Local bookstore partner shares experiences from book-delivering trip at U.S.-Mexico border

Daniel Fernandez, Reporter

A co-owner of a local bookstore discussed the importance of multilingual children’s literature for Latino refugee children at Evanston Public Library on Saturday.

EPL kicked off a monthly series about children’s literature on Saturday with a presentation from Jeff Garrett, who spoke about his experiences traveling to the Rio Grande Valley as part of a project to help bring books to refugee children living along the U.S.-Mexico border. Garrett is a partner of Bookends and Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Ave.

Garrett’s August 2014 trip to the Rio Grande Valley was led primarily by the International Board on Books for Young People and REFORMA, an organization that works to promote library and information services for Latinos and Spanish-speaking individuals in the U.S. As a member of IBBY, Garrett helped organize the trip, which included visits to government, church and private agencies responding to the refugee crisis in Latin America.

“We wanted to see first-hand the work underway to improve the quality of life of arrested and detained central American refugee children … as well as to see how they could be supported through books and reading,” Garrett said.

Since 2009, more than 186,000 children have been detected and detained coming across the border, escaping from countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which are plagued by incredible violence, Garrett said.

“The US government has been extremely self-contradictory in calling these children and families migrants,” Garrett said. “We want a greater appreciation for the status of these children as refugees of violence rather than economic migrants.”

Garrett described the Rio Grande as “ground zero” for this refugee crisis in the U.S., as many children undergo the dangerous trek alone, often traveling on freight trains that can derail and leave them at the mercy of bandit groups. He said if children make it across the border, they are often dehydrated and in poor health. Even once immediate needs are addressed, there is still more work to be done for their well-being, Garrett said.

“For all the talk of providing emergency services to children and parents there are legal, medical and other emergency responses are needed,” he said. “We need to be addressing the social, emotional and information needs of these children and families, even if they cannot read.”

Garrett said during the trip he and his colleagues distributed 1,200 books to immigrant children in the Rio Grande Valley. He said culturally relevant books with narratives that pay homage to the experiences of refugees allow young people to gain respect for themselves and their communities.

Lesley Williams, head of adult library services at EPL, said this lesson in diverse narratives applies to all children. She said there is still a belief among publishers that although children of color will read books about white children, it is less likely for white children to read books about non-white protagonists.

The EPL Literary Salon series, led by EPL’s collection manager Betsy Bird, focuses on various issues within the realm of children’s literature. Before joining EPL last year, Bird ran the program under a different name at the New York Public Library.

“Part of what the salons do is give a gravitas and respect to a long-standing genre that is constantly evolving,” Bird said. “When I came to Evanston I wanted to continue the series because one of the very few places besides New York City where you can get that much variety for topics is Chicago.”

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