the expanding Latino population. Its budget last year was around $10,000 (“modest,” Gentle notes, compared to Chicago or New York Public’s high six-figure budgets) and about 10% of the library’s collection is in Spanish, including adults. She credits the fact that the library’s children’s collection in Spanish gets the most use to the large number of Hispanics as well as students studying Spanish from Arlington’s school district. “Since many [public schools] don’t have easy access to books in Spanish, they encourage the kids to go to the library.”

Gentle, who works with such distributors as Bilingual Publications and Lectorum, is one of the few librarians these days given a yearly travel budget to attend Mexico’s Feria Internacional de Libro de Guadalajara (FIL) and Spain’s Liber to buy books, occasionally attending Argentina and Colombia’s book fairs as well. For her, fairs are the best way to get to know international publishers and the types of books they offer. “You need to see the materials,” says Gentle. “Without blogs or critical reviews to guide you, sometimes you are ordering blind.” When librarians aren’t hunting for regionalisms or judging a book’s structural issues, they are also prowling for images that may not be as accepted in the U.S. as they are in Europe or Latin America. “Someone had published a very nice set of books on the human body that were well-packaged and attractive, and I said, ‘great, I’m going to get two or three of these.’ But when I got to the pullout page there was a visual of the penis in this European book. So if you’re relying solely on a distributor’s catalogue for all your selection, you wouldn’t have been able to spot this.” Fonts can also be problematic for a librarian like Gentle who seeks lettering that young readers can read easily. “We went to Liber and met with the small Spanish publisher Algar, which had cute board books, but with cursive lettering. We told them that in the U.S. block lettering is preferred, and they listened to us. When we visited again in the following years, they had cursive and block lettering books.”

Arlington’s current children’s collection contains 60% imports and 40% domestically published titles, a reflection of its patrons’ wide-ranging international tastes. In 2010, Arlington’s Hispanic population registered at 15.2%, according to the census. The community is dominated by a majority of Salvadorans, followed by Bolivians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, and Colombians.

Out west, in Salinas, Calif., librarian Diana Borrego caters to a community of 150,441 residents, 75% Latinos of Mexican descent and 60% that speak Spanish at home. It’s Steinbeck country, an agricultural city where the locals work the fields and a community struggles with literacy. But according to Borrego, “It’s a truly bilingual community. Kids take out books both in Spanish and in English, and there’s a natural flow between languages.” The Salinas Public Library’s Cesar Chavez branch was recently expanded and renovated and reopened its doors on December 16, 2012. Despite rain, the library had 5,000 visitors that day and still receives around 1,000 daily.

Borrego was given a budget of $65,848 for Spanish-language materials for its new opening-day collection (40% of its book budget went to children’s). Unlike Gentle, Borrego does not have a travel budget to attend international book fairs, so she relies on distributors such as Brodart, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and more to help her with her selection. Cesar Chavez has also cut back on a cataloguer, another reason she’s dependent on distributors to do that for her. To fill the gaps in her collections, she knows each distributor’s strengths and weak points. “It’s like going to a restaurant; you know which dish to order from a certain place and what not to order from another.” Certain distributors are known for keeping old stock of only classic U.S. translations into Spanish that will quickly replace that picture book that fell apart in one year’s circulation. Others include specialty and international titles that are hard to come by. Some are faster or more generous with their time, and don’t make you wait for a certain number of books to be in stock so they can ship when you needed them yesterday. Borrego especially dislikes asking a distributor for recommended books in a certain genre and receiving a list of 500 titles without descriptions.

These are just a few of the job’s minor headaches for Borrego. Though she’s retired, she still works on-call as one of the few Spanish-speaking librarians in her district. “This place is always packed with Latino families. All of our board books and readers are constantly out, leaving empty shelves,” says Borrego. “It looks like we’re going to need to buy even more books.”

Merging Domestic and International Tastes

Like librarians, every distributor approaches selection differently. For Lectorum, 65% of its books for kids in Spanish are foreign published; for Brodart it’s 75%, and according to Baker & Taylor’s Diane Mangan, director of merchandising for children’s, small press and Spanish, 90% of B&T’s sales come from U.S. publishers. Goodman, of Bilingual Publications, worked with NYPL’s staff in the ’80s to build its children’s collection of entirely foreign books since U.S. publishers still weren’t publishing enough in Spanish; today, the majority of the titles she offers her clients are domestic.

It’s good news that more books are available in Spanish from U.S. houses. The variety and the quantity of domestic Spanish-language offerings has improved and expanded in recent decades. And it’s easier for librarians and the work they do, because instinctively, they’ll choose domestic books first. But while a new generation of librarians might build their collections by selecting only the familiar (translations of popular and classic American titles) that are easy to order, rejecting foreign authors and publishers they’re not familiar with, they must not lose sight that their patrons need books that also mirror what it means to be Latino in the U.S. and the world.

“I wish librarians would be more open to buying books from Mexico, Guatemala, or Argentina, even if they’re not familiar with the publishing companies,” says Goodman. “This will not only make a greater collection, but it will make it easier for readers to relate to the books and therefore want to read more. It can’t all be about American middle-class society or the inner city either. We need a wider range of images that will conjure up images from their homeland, ones that validate other cultures, not just ours.”

What Librarians Want More Of

Easy Readers

Their simple sentence structures and vocabulary enable children to practice reading on their own. Few U.S. publishers offer easy readers, but Santillana has an ample selection, as does Algar and SM.

Early Childhood

For toddlers to kindergarteners there’s still a lack of concept books, alphabet, shapes, and animal board books. Rhyming books are also needed.

Bilingual Books/Flip Format

Forever in demand in all categories, and available from U.S. houses, this format enables children to practice both languages, with Spanish-dominant parents reading to their children, and non-Latinos learning Spanish.

Original Picture Books from Latin America

Finding original picture books, a top-selling category for most distributors, by Latin American authors and illustrators remains difficult. The market is currently dominated by U.S. translations.

Simultaneous Translations of High-Visibility Titles

Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for the book everyone is reading in English to be available in Spanish translation. And this applies to all categories.

Young Adult

U.S. Latinos either gravitate to the few books available about other Latino teens as in Malin Alegria’s books, or they read Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Hunger Games, John Green, or Percy Jackson. Titles from Spain don’t do well.


Current science, biography, sports, holiday, food, and history titles with appealing presentations and appropriate content have been in demand for years. Luckily, U.S. publishers like Rosen, Rourke, and Charlesbridge are filling some demand.

Critical Reviews

With the closing of Críticas and limited coverage in PW, SLJ, and LJ, there are few publications to consult for quality reviews. Some librarians turn to TintaFresca and America Reads Spanish for guidance.

Audio Books

Other than the classics, there’s still not much of popular, mainstream titles.