Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

"My Heart's Devotion"

There is usually a song, or a group of songs, which define portions of our lives.  One record (vinyl) which captured the attention of a young teen in the 1960s was the soundtrack for the movie, West Side Story.  To her parent's probable annoyance, it was played nonstop.  Can you imagine her joy when her high school sweetheart took her to see the production at the nearby Michigan State University Fairchild Theatre?  She hummed and sang her favorite songs for months and months after seeing the show in person.

One of those songs was America. In the movie it is sung by the actress who plays the part of Anita.  A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer! (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, November 3, 2020) written by Anika Aldamuy Denise with illustrations by Leo Espinosa presents to readers the remarkable life of the woman who never stopped believing in or pursuing her dreams.

Juncos, Puerto Rico, 1935
In a tiny cottage tucked between El Yunque Peak and
a wild fragrant rainforest lives a girl: a girl with the rhythm
of the rainforest in her feet and the sweetness of the
sugarcane fields in her swishing skirts.

This girl is named Rosita Dolores Alverio.  Dancing and singing are like the breath of life to her.  When she is a little girl, she and her Mami leave Puerto Rico.  Her younger brother, Francisco, stays there.  Even the sight of the Statue of Liberty cannot not dim her sadness.  School is difficult for Rosita.  Students bully her because of her physical characteristics and the way she speaks.

She asks Mami repeatedly when Francisco will come.  She practices her English alone.  Her Mami works very hard at multiple jobs.  Spring and summer eventually come to New York City.  Missing the wonderful landscape of Puerto Rico lessens.

When she is six, her Mami takes her to receive dance lessons from Paco Cansino.  After three years, she is ready to perform in front of an audience.  Her dancing roles increase as do her speaking roles in Spanish.  She longs for a starring role.  At sixteen, Rosita takes the name of her stepfather, Moreno.  To her great joy, Louis B. Mayer of MGM studios requests an interview.  At the studio in Hollywood, they shorten her name to Rita Moreno.  

Although she has signed with MGM, her roles are not what she desires.  They are often stereotypical.  She persists.  Her persistence is rewarded in 1959.  She is cast as Anita in West Side Story after a stellar test performance, where she becomes Puerto Rico through dance and song.  At the Academy Award ceremony in 1962, the little girl, now a woman, makes history as the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar.  (I'll bet the cheering was heard for days.)

The true spirit of Rosita Dolores Alverio, Rita Moreno, is presented on the first page and throughout the narrative by author Anika Aldamuy Denise per her descriptive single action words, dialogue, and the inclusion of Spanish language.  The text is a constant revelation of Rosita's thoughts, making the learning of her life an intimate experience for readers.  We can feel, layer by layer, an emotional moment building.  At times to enhance the storytelling rhythm Anika Aldamuy Denise employs alliteration.  A wonderful additional technique is to bookend the beginning and end with a place name and date showcasing the changes in this accomplished woman's life.  Here is a passage.

If she only knew more ingles, she could tell the bullies:
!Dejenme in paz! Leave me alone!

So while Mami scrubs and scours and sweats and sews,
Rosita practices ingles in secret.

The warmth of the color palette on the open and matching dust jacket and book case wraps around readers.  It also radiates great joy.  It is easy for readers to see the little girl still shining in the grown woman.  To the left, on the back, on a canvas of red, some elements from an interior image are used.  Rita is now in Hollywood.  Her chair is placed on a large wooden crate.  Next to it is a megaphone.  A gentleman paints her name, Rita Moreno, on the back of her director-style chair.  A woman, a make-up artist, brushes Rita's cheek.  A camera and floodlight are also present.

The opening and closing endpapers are the vivid pink shown in a few brush strokes on the front of the jacket and book case.  On the initial title page (single) we are treated to a scene of Rosita's village.  On the formal title page, a double-page picture, we are brought close to the yard of a single home in this village.  Rosita and a chicken are running from the left to the right.  She, the chicken and main title are framed by buildings and trees and shrubs.  

Each of the illustrations by Leo Espinosa digitally rendered in Adobe Photoshop span two pages, or single pages.  They are highly animated, full of real people living their best lives.  Leo Espinosa brings us deeply into the story with his perspectives.  We are there with Rosita as she looks out the ship's window at her younger brother and Papi on the dock.  When she is being bullied by her classmates, we feel her despair.  When Rosita dances her first dance on stage we see Puerto Rico mirrored in her movements.  It's the details Leo Espinosa includes here, and in each image, which elevates the words of author Anika Aldamuy Denise.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is when Rita is practicing for her audition for Anita in West Side Story.  It is a double-page picture with a darker background.  In spot colors, swirls of blue and purple, Rita has been placed.  In each of these six positions she is alive with dance movements.  She is wearing a hot pink dress with layers to her skirt, falling in waves about her legs.  Her happiness at dancing becomes our happiness.

For those who have ever dreamed big and wondered if that dream is achievable, A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer! written by Anika Aldamuy Denise with illustrations by Leo Espinosa will serve to inspire them.  This women, now in her late eighties, is still a force of nature, having acquired a part in the remake of West Side Story by Steven Spielberg, slated to be released in 2021.  At the close of the book is a Timeline, Selected Bibliography, Articles and Quotation Sources, and an Author's Note. You will want to have this glorious biography as part of your professional and personal collections.

To access more information about Anika Aldamuy Denise and Leo Espinosa and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their respective websites.  Anika Aldamuy Denise has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.  Leo Espinosa has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter.  Please take a few moments to enjoy the cover reveal post for this book and educator T. J. Shay's interview with Anika Aldamuy Denise at KidLit TV.

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