One would think that if your curriculum vitae was 35 pages long that would be the most impressive thing about you. Or, perhaps the fact that you have a Ph.D. and were both a Radcliffe and Fulbright scholar as well as a distinguished professor emeritus would garner a low-whistle of “wow”. These things are impressive to say the very least. However, the most impressive thing about today’s ¡Mira Look! author, Alma Flor Ada, is her dedication to bilingual education and her fantastic storytelling abilities.
Born and raised in a suspected haunted house in Camagüey, Cuba (click here for a map) among the trees, streams, the ocean and animals of her homeland, Alma Flor Ada has been around the world reading, researching and writing about children’s literacy, bilingual education, teaching strategies, social justice, and especially (wonderful for us here at Vamos a Leer), children’s books. Of growing up in Cuba Alma says that storytelling was very much a part of her everyday existence, engrained in her by her grandmother who told of Cuba’s independence from Spain, her mother who told of Greek fairy tales and ancient civilizations, her father who made up an ongoing history of the peoples of the world, to her Uncle, whom it sounds like could convince you that butterfly on your arm was actually a tree frog. Of her love affair with books Alma states, “Books were wonderful companions and I found myself many times marveling at finding similarities between the people around me and the characters in books” (author’s biography). This life long love for all things nature and the struggle for social equality come through clearly in her writing.
Google-ing Alma Flor Ada will get you thousands of hits because of her extensive and, what I can only imagine, very busy life. I’ve pulled out a few gems here to get you more familiar with this wonderful author:
- An interview by Colorín Colorado (remember them? If not, you should go here.) Alma Flor Ada interview here. There are a number of short (between 1-2 minute) interviews broken down into subject area.
- A short, but comprehensive interview with the Latin Baby Book Club (written interview, no video).
- An interview about her new book Dancing Home with co-author Gabriel Zubizarreta about two cousins, one from the US and one from Mexico, who must figure out how to be friends while struggling with issues of identity, fitting in and bilingual learning.
- Finally, Alma Flor Ada’s web site (where much of the information for this post was taken).
I want to give you a sense of the range of books Alma writes and highlight one autobiography about her childhood in Cuba. Alma has written non-fiction academic work on literacy, education, bilingual teaching and children’s learning; fictional work includes plays, poetry, nursery rhymes, children’s books, adult books and more. Additionally, Alma has won dozens of awards not only for her contributions to children’s education and literacy, but also for her beautiful and honest writing.
One of those award winning books is Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba, a 2000 Pura Belpré Award winner for narrative, Under digs in to what a childhood in 1950-60s Cuba was like. Remember, Castro and Guevara overtook the Batista government during most of the 1950s, so reading Alma’s childhood experience while in a country undergoing a drastic and prolonged revolution would lend itself well to your history lesson on the Cuban Revolution, social justice (or injustice depending on which side of the revolution you were on), politics, the Cold War climate, socio-economic class differences (a large reason Castro instigated the revolution) and more. Your classroom kids could keep an autobiography of their life experiences while reading this book as a great exercise in observing not only the people and world around you, but also yourself. Just to give you an example of Alma’s feelings at an early age and her more than capable writing in Under she writes, “The largest, most significant contrast was that some had so much and others had very little. While for some life was easy, almost a paradise on this beautiful island, for others the struggle to stay alive was extremely demanding. […] In the countryside, the majestic royal palms, symbols of Cuban independence [from Spain in 1899], towered above the surrounding trees. But beneath those palms, I saw too much poverty and too much pain [.]”
Alma’s power to meld storytelling with real life struggle, experience, pain and desire, is perhaps her strongest power. Yes, she has had an incredibly impressive life and continues to foster learning, understanding and social well being for children across the US and in Latin America. But what I appreciate most about her, is her ability to bring all that education onto a stage of children and young adult literature, beautifully written, so as to help children get a grasp of not only their own lives, but of lives others endure on a regular basis. Alma reminds us that, “because we love our children, because we want them to succeed, let’s make sure we foster this most valuable friendship, the friendship of books.” … Could you say it better? I can’t.
–Wrapped up in Alma,
P.S. In Spanish, alma means soul. Also, the next book in her two part autobiography is Where the Flame Trees Bloom.