MTYT: Planting Stories

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

As we continue to celebrate artists of the visual and written word who inspire us and sustain us, this week we focus on the book Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. This work also reminds us of the beauty of the earth, the celebration of life itself and perhaps, most importantly, the possibilities we all contain to sustain each other through times of challenge.

My Take Header for Planting Stories shows bigliographic information also available at end of this post.

HOLLY: This week we celebrate Pura Belpré in Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. Other than the award in her name, which honors a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth, I knew little about her prior to reading this lovely picturebook. The book gives gives readers a nice entreé into who she was and what she accomplished. As I was reading, I kept thinking of the year 1921, and how that is almost 100 years ago! It’s been 100 years; we should have more of a presence of Latinx books in this country!

In 1921, Pura arrives in NYC from Puerto Rico with her cuentos and opens up a new world for children whose first language was Spanish by becoming the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. What she does to get some of her folk stories from Puerto Rico took some audacity, I would think, but we don’t get much about that in the book. In general, this is a lovely glossing over, which I hope might inspire readers to find out more, and to read the stories she authored to get a sense of who she was and what she accomplished. What do you think of this book, Marilyn?

MARILYN: I agree. This book is a lovely glossing over of Pura Belpré’s life and contribution to storytelling. It is also my first introduction to Belpré’s story. I had like you, Holly, heard of the award in her name. I wanted to find out more about the award and found information on the Association of Library Services to Children website.

“The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

The book leaves me wanting more information about Belpré’s life and her contributions. Next week, we discuss It Began With a Page, which has a comprehensive time line of the life of Gyo Fujikawa in the back of the book. This book would have been enriched by that information. It would also have been helpful to have a glossary that defines the Spanish words used in the text. For me and for the children this book is oriented towards, this book will serve as a colorful introduction to Belpré.

HOLLY: As I read, I was equally engaged with the illustrations. What lovely work! Especially the library illustration with the trees growing–Pura’s stories growing! And the illustration in which she returns to NYC after her husband dies. The illustrations and words so complement each other that it is easy to get lost in this book. But, as I mentioned, it is just an entreé, so not lost for long. But, I could imagine it, her travels, her life at the library, her life with her husband, and then her return. What a wonderful life this picturebook tells! But you know there had to be some struggles. Do we talk about the struggles with younger readers? I want to think that we would, but that doesn’t mean it has to be in this book. I couldn’t help but think about Luis Soriano, the librarian from Colombia and the book, Biblioburro (2010) by Jeanette Winter. Of course, then I start to think about Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky (2019) by Kathi Appelt and Heather Henson’s picturebook, That Book Woman (2008). What inspiration librarians create for the world! What comes to your mind when you think about Pura Belpré’s legacy and librarians, Marilyn?

MARILYN: It is a pleasure to be introduced to a new author, Anika Adamuy Denise, and a new illustrator, Paola Escobar. I look forward to reading more of their books. One of my take-aways from reading this biography is a reminder of what vital connections librarians can make with young readers. Pura Belpré must have had such an impact on young children, both those that were new immigrants from Puerto Rico and other immigrants. When I was a child the librarians at the Alhambra City Library in California had a huge impact on me. I was a voracious reader and every Saturday they would have new books they saved for me. When I returned the books, they were eager to hear my reviews. Those two woman made me feel important. They cared about my ideas and responses to books. This book about Pura Belpré and the impact of her work at the New York Public Library, made me recall, an African American librarian, Augusta Baker, at the same library. Her work as a children’s librarian, a storyteller and a promoter of books about African Americans also made a significant impact on services for children at the library. Her collections of nursery rhymes and fairy tales are still available. Our next book is another biography about an author and illustrator, Gyo Fujikawa.

Title: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré
Author: Anika Aldamuy Denise
Illustrator: Paola Escobar
ISBN: 9780062748683
Publisher: HarperCollins
PubDate: January 15, 2019

Throughout May 2020, Marilyn and Holly give their takes on books that feature art and artists who inspire and sustain us. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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