¡Mira Look!: Author Carmen T Bernier-Grand

Ever wondered how to teach Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, César Chávez and other influential Latin Americans? How do you discuss the intricacies of these leaders along with their personal and political problems, influence and legacy in a culturally respectful way? Well, for starters, you could use the books of Carmen T Bernier-Grand, today’s ¡Mira Look¡ featured author.

Born in Puerto Rico, Bernier-Grand incorporates and celebrates her heritage into her books. She’s written on Puerto Rican folk heroes like Don Luis Munoz Marin; Puerto Rican folk tales such as the “Puerto Rican Amelia Bedelia” (please tell me kids still know about her) Juan Bobo; and race/class relations in 1960’s Borinquen (Puerto Rico’s name for the island). In an interview with fellow writer Cynthia Leitich Smith (available here) Bernier-Grand states, “I write what comes to my three Hs (Head, Heart, Hand). So far, that has been stories set in Puerto Rico. Maybe because that’s where I was as a child,” later she states, “Every book is in one way or another autobiographical.”

I want to highlight 3 of Bernier-Grand’s books on the post today that could be very useful for furthering classroom conversation.

  • Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! (Ages 14+) (2008 Pura Belpré Honor Award for narrative). Bernier-Grand uses biographical poems alongside the artwork of Frida to give us a more personal glimpse into the painter’s life than we get with standard biographies. The poetry traces her life from contracting polio (remember polio?!), a crippling bus accident, numerous surgeries, her two marriages to Diego Rivera (and both his and her affairs), and her miscarriages (as stated above, the themes presented in this book are not recommended for younger readers). Bernier-Grand is able to give us a great sense of the juxtaposition that seemed to inhabit and, indeed, inform Frida’s identity: life, with death always on her mind and heart (bonus: for a great song while you’re coming up with your lesson plan check out “Love and Death” by the Stills. I think Frida may have liked this song). Additionally, the author includes excerpts from Frida’s diary and letters, a chronology of her life (very useful to get a sense of place and sequence that may have effected her mindset and paintings) and a glossary of Spanish words. Students will be able to get a real sense of this person they may only know from her iconic uni-brow, but not have any idea of her importance in Mexican art and culture. Did you also know that she and Diego Rivera are two of the most often used faces on ofrendas (altars) for Día de Los Muertos? Now you do! Viva la Vida gives us the perfect combination of tools to discuss Frida. I would suggest reading this book and analyzing Frida’s paintings in relation to what had happened and what was currently going on in her life at the time. Where was she personally, in relation to Mexico (which she longed for when she was away), politics (a member of the Mexican Communist Party for a while), the U.S., Diego? Why is she such an iconic figure? How can we use art to discuss bigger cultural themes? This interactive web site based on a PBS video about Frida has artwork (with scroll over discussion guides), history, and even educator guides for 10-12th graders.
  • Diego: Bigger Than Life (Grades 7-10) (2010 Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Honor Book Award). Using the same biographical type poems as she did in Viva, Bernier-Grand tells us about Frida’s counterpart, muralist Diego Rivera. By offering a chronological sequence of poems told from Diego’s perspective, Bernier-Grand transports us directly into the world as Diego saw it, though we find that may not always have been accurate. For instance, in the chronological biography at the end, we find that Diego’s retelling of his life often times contrasts with that of history: how he spent a few years in the mountains with his Indian wet-nurse after his twin died, though we have reports of him being in school at this time. A discussion about memory, truth and history anyone?
    The art work here is a little different than that in the Frida book, as we only have four reproductions of Rivera’s paintings. The rest of the art are mixed-media pictures by the illustrator showing us Diego Rivera in his world.
    As with Viva, Berniner-Grand has given us a useful and colorful platform to discuss numerous topics. Such topics stemming from Bigger Than Life include: communism vs. capitalism, social revolutions taken up with instruments other than arms (in this case paintings), people who are more appreciated after their death (i.e. he got lots of flak for murals depicting communist leaders and for taking money from capitalists), where is art appropriate (could you take a field trip around downtown Albuquerque if you’re here and look at murals on the sides of buildings or in your own city?), is graffiti art or does it have to be commissioned? Why/not?
  • Cesar: ¡Si Se Puede! = Yes, We Can! (Grades 2-6) (2006 Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Honor Awards). Again using poetry, Bernier-Grand’s writing is able to give us not only the nuts and bolts of this revolutionary, but a deeper and more meaningful sense of who César Chávez really was. Kids will learn what he did, what he stood for and the lessons he taught. We can take these lessons and extend them to others who have followed in Chávez’s footsteps and how they apply to our own lives. The illustrator’s paintings and digital imagery will capture younger audiences and make this critical figure tangible. A glossary, translation and biography are included.

Carmen’s web site is full of great Q & A that would give your classroom a sense of who she is before you dive into how she writes her books about classical figures and themes. In the interview mentioned above, Carmen states, “It is important to know that my books are for Latinos but NOT only for Latinos” and with her beautiful poetry and desire to give children and young adults the tools to get to know great Latino figures, she most definitely writes wonderful informative books for everyone.

“Si Se Puede” sound familiar anyone…?

-Ailesha

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