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New Face: Denise Dávila

This College of Education professor says that UNLV's diversity and school spirit were among the factors that drew her here.

People  |  Mar 27, 2017  |  By Kelsey Hand
Denise Dávila sits at a table with children's books

Denise Dávila's research focuses on children's literature and how it reflects society. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

Growing up in a time and in a family where it was more important to fit into the mainstream culture than to identify with her Latinx roots, Denise Dávila, a literacy education assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning, is heartened by the communities of people who advocate for an inclusive and pluralist society. With children’s literature at the center of her research and teaching, she says her most prized possession in her office is her collection of critically acclaimed diverse and multilingual books for children.   

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school? 

The students here. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with first-generation college students, like myself, in a highly diverse region of the country. I love my students here;I love that we can talk about bilingual and Latinx children’s literature and diversity in ways the students appreciate as we’ve shared some of the same experiences.

Also, the sense of school spirit is top-notch. My first introduction to UNLV was through the Hulu documentary series Behind the Mask, which followed the life of a student who served as UNLV’s mascot. When the show was first aired — years before I was invited to join the faculty — my spouse and I were impressed by the sense of school spirit the series captured at UNLV. 

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Oakland, California. I was not the only bicultural person by any stretch… but my parents wanted my sisters and me to be like everyone else. So we didn’t talk about family members speaking Spanish or practicing Latin American espiritismo.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Growing up, I never saw characters like myself in children’s books. Even now, over 85 percent of the children’s literature published year after year has featured either white children or non-human characters (e.g., animals, toys). Today, I’m really interested in analyzing the kinds of books publishers release in the marketplace. I examine the social narratives and viewpoints the books endorse. I investigate how children, families, and teachers respond to stories and illustrations that are not only inclusive of diverse characters and life experiences, but also provide counter narratives to the kinds of perspectives that have dominated the children’s books industry.

It’s been great to study children’s literature and bring research into the classroom to spark provocative conversations with students about how to use books to discuss issues of equality and/or censorship in elementary schools. And all of these conversations start in really authentic ways because everyone brings different backgrounds and experiences to the table.

What is the biggest misconception about your profession?

I think there’s this misconception that children’s literature is created in a vacuum and is disconnected from the real world. But actually, it’s a reflection of the real world — the kinds of narratives that happen in life make their way into children’s books. And more now than ever, stories are emerging that respond to sociocultural, political, and environmental conditions in the world. Many people think children’s literature scholars are mild-mannered librarian bookworm types, and that these books are just cute stories with cute pictures. But we’re not, and these books are much more than that. We’re activists, and children’s books can make statements that educate, change, and improve our world. In other words, we go beyond pretty pictures.

Insider tips for fellow Rebels?

Get to know the amazing ways that the UNLV librarians and media specialists can assist you with your research endeavors. They are invaluable in the field of children's literature. 

Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.

One of the times I was daring was several years ago when I first organized my community to stand up against an issue that would harm a neighborhood creek, and diminish the heath and safety of local families. At the time, city council members thought I was easy to dismiss. They didn’t expect that I, as a quiet person, would also have the tenacity to take the charge and lead… But I did, and we saw this issue through to a satisfactory conclusion.

What is your proudest moment?

I am honored to have been the recipient of the 2016 Alan C. Purves Award from the National Council of Teachers of English for my piece "#WhoNeedsDiverseBooks?: Preservice Teachers and Religious Neutrality with Children's Literature.” The Purves Award is presented annually to an author judged as likely to have the greatest impact on educational practice. I am especially proud of this award because the research was inspired by my own childhood experience.

What are your hobbies?

Hiking in the beautiful local parklands of Sloan Canyon and Lake Mead with our rescued bluetick coonhounds, Frankie, Mazie, and Wally — named, not surprisingly, after story characters. We recently agreed to foster a small redtick hound, Reba, who we are hoping to place in a forever-home.  

What would people be surprised to know about you?

When hiking with my hounds, people often assume that I am training them to hunt. To the contrary, I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years and have followed a 100 percent plant-based (vegan) diet for the last 10.