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Field Notes: Lucha Libros: Bilingual Battle of the Books

On May 3, 2017, fifty-six second- and third-graders and their parents gathered in the Pasadena Public Library’s Donald R. Wright Auditorium for the final battle of our third annual Lucha Libros reading competition. That month’s selection was Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox / El Superzorro. As I looked around the room and felt the excitement in the air, I took a moment to breathe it in. I am so lucky to have experienced moments such as these as creator of my library’s bilingual reading program.

Lucha Libros started in response to the growing body of research on the importance of bolstering kids’ reading skills by third grade, and from hearing so many parents (especially non-English-speaking parents) tell me how hard it was to motivate their children — boys in particular — to read. I thought back to my experiences helping out with the annual Battle of the Books at my previous library job, the exhilaration of seeing hundreds of children fired up about a reading competition. I also remembered how each year there’d be a child in tears because his or her team got eliminated. Why did anybody have to be eliminated? Why did anybody have to cry? I wanted to create a program that would leave each child feeling good at the end. Maybe with prizes ranging in value. And I wanted the program to be bilingual, with books in Spanish as well as English, so that Spanish-speaking parents could be engaged in reading the same books as their kids.

The bilingual reading club’s logo.

And so Lucha Libros was born. I developed a list of books I knew I could find in English and Spanish (many kids chose to take copies in both languages). That first year, I emphasized nonfiction. I used books from the Magic School Bus and You Wouldn’t Want to Be series, and I also had a few chapter books from the Magic Tree House series, the Origami Yoda series, and the Max’s Lucha Libre Adventures series. I put out a call for staff volunteers. Librarians and paraprofessional staff all pitched in to read books and write questions that I then translated into Spanish. Others volunteered to be scorekeepers. Our city’s graphic designer created a beautiful Lucha Libros–themed logo for our fliers. I bought prizes from the ninety-nine-cent store, and also brought out our old stash of prizes from past Summer Reading Challenges. I spread the word to second- and third-grade teachers and invited students to come to an information night in September. There, children made Lucha Libre masks, got Lucha Libre names, and posed as wrestlers in photos with their masks on. Already this book club had all the excitement of a sporting event!

After that, every first Wednesday of the month from October through May, participants would come to the library’s auditorium to spend time together and answer questions about that month’s selection. For each correct answer, they’d get points and Lucha Libros tickets, which could be exchanged for paperback books, puzzles, and toys at the prize tables. Every kid who came to the event would leave with some type of reward. And at the end of a culminating battle in May, one child would be declared Pasadena’s Lucha Libros Champion, receiving the Lucha Libros belt for accumulating the most points all year.

An enthusiastic participant sporting a Lucha Libre mask and cape. Photo courtesy AnnMarie Hurtado.

But Lucha Libros wasn’t smooth sailing at first. I didn’t have enough copies of the books to give to each kid who came to our info night, so I spent the next several days driving all over Los Angeles County looking for more. The following month, we held our first battle. It was two hours long. I invited a library commissioner to be our Spanish question reader, and his voice was hoarse by the end. Everything seemed to take longer than I had expected. I didn’t realize how much time it would take to write down everyone’s answers. Kids appeared exhausted; parents complained that it was past their kids’ bedtimes. One parent even complained about my spelling and grammar errors in the Spanish questions (since Spanish is my second language, I make occasional errors, and Microsoft Office often adds a second layer of typos when it tries to “correct” a Spanish word to make it an English word).

I was also a bit surprised by who showed up. I had nowhere near enough Spanish copies in the library to meet our demand, yet all of the parents in the program that year spoke English fluently. It turned out there was a huge community need for a program that would support the hundreds of kids learning Spanish in our dual-language immersion public schools. Those dual-immersion students were the majority of my early participants, all seeking new motivation to read in Spanish.

I sent out a survey to parents, asking for their feedback to help me improve Lucha Libros. They responded that the event needed to be under an hour, so I cut the number of questions in half and added more points to each. When asked if the Spanish aspect was important to them, they said it was — so I sought out more help with proofreading my Spanish questions. We started assigning seats and grouping kids together for the sake of the scorekeepers, giving each child a number tag that would be faster to find on a scoresheet than a first and last name. The following month, we had a battle that was under one hour long, and kids and parents went home happy.

The work of tweaking this program didn’t stop there. At the end of the year, we surveyed parents again and learned that they wanted to see more chapter books on the schedule. So for year two, I developed an all-fiction booklist, with series like Geronimo Stilton, Junie B. Jones, Ramona and Beezus, Stink, Judy Moody, and Big Nate. The response to these books was very positive, and parents and kids now say they enjoy finding authors and series they didn’t know about before. (The only thing our booklist continues to lack is titles with nonwhite characters. I’d love to have a more diverse list, with characters like Anna Hibiscus and Alvin Ho, but am limited to what I can find in Spanish through our library’s vendor.)

Now we’ve grown to capacity, and for the 2017–2018 school year I’ve decided to hold separate events for second- and third-graders. In August 2016, we sent home a flyer to every second- and third-grader in the Pasadena Unified School District. The turnout last year was more than double what we’d had in 2015. Getting enough copies of books was again a problem, and we had to completely revamp the way we do our check-in process at the beginning of each event. It took more fine-tuning with the help of my great team, but by the end of the year kids were saying, “We want to continue doing this in fourth and fifth grade!” I wish I had the space to invite kids back for two more years, but we did invite them to be scorekeepers. I was a little wary of giving kids so much responsibility at first, but they’ve done very well with it and it has been a satisfying way for older children (like siblings of participants) to be involved in the program. Perhaps someday I will hold a fourth/fifth-grade version, but for now I want to focus on reaching as many children as possible when they are in this very vulnerable stage of second and third grade.

Lucha Libros kids with their medals. Photo courtesy AnnMarie Hurtado.

Eight-year-olds have so much pressure to be independent readers, and often this is the point where parents step back and expect their kids to simply read on their own. But even in their tween years, children learn a lot of vocabulary and language skills from listening to books and discussing books with parents. So when we ask parents to team up with their kids and read chapter books with them, many parents who might not otherwise spend time reading with their kids now strive to make the time. Our survey this year found that the majority of parents reported reading at least some of the books with their children, and many parents read all of the books. The spirit of competition makes both kids and parents more committed and accountable.

I’m always fine-tuning Lucha Libros, and one change I will make for this year is to give the participants an initial reading test to determine their base level. Parents overwhelmingly report improvement in their children’s reading comprehension and text recall during the program, but some hard data would be very useful. I hope that we’ll see it demonstrate what one parent said — that Lucha Libros “has helped my son to become a better reader.”

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. See “From the Guide: Chapter Book Mirrors,” also from this issue, for recommended diverse chapter-book series entries.

AnnMarie Hurtado About AnnMarie Hurtado

AnnMarie Hurtado is a youth services librarian for the Pasadena (CA) Public Library. She is the author of 36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing: From Aliens to Zebras (ALA Editions) and blogs at Science in the Library and At Home in the Library.

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