Normally our ¡Mira Look! posts highlight authors who have either won the Pura Belpré or Américas Awards, or who through their written works help us deconstruct the typical narratives of race, ethnicity and experience. But a medium we have forgotten are picture books, mostly because much of our focus is on young adult literature. But our mission is K-12 education, so with today’s post picture books are left in the shadows no more!
Today’s post highlights two picture books by author/illustrator Eric Velasquez: Grandma’s Records (2001) and Grandma’s Gift (2010). Grandma’s Gift is the 2011 Pura Belpre Award winner for Illustration and one look into this book will tell you why. The pictures are absolutely magnificent; full of vivid color, life and most importantly depth of story (as is Grandma’s Records). But in my excitement, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some background.
The son of Afro-Puerto Rican parents, Velasquez says his love of art (written, drawn and played) came from an early age and was a natural choice since his mother, father and Puerto Rican grandma all surrounded him with art and encouraged his appetite for it. “Growing up in this setting,” Eric says, “Becoming an artist was a natural choice for me. I have never thought of being anything else'” (from SLJ on author’s web site). It is this Grandma who is the title bearer of two of his most famous books, and the ones highlighted here. Eric continued on to obtain his BFA from The School of Visual Arts in 1983. After that, he hit the ground running, illustrating the book jackets and/or full books on over 300 works (you read that correctly: 300 !!).
Grandma’s Records highlights the relationship Eric had with not only his grandmother, but with his Puerto Rican cultural heritage. Every summer Eric packs up all his favorite things, including his dog, Daisy, and sets off to join Grandma in Spanish Harlem. His summers are filled with the sounds of Puerto Rican music–conga drums, horns, bomba and merengue–as well as the experiences brought to El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) by the immigrants from various parts of the Latin world, largely Puerto Rican and Dominican. Velasquez describes this book as, “an emotional journey through time to the place I come from.” Emotional indeed; let me include a little of Grandma’s Poem, “In My Old San Juan” (which is also in Spanish in the book) to give you a sense of the literary beauty of this book that accompanies the breathtaking illustrations
In My Old San Juan I grew up with so many dreams
My first illusion and anxieties about love are all soulful memories
One evening I left for this foreign land, it was destiny’s will, but my heart
remained by the seashore of my old San Juan.
…the rest of the poem is just as exquisite. The illustrations of Spanish Harlem and the many relationships discussed in this book are what that poem is to words: magical.
Our Pura Belpré winner, Grandma’s Gift, is also a memoir of Eric’s time with his grandma in Spanish Harlem. Eric and grandma take a journey to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Eric discovers famed 17th century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. Seeing that he is clearly enthralled with Velázquez’s style, Eric’s grandma buys him paint supplies for Christmas to nurture his fascination and love of this medium. Flawless illustrations accompany simple descriptive English text, with Spanish phrases peppered throughout. Virginia Walter’s review says it best, “Velasquez’s full-bleed paintings transport readers to another time and place and expertly capture the characters’ personalities and emotions. A gift, indeed” (From SLJ on author’s web site).
A recurrent theme in our ¡Mira Look! postings is the deep role experience plays in shaping our authors’ storytelling and illustrations. Eric’s dual-culture, dual-heritage and dual-traditions have shaped his writing and illustrations in a profound way. They have made his books intercultural, interdisciplinary and unique. Add these two books to your K-3 curriculum to discuss art, poetry, memory and cross-culturalism; or, simply have them on the shelf for quiet reading time. My guess is your students may fight over who gets to look at the incredibly artistry first. And really, isn’t that the point? To get kids excited about holding a book, viewing the world through other eyes and soaking up their own multicultural experiences.
Scheming on how to include picture books in my Master’s Curriculum,
P.S. Grandma’s Records is also available in Spanish.