Saludos todos, and welcome to my first book review of the year! I’m thrilled to be back writing for the blog, and I’m especially excited for all of this year’s amazing books.
This month we will be celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month while also drawing special attention to the renowned Pura Belpré Award, which recognizes outstanding works of Latinx children’s literature, and is celebrating its 20th year in 2016. The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. In our celebration of this prestigious award and its recipients, we will also be celebrating Pura Belpré herself.
Belpré was a writer, collector of folktales, and puppeteer -in addition to being a librarian. While working as a librarian, she pioneered the library’s outreach to the Puerto Rican community, and was deeply embedded in community work outside the library, as evidenced by her attendance at meetings for the Puerto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriquena e Hispana. While we take the time to celebrate this iconic figure in Hispanic American history, we will also look more broadly at the prominent figures (both famous and familiar) who have contributed to the preservation of Hispanic rights and culture in the United States.
With this in mind, all of our ¡Mira, Look! books for this month have at some point been recognized by the Pura Belpré Award. One book is based on the life of Pura Belpré herself, while the others feature figures of similar import. All in all, our ¡Mira, Look! titles for this month celebrate Hispanic heritage by focusing on the extraordinary people who have sustained and represented Hispanic heritage in the United States over the years.
Our first book for the month is The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, written by Lucía M. González and illustrated by Lulu Delacre. This book is perfect for jump-starting this month’s themes, as it is based on the biography of Pura Belpré. In addition, this book won the 2009 Pura Belpré Honor award for both author and illustrator.
The book starts with an introduction that gives readers some of the historical and biographical context of the work, describing the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York City during the years of the Great Depression (1929-1935). Many Puerto Ricans lived in a neighborhood of Manhattan known as El Barrio:
Winter was harsh for the people of El Barrio. This was when they most missed their island’s tropical warmth. But during this time something wonderful happened. A talented storyteller named Pura Belpré was hired to work as the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system. Through her work, her stories, and her books, Pura Belpre brought the warmth and beauty of Puerto Rico to the children in El Barrio.
As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, this story reminds us not only of the inspirational Hispanic-American figures of the past, but also of the moving power of literature to bring us back to a different time, a different place, and, ultimately, a lasting heritage.
The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, best for grades kindergarten and up, is a bilingual book, showing the text in English and then in Spanish. The English text is also peppered with some Spanish words throughout: “I remember the parrandas and aguinaldos, when family and neighbors came to visit, sing, dance, and eat!” At the back of the book, the author has included a Glossary of Terms to help readers understand the Spanish vocabulary and the cultural references. For example, a parranda is “when a group of friends gathers together to asaltar, or surprise, another friend.”
The story begins with the two protagonists, Hildamar, and her cousin, Santiago, two Puerto-Rican children who arrived to New York City with their families a few months earlier on El Ponce, a large ship. It is wintertime in New York and neither of them is accustomed to the cold. Seated around the dinner table, their family discusses plans for El Día de los Reyes, reminiscing about all of the yuletide traditions back home in Puerto Rico. El Día de los Reyes is celebrated on January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas, in most parts of Latin America and Spain.
The next day Hildamar, Santiago, and Titi Maria pass by “a tall building with windows that seem to invite them inside.” The building is the New York City Public Library. The children are inquisitive, but Titi Maria reminds them that they don’t speak English, and the people at the library don’t speak Spanish: “And so it was such that they never went inside.” Here, the story sets up a social divide, a cultural and linguistic dissonance, which a new protagonist, and a turn of events, will eventually help mend.
One day, a special guest comes to Hildamar’s elementary school class. Her name is Pura Belpré and she comes from the public library. Ms. Belpré tells stories with puppets to the children, in English and in Spanish. Not only does this scene illustrate Belpré’s renowned community engagement and service, but it also highlights some pedagogical techniques that we have also previously featured in some of our educator’s workshops that we’ve held here in Albuquerque. Interactive puppet shows, as utilized by Pura Belpré, can be very useful for language-learning, and can help children learn new words by observing the context. Later on, Ms. Belpré invites everyone to come visit the public library. In the process, she serves as an intercultural mediator for the Puerto Rican community.
As the story progresses, readers will learn more about how Belpré engaged with the Puerto Rican community, and especially inspired young Puerto Rican children to become involved, learn new things, and let their imaginations soar. In particular, Ms. Belpré encourages Hildamar and Santiago to participate in a community play to celebrate El Día de los Reyes. Everyone participates and contributes to making the stage, the costumes, or rehearsing lines for their part.
As the library community and the Puerto Rican community together to plan and prepare for their play, readers will observe, in greater detail, the yuletide traditions of Puerto Rico culture. Thus, this book would be perfect for classroom lessons on important Hispanic-American figures, including Pura Belpré, and the values associated with community service, as well as lessons on winter celebrations and holidays, and the different ways in which these holidays are celebrated across the Americas. If you choose to use this book for the latter, you may want to also check out my review from last year on Feliz Navidad, which talks in particular about the different seasonal associations between Christmas in the U.S. and Christmas in Puerto Rico.
Finally, on the day of the play, “the reading room had become an island in the Caribbean.” This imagery not only exemplifies, in a more literal sense, the work and innovation that the community dedicated to decorating and setting the stage, but also, in a more metaphorical sense, the emotive power of literature to bring us back to a familiar place, or to journey us through to a different world. Pura Belpre built metaphorical bridges, unified communities, and opened minds to the wonderful world of books.
At the back of the book, there is also “A note about the artwork”:
Lulu created the artwork with layers of oil washes and paper collage on Bristol paper that she printed with clear gesso. She used an original copy of the New York Times from January 6th, 1930, for the collage elements. On many pages, the bits of newspaper contain information that relates to the story on that page. For example, on page 3, the artwork contains pieces of a timetable of new arrivals into Manhattan by steamship.
To continue, the note provides educators with a possible visual exercise for students: “What other interesting connections can you find between the newspaper collage and the story? Can you find pages where bits of newspaper ads are embedded in the illustrations?” Educators could ask these questions to their students to encourage them to make observations about the illustrations, connecting them to the story and the historical context. In addition, the mixed media of this book’s illustrations could inspire an art lesson in which students use old materials to create something that represents a moment from the past. Both author and illustrator were honored by the Pura Belpré award for their exceptional work, and each medium bears a unique pedagogical import. Together, this book provides an array of topics and potential lesson plans for students of various ages, all the while celebrating this important icon in Hispanic heritage.
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional links:
- Lee & Low Common Core Classroom Guide for My Storyteller’s Candle
- Broward Lesson Plan for My Storyteller’s Candle
For those of you interested in learning more about the author and illustrator, here are some additional links:
- Interview with author and illustrator in Lee & Low’s Common Core Classroom Guide
- Scholastic biography for Lucía M. González
Stay tuned for more wonderful books!
Images modified from: Pages 5, 8, 13