Maria Hinojosa wants young Latinos to ‘feel empowered’ reading ‘Once I Was You’

“Once I Was You: Finding My Voice and Passing the Mic” by Maria Hinojosa. Published 2022.

Writing a book for young readers was a scary feat for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, who’s known for her reporting on deportation, immigration detention and other social justice issues. Still, she saw writing “Once I Was You: Finding My Voice and Passing the Mic” (Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 272 pp., out now) as an opportunity to empower future generations. 

“Kids today are living through the January 6 committee hearing, they are processing the fact that there was an attempted coup d’état,” Hinojosa tells USA TODAY. “You know what does it mean (to them) that there was a riot at Capitol Hill, that democracy is in peril, that George Floyd was murdered.”

It helped Hinojosa to tap into her 10-year-old self when writing the memoir adaptation for younger readers. “I would get into character, I would go for long walks. I would just create this voice of 10-year-old Maria kind of telling these stories to another 10-year-old kid,” the Emmy Award-winning Hinojosa says. 

Hinojosa’s original book, written for adults and published in September 2020, was a timely look at America’s history ahead of that year’s presidential election.

In the kid’s version, Hinojosa gives future generations a how-to manual on trusting your wildest dreams can come true, stresses the importance of finding your voice and believing it can make a difference at a young age, and weaves in stories from her life, beginning with her family’s immigrant roots. 

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Longtime NPR Latino USA anchor and Pulitzer Prize
winner Maria Hinojosa.

The book opens with a story of Hinojosa crossing paths with a young girl from Guatemala who was being transported by immigration agents from a detention center and credits her as one of her reasons for writing the book. “I want that little girl … to read this and see herself and feel empowered,” Hinojosa says. 

Daunting as it may have felt, writing for younger readers isn’t new territory for Hinojosa.

In 1995, she wrote her first book, “Crews: Gang Members Talk to Maria Hinojosa,” for middle-school children. Now, in the vein of Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’ “Stamped,” Hinojosa’s new take on her memoir is filled with moving and informative material for young people to put into practice as they learn and explore what social justice and community mean to them. 

She feels a responsibility “to be there for young Latinos and Latinas writ large, immigrants and refugees writ large because the book is about those of us who are ‘the other,’ ” the Chicago native says. “It’s also just a book about trusting and finding your power in your own voice and your own stories as a little kid, and hopefully inspiring some to become journalists.” 

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Here are 6 more books breaking down complex topics for young ones. 

“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. Published 2020.

‘Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You’

By Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi

Intended for readers age 12 and up, “Stamped” is a reimagining of Kendi‘s National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning,” which pulls the curtain back on racism in America and inspires readers to work toward an antiracist future. Now middle schoolers and beyond can learn, in an accessible way, about what some history books don’t teach — how slavery in the U.S. have morphed into the systemic racism we know today. 

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“We're in This Together: A Young Readers Edition of We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders” by Linda Sarsour. Out November 2022.

‘We’re in This Together’

By Linda Sarsour 

ActivistSarsour’s memoir “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders,” published in 2021, will also be adapted for kids this November. The middle grade edition will take readers on the journey of how she became the activist she is today, and how pivotal moments in her life led her to become the co-organizer of one of the largest single-day protests in U.S. history, the 2017 Women’s March. 

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“Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream” by Julissa Arce. Published 2019.

‘Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream’

By Julissa Arce 

Writer, speaker, and immigration rights advocate Arce authored this 2019 memoir to highlight her experience growing up undocumented and how isolating it was. Born in Taxco, Mexico, Arce traveled to and from San Antonio, Texas and her grandmother’s home in Mexico when she was 11 while her parents worked in the U.S. to set down permanent roots. For some time, Arce kept her undocumented status a secret. Despite all odds, she went on to become a scholarship winner and honors college graduate, and climbed the ranks to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs.

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“Walking Gentry Home: A Memoir of My Foremothers in Verse” by Alora Young. Published 2022.

‘Walking Gentry Home’

By Alora Young 

The Youth Poet Laureate of the Southern United States tells the story of her ancestors and gives voice to Black girls and women often oppressed and silenced in American history. Young’s memoir, written in verse, untangles the lives of Black girls and women, generational curses, coming-of-age experiences and the ever-present legacy of slavery in the U.S. psyche.

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“Dear America: The Story of an Undocumented Citizen” by Jose Antonio Vargas. Published 2020.

‘Dear America: The Story of an Undocumented Citizen’ 

By Jose Antonio Vargas

Vargas penned his memoir “Dear America” in 2018, and two years later rewrote his story for young readers and posed hard-hitting questions: How do we define who is an American? How do we decide who gets to be a citizen? What happens to those who enter the U.S. without documentation? The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker writes of coming to the U.S. from the Philippines to live with his grandparents when he was only 12, finding out he wasn’t a citizen when he tried applying for a driver’s permit at 16 and how for nearly two decades he tried to keep his immigration status a secret. 

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“My Family Divided: One Girl's Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope” by Diane Guerrero with Erica Moroz. Published 2018.

‘My Family Divided: One Girl’s Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope’

By Diane Guerrero and Erica Moroz 

“Orange Is the New Black” actress Guerrero opened up about being separated from her family at a young age in her 2017 memoir “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided.” Guerrero, along with Moroz, then wrote a version of her memoir for kids in 2018, opening up about the traumatic day when her parents were detained and deported while she was at school. Guerrero writes of experiencing the monstrosities of the U.S. immigration system firsthand at a young age. 

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