As a teacher, Christian Espinoza reads a lot of books with his students.
He teaches first-graders with special needs in Stockton, through Aspire Public Schools. But the more he read with his students, the more he struggled to find picture books they could relate to. They enjoyed the stories, but they didn’t see themselves reflected in them.
“I’ve been working with children for 6 years, and I’ve noticed that there’s not a lot of things out there that represent the problems the children I work with would be facing,” he said.
So he wrote “The Other Side,” then worked with the Sacramento Public Library’s I Street Press and California artist John DePianto to produce the picture book.
“I’ve been around so many children’s books,” he said. “I wanted to make something for myself.”
The story follows a young boy named Biko who lives in a village surrounding by a wall. The village leader tells the people that the crumbling wall is there to protect them from a monster, and it needs to be replaced and made larger.
Biko hears a noise on the other side of the wall and peeks through a hole, thinking it’s the monster. But what he sees doesn’t match what the village leader says, so Biko climbs over the wall and sets out to learn the truth for himself.
The story explores themes of fear of the unknown, friendship and finding common ground.
It also echoes some of the things children might overhear adults talking about at home or on TV.
“It’s really difficult for us to hide the world from children nowadays,” Espinoza said.
No matter how hard adults try to shield children from current events, he said, they see and hear and ask questions.
He hopes his book will give parents a way to talk about some of the difficult subjects with their kids. They may be young, but they’re aware of the world around them. Espinoza’s own students — many of whom are from low-income and migrant backgrounds as well as having special needs — showed him that.
“It allowed me to really understand the type of people who I want to write my books for,” he said.
Espinoza has shared the book with several youngsters, and they enjoyed it, he said.
“They understood the stories, the characters,” he said.
He hopes that “The Other Side” will inspire the children and adults who read it.
“Your words and your images do have an impact,” Espinoza said.
Writing a book was much harder than he expected, but in the end, he’s enjoyed the process. He’s already hard at work on his second book, which will take more of a science fiction spin.
In celebration of this first accomplishment, however, Espinoza worked with Empresso Coffeehouse in Stockton on an art installation. The characters from his book, brought to life by DePianto and JP Graphics, are now splashed all over the walls of the coffee shop.
“I dedicate the artwork and book to Stockton because I wouldn’t be who I am without it,” Espinoza said.