Maya Christine Gonzalez couldn’t find herself in the stories she read as a child. As a Chicana, “I didn’t see myself reflected in a children’s book,” she says. Her mother was white; her father was Mexican. Half her family spoke English; half spoke Spanish, but she only spoke English.
She remembers drawing a “big, brown Chicana face,” on the back of books. “I needed to see myself in books,” she says.
Even though, authors, teachers and librarians have been talking about the need for more diverse characters in children’s literature for decades, Gonzalez as an author, illustrator, educator and mother of a 2-year-old daughter still sees a gap in what kids are exposed to. Unless a grown-up has taken special care in curating a diverse library of voices, kids are still seeing mostly white faces in their books, she says.
Gonzalez is one of the keynote speakers at Girls Empowerment Network Austin’s We Are Girls Conference on Nov. 14. This year the conference’s theme is “Tell Your Story” and it has expanded to be both the Austin Conference at Austin High and now a Houston conference at the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy on the same day. We Are Girls is for third- through eighth-grade girls and their parents.
Gonzalez, who will be at the Austin conference, talks about identity and finding yourself in the world in her book “My Colors, My World/Mis Colores, Mi Mundo”; about gender identity in the gender neutral “Call Me Tree/Llamame arbol” and about feeling like you belong in the world in “I Know the River Loves Me: Yo sé que el río me ama.”
Gonzalez tries to find her voice in the silence, which is not just about not having your stories told, but also about being afraid to share who you really are, she says.
“I’m talking about that deeper silence,” she says. “We don’t really know how to tell our truths. We feel there are things we can and cannot tell ourselves.”
“I was a child who gathered silence,” she says. “… Kids are gathering their stories and their silences right now.”
Stories, she says, are all around us as well as inside us. She looks to nature to make sense of the world, and she quiets herself to listen to all the stories already inside her that are just waiting to be told.
At the conference, she’ll talk to girls about using art and storytelling to find themselves and how to find their own stories and truths.
“We have to meet ourselves in a world that doesn’t often see us,” she says.
We Are Girls Conference
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 14
Where: Austin High School, 1715 W. Cesar Chavez St.