Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Recognizing Riches In Rubbish

We know with a certain mindset we see things wherever we go that otherwise might be missed.  If we are actively seeking the little details, beauty, kindness, and the best life has to offer, we will find it.  It is not always easy, but with focus we will discover treasures of all shapes and sizes, some fleeting, and others lasting a lifetime.

There are remarkable human beings who do perceive life as an entire sensory experience.  They are all the more exemplary for their sharing of their discoveries.  In Digging For Words: Jose Alberto Gutierrez and the Library He Built (Schwartz & Wade Books, September 8, 2020)  written by Angela Burke Kunkel with illustrations by Paola Escobar (Rescatando Palabras: Jose Alberto Gutierrez y la biblioteca que creo escrito por Angela Burke Kunkel, ilustrado por Paola Escobar, traducido por Teresa Mlawer), we are introduced to a man whose work is alive in those he serves.  Two separate individuals connect through their shared love of story.  It's a blend of fact and fiction based upon the truth.

In the city of Bogota, in the barrio of
La Nueva Gloria, there live two Joses.

Little Jose stirs in his bed.  The early-morning light wakes

En la ciudad de Bogota, en el barrio
La Nueva Gloria, viven dos Joses.

El pequeno Jose se despereza en la cama.   La luz de la
manana lo despierta.

A child living in Bogota longs for Saturday.  On Friday, he rides his bike to school, he tries to listen to his teacher, and plays futbol (soccer) with his friends.  He knows tomorrow is filled with promise.

A man living in Bogota contemplates his day.  He did not complete his schooling as a child.  He left to become a bricklayer to help support his family.  We are told he nevertheless read each night with his mother.  

Un cuento at the end of a long day felt like Paradise.
Un cuento al final de la jornada era como estar en el Paraiso. 

In the evening, the boy returns home.  In the evening, the man gets ready to collect the garbage from other areas of Bogota.  He works all night.  What this man, this grown Jose, does is search through the trash for treasure.  His treasure is books.  It all began many years ago when he found a copy of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  That book was his doorway into another world.  He has never stopped searching for other doorways.

At the close of every shift, Jose brings home gathered books, placing them in stacks and on bookshelves, his library.  On Saturday, the younger Jose runs like the wind with the other neighborhood children to enter Paradise at the older Jose's home.  There they spend hours looking through all the collected books of all shapes and sizes covering a wide range of subjects and interests.  That night the labors of Jose, the garbage collector, will be enjoyed by children all over La Nueva Gloria, until next Saturday when they, like Jose the child, will again enter Paraiso.

Readers will gravitate to the narrative supplied by debut picture book author, Angela Burke Kunkel.  She combines the story of a fictional child with that of the real Jose Alberto Gutierrez.  Given the work of Jose Alberto Gutierrez, the fictional child is apt to be true.

The writing of Angela Burke Kunkel is clear, concise, and lyrical.  Spanish words are a part of the story, carefully placed so their meaning is easily discernable.  So vivid are her descriptions, we find ourselves seated next to Jose as his trunk makes its nightly runs, and we find ourselves running along with Jose toward his Saturday destination.  Here is a passage in English and Spanish.

A few pages to read, a few hours to dream,
and then it is a new day.  Tonight, he revisits
Macondo, a magical village deep in the jungles
of Colombia, and he is lost in a place where
times moves by its own rules. 

Varias paginas que leer, varias horas para
sonar, y asi comienza un nuevo dia.  Por la
noche, nuevamente visita Macondo, un pueblo
magico en lo mas profundo de la selva de
Colombia, y se pierde en ese lugar, donde el
tiempo transcurre a su ritmo.

When you look at the front, right, of the open dust jacket you see a man and a boy, smiling.  Stacks of books frame them on either side.  From the pages of an open book, we see the stories each find in their books depicted.  It's easy to imagine this very scene happening each day in the library Jose Alberto Gutierrez has made for the people in his barrio.  To the left, on the back, a garbage trunk moves through the nighttime streets of Bogota.  The words read:

Jose scans the sidewalks as he drives,
squinting in the dim light.
He searches the household trash
for hidden treasures . . . books!

Mientras Jose manejo su camion de basura,
escrudina las aceras de la ciudad
entrecerrando los ojos bajo la tenue luz.
Busca entre la basura de las casas
tesoros escondidos . . . !Libros!

On the book case in a wash of muted yellow with streaks of blue, we see the younger and older Jose.  The child is on the left, bending down to pick up a book.  A trail of five books lead to the far right with the older Jose, carrying a stack of books, as he runs off the right edge.

On the opening and closing endpapers artist Paola Escobar begins and concludes her visual interpretation.  On the first beneath a stary sky, brilliant with several larger stars, and a crescent moon, Jose drives his truck, lights shining in front of his vehicle.  Beneath a streetlamp, a can holds bags of trash.  Next to the can is a stack of books.  On the second, the scene is the same, but empty of the truck, the trash, and the books.

These illustrations by Paola Escobar rendered digitally are filled with details of life in the barrio of both the child and the man.  Their size alternates in keeping with the narrative and its pacing.  The eagerness of the boy and the contemplative and determined nature of the man are vividly portrayed.  The two-page pictures are marvelous, giving us multiple perspectives, allowing us to see realty and the magic found in story.  

One of my many favorite pictures is an overview of the cityscape of Bogota at night.  Beginning in the upper, left-hand corner Jose and his truck wind back and forth and back and forth from stop to sop from left to right to the left of the gutter, crossing the gutter, and then winding back through the city up into the hills to the right of the gutter.  Beneath the streetlamps are the garbage cans.  We can see Jose stopping, carrying bags to his trunk, and searching for books.  This gives us a superb overview of the enormity of this man's accomplishments, night after night, book by book.

I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections, supplying both the English and Spanish editions, for your readers.  There is a beauty in both, in the use of language, and in the illustrations.  This book, Digging For Words: Jose Alberto Gutierrez and the Library He Built (Rescatando Palabras: Jose Alberto Gutierrez y la biblioteca que creo) written by Angela Burke Kunkel with illustrations by Paola Escobar, translation by Teresa Mlawer, is a powerful reminder of the power of one.  At the close of the book is an author's note, descriptions of books featured in the narrative, and selected online sources.

To learn more about Angela Burke Kunkel and Paola Escobar, please follow the link attached to their name to access their respective sites.  Angela Burke Kunkel has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Paola Escobar has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Angela Burke Kunkel is highlighted at KidLit411, The Soaring '20s, and at author Tara Lazar's Writing for Kids (While Raising Them).  At the publisher's website you can view interior images in both the Spanish and English editions.  Angela Burke Kunkel is interviewed about this book by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, at his site, Watch. Connect. Read.

To view the other selections this week by participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.

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