Book lovers know that stories often hold the seeds of change. These three picture book biographies introduce women whose dreams were too big and bold to be kept to themselves.
As a child in Puerto Rico, Pura Belpré learns Puerto Rican folktales from her grandmother. When Belpré immigrates to New York City, she takes her abuela’s stories with her. In busy, bustling Harlem, Belpré loves her job at a library. But when she decides to share the stories she learned as a child—stories that have not been published and therefore are not approved by the library—she begins a journey that will change storytelling forever. Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries With Her Stories is an enchanting look at a woman who left an indelible mark on children’s literature.
Author Annette Bay Pimentel’s narration is warm, personal and full of the literary flourishes that denote a good storyteller. Magaly Morales’ upbeat illustrations use delightfully off-kilter perspectives to convey a sense of motion. Belpré’s life and the stories she tells collide in a colorful cacophony. Beloved creatures from folktales pop into many scenes. Vines and Spanish dialogue twine their way across spreads as barriers between real life and fiction fall away. Pura’s Cuentos is beautiful, joyful fun.
An author’s note, detailed source notes and a bibliography add significant depth, expanding on Belpré’s legacy of bilingual storytimes as well as her work as a writer and translator, which opened the worlds of libraries and reading to American children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Pura’s Cuentos will inspire readers to learn more about Belpré and the many recipients of the Pura Belpré Award, which honors Latinx authors and illustrators whose children’s books portray, affirm and celebrate the Latinx cultural experience. It’s clear that Belpré’s legacy will continue to resonate in children’s literature for generations to come.
Child of the Flower-Song People
Like Belpré, Luz Jiménez was a storyteller, but she was also an artists’ model, teacher and advocate for the Nahua, the native people of Mexico. Born in 1897, Jiménez learned the Nahua language, traditions and stories and longed to share them with the world. Written by Gloria Amescua and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, Child of the Flower-Song People is a reverential portrait of a woman who never lost sight of her dreams.
Amescua’s words are heavy with history and pride. She maintains a wonderful rhythm, employing repetition and other literary techniques. Vivid descriptions, such as “stars sprinkling the hammock of sky,” fill the text with the richness of Jiménez’s life. The Nahuatl word Xochicuicatl means “poetry” but translates as “flower-song,” and Amescua uses the extended metaphor of a flower inside Jiménez’s heart as a symbol for her hopes and stories.
In a beautiful reflection of this symbol, Tonatiuh includes bright blossoms on many spreads. Lively magenta flowers dot the book’s opening pages as Jiménez first learns the stories and legends of her people. A small vase of flowers sits in the classroom where Jiménez longs to learn to read. When she shares her stories, her words take shape and become flowers that float through the air and plant themselves at the feet of her students. In a clever and respectful tribute, Tonatiuh, a Pura Belpré Award winner himself, based several of his illustrations on works of art by Diego Rivera and other artists for whom Jiménez modeled.
Ostensibly a biography of Luz Jiménez, Child of the Flower-Song People beautifully portrays the spirit and culture of the Nahua people.
Some storytellers use words to entertain listeners and readers, while others share their tales in song. Nina: A Story of Nina Simone gracefully brings the life of one such legendary musician into readers’ hearts.
Nina Simone is born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1930s North Carolina, where her musical talent is encouraged by her father, honed in the church where her mother is a minister and nurtured by her piano teacher. When she begins to play her music in clubs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she adopts the name Nina Simone so that her minister mother won’t find out. From there, we follow Simone to her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 and finally to her involvement in the American civil rights movement.
Traci N. Todd’s straightforward narration is honest and candid, occasionally punctuated by poetic lines, as when Simone enjoys the way Bach’s music “started softly, then tumbled to thunder, like Mama’s preaching.” A lengthy afterword takes readers deeper into Simone’s work during the civil rights movement and highlights the power her music still holds today.
Fans of Caldecott Honor illustrator Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street, The Bench) will immediately recognize the bold, distinct shapes that are his hallmark. Robinson outdoes himself here. In two illustrations, he imposes iconic images from the civil rights movement—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington in 1963—inside the shape of Simone’s grand piano as she plays. When Simone’s music becomes “a raging storm of song,” Robinson’s art erupts with paper-collage flames that surround her and her band.
In Nina’s final spread, Robinson depicts Simone on stage, bowing to her audience, perhaps reflecting on the strength, hope and revolution she conveyed in her music. It’s a moment that gives readers space to contemplate the tremendous gift Simone left behind and the hope she offered for the future.