Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reaping Everlasting Riches

More times than readers can count, they find answers in books to questions they haven't yet asked.  Several years ago, in attendance at a storytelling class, it was suggested to begin and close a storytelling event with a candle or lamp.  When the lamp is lit, the magic of storytelling starts.  After the final tale is told, the flame is extinguished.

Listeners are asked to make three wishes; one for someone anywhere in the world who needs it, one for someone they love (including pets) and the final wish for themselves.  They are, after all, very important people.  As the flame is blown out, the wishes travel out in the world.  Decades ago a wonderful parent gave me my storytelling lamp with a wick to light as it coils in oil in the body.

It wasn't until reading a new release yesterday, the possible origin of lighting a storytelling flame was presented to me.  Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, January 15, 2019) written by Anika Aldamuy Denise with illustrations by Paola Escobar depicts a marvelous portrait of a woman whose star will remain shining.  Story was her gift.  It still grows.

It is 1921.
Pura Teresa Belpre leaves her home in San Juan
for a visit to Nueva York.
Words travel with her:
stories her abuela taught her.

Her first sight of Manhattan stirs those stories she carries.  This is a place where dreams can come true.  A temporary stay for her sister's wedding is extended.

Working in a garment shop is not a place for her tales to flourish but a job in the public library as a bilingual assistant is a splendid garden.  Seeing no books with Puerto Rican stories on the shelves, Pura's story hours sing with her stories from home.  Martina, a Spanish cockroach and Perez, her beau and a mouse, capture her listeners' attentions.  Soon, using her sewing skills, Pura fashions puppets to enhance the folktales.

Still, feeling the need to do more, Pura Belpre records the tale with pen and paper, mailing it to a publisher.  It's published!  Martina and Perez have their own book!  Pura spreads her stories from library to library, school to school and everywhere people will listen.  She wants people new to Nueva York to be able to recall the beauty of Puerto Rico through story.  One day, something unexpected happens.  His name is Clarence Cameron White.

Pura Belpre leaves the library to travel with Clarence as he makes music and she shares her folktales from home.  After his death, almost twenty years later, she returns.  Her beginnings have made new beginnings and they, in turn, have done the same.  It does not and will not end.

When you think of stories, they are a living thing passed from one generation to the next by a variety of means.  To use the analogy of seeds, planting, taking root and growing with respect to Pura Belpre and her stories is brilliance by author Anika Aldamuy Denise.  Those key words and phrases are referenced more than once, tying one portion of Pura's life to the next.

The technique of stating a date prior to two significant events gives readers an idea of the length of this woman's impact on the reading lives of many, many children and adults.  Especially pleasing is the mix of Spanish and English words in the narrative.  It makes the sentences ring with authenticity.  Readers will be able to establish meanings from the surrounding text.  Here are two passages.

Now Pura has a wish, too:
to plant her story seeds throughout the land.
Pura learns to make puppets.
She snips and sews their clothes . . .
paints their delicate faces.

Families come
to hear folktales en ingles y espanol, 
to watch Pura's puppets
dance across
   the stage
     of her stories.

The darker, deeper colors used in this book and introduced to us on the open dust jacket reach out to readers with their natural warmth.  Overlaying the blossoms on both the front and back (and within the body of the book) beautifully displays the theme of this woman's life; the planting and flourishing of her country's folktales.  The scene on the front is continued on the back.  Another woman and her child leave the library from another entrance and exit.  Careful readers will notice the puppets of Martina and Perez on the hands of two children.

A creamy blush becomes a canvas for the book case.  Flowers extends from left to right upward on the back and from right to left downward on the front.  A highly detailed pattern covers the opening and closing endpapers beginning with a background of a light, muted and natural green. Tiny blossoms on stems with leaves extend from tiny puppets of Martina and Perez, a valise, a book and a flaming candle.  Mixed with these white flowers are single blooms in other hues.

Across the verso and title pages is an illustration of Pura Belpre seated beneath a tamarind tree, a book resting in her lap.  Flowers with flowing stems extend from its pages.  Two birds fly between the title text.

The images rendered digitally in Adobe Photoshop by Paola Escobar appear across two pages, single pages or within loose shapes on a single page.  To indicate the passage of time smaller illustrations will be grouped together, flowing from one scene to the next scene.  Sometimes we look as if from a bird's point of view and other times it's as if we are standing next to Pura Belpre.

It is evident Paola Escobar researched the place and time in which this book takes place.  Readers will enjoy noticing all the details.  They will also feel a kinship with this woman, who devoted her life to her community through her librarianship, storytelling and writing, by observing the expressions on her face. (Her wardrobe is wonderful.)

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  On the left Pura is seated in her library in front of a set of book shelves.  To her left is a small table on which is placed a vase with flowers and a burning candle.  Seated in front of her on a circular rug is a group of children.  From her open mouth a large white cloud forms, moves across the gutter and covers the right page.  It is a scene from the story of Martina and Perez.  He is approaching her carrying a flower.  She watches from a second-floor balcony of her home.

In a two-page author's note Anika Aldamuy Denise says:

Her life and work as a librarian, storyteller, author, and advocate for 
the Latinx community is a testament to the power of our own stories to
build bridges---not just to literacy, but to social change. 

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre written by Anika Aldamuy Denise with illustrations by Paola Escobar illuminates a visionary with excellence in words and pictures.  You will most definitely want to find a place for this title on your personal and professional bookshelves.  Following the author's note is a selected bibliography, archival collections, articles and films, further reading, and stories by Pura Belpre mentioned in this book.  (This title is also published in Spanish.  I look forward to the arrival of my copy.)

To learn more about Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites.  Anika Aldamuy Denise has an account on Instagram and Twitter.  Paola Escobar has an account also on Instagram and Twitter.  A five-question publisher's preview of this book with this duo appears at The Horn Book.  Be sure to read it.

Take a few minutes to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to read about the titles selected this week by other participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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