Saludos todos! This week we are continuing our theme of unsung heroes, or lesser-known figures, with Tito Puente, Mambo King/ Rey del mambo, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Rafael López. This lively book narrates the biography of renowned Puerto-Rican/New Yorker musician, Tito Puente, and the lasting impact that he has had on Hispanic-American heritage. Although Tito Puente was a beloved and iconic musician, he is not as well known outside of the Hispanic-American community.Tito Puente, Mambo King/ Rey del mambo is a bilingual picture book that is best for ages 4-7. It won the Pura Belpre Honor Book for illustration in 2014.
Brown and López have collaborated before to write My Name Is Celia (2004), a children’s book biography of Celia Cruz, the spectacular, Cuban jazz singer, and one of many iconic musicians with whom Tito Puente worked alongside. In the back of Tito Puente, Mambo King/ Rey del mambo, Brown includes a brief, non-fictional biography where she mentions Tito Puente’s many, star-studded collaborations: “He collaborated with the most famous Latin musicians of the twentieth century, including Machito, Santana, Willie Bobo, Gloria Estefan, La Lupe, and especially Celia Cruz.” Yet many of these names have gained more recognition in the U.S. than Tito Puente himself.
This wonderful, colorful story centers on a timeless Latino idol and the musical webs of talent, heritage and friendship that he spun. In general, this book focuses on the collaborations of inspirational Latino icons and their wonderful contributions to the world of music and the arts.
The brief biography provided by Brown also mentions Tito Puente’s humanitarian endeavors: “Tito founded the Tito Puente Educational Foundation, which offers scholarships to students to study music at the Juilliard School of Music. He wanted to inspire other young musicians to pursue their dreams.” In effect, Tito Puente is a particularly fitting Latino figure to feature both here on our blog, and in your classrooms, given his immense dedication to the lives, educations and creative spirits of young children. While Tito Puente spent much of his career collaborating and connecting with other prominent Latino musicians, that care and comradery that was such an integral part of his life and work lives on in the children whose lives he has touched.
These themes of community, care and shared heritage are wholly apparent not only in Tito Puente’s actual life story, but also in this book’s narration, and throughout the award-winning illustrations. According to a review from Kirkus Reviews: “Multihued swirls and plumes emanate from Tito’s timbales and drumsticks; Celia Cruz (a frequent collaborator) soars in a costume whose fuchsia feathers seem to morph from the sea green waves below.” Indeed, the radiant illustrations not only capture the melody and joviality of Tito Puente’s rhythms, but also the community and culture associated with music, the power of songs to bring people together, and the unifying heritage of moving lyrics, memorable beats, and inspirational figures. López’s warm palets, dazzling patterns and designs, and beaming faces capture Puente’s gifted ability to light up a room. In essence, Tito Puente’s music and Rafael López’s art, though very different in nature, breadth, and time, exemplify two different types of wonderful Latino art, and the comforting and convivial sensations that they can both inspire.
Through this lovely story, music appears as the narrative thread that runs through every scene and phase of Tito Puente’s life. This not only reflects the immense influence that music had on him, but also provides a consistent theme that can help young children follow the storyline more easily. In addition, the short and sweet, rhythmic syllables of the text will have young readers excitedly breezing through the literary challenge, bouncing from page to page as they exercise their novice reading skills. With Lopez’s vibrant illustrations, one can almost hear Puente’s contagious music, making readers want to dance and skip right through the text. As a result, this book could be especially useful for challenging younger, less-advanced readers, since the liveliness of the text would disguise a difficult task as a fun, light-hearted activity.
While the rhythm of the story is emotionally uplifting, many of the themes are equally inspirational and encouraging. The beginning of the story places quite a bit of emphasis on Puente’s childhood, banging “spoons and forks on pots and pans, windowsills and cans,” and creating beats that would resonate throughout his entire Spanish Harlem community. This focus on Puente’s early years is also important for young readers, who will identify with young Puente’s abounding creativity and ambitious dreams, and look to both his success and humility for inspiration. Children and adults alike can learn from Tito Puente’s life story, his persistent work ethic and resounding humanity. This book is a treat in more ways than one, educating young readers through a fun, light-hearted introduction to the history of Latin American music.
For those of you interested in learning more about the author and illustrator, here are some additional links:
- Teaching Books. Net, In-Depth Written Interview with Monica Brown
- Rafael López personal website
- Rafael López blog
- Monica Brown personal website
- Teaching Books.Net, Meet-the-Author Book Reading with Rafael López
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional links:
- Blue Slip Media, Teaching Books. Net, Curriculum Guide for Tito Puente: Mambo King
- Brain Pop Educator’s Lesson Ideas for teaching about Latin Music
- Denver Library, biography of Tito Puente and links to songs and videos
- Latinos in Kid Lit, book summary and “Teaching Tips” for Tito Puente: Mambo King
Thank you for welcoming me back as a guest blogger this month!