Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who is Pura Belpré?

When I was a child growing up in Mexico City I remember my first experience traveling alone. Taking a rickety train to the metro station past colorful vendors who sold everything from comics and chicklets to medicinal herbs to cure a broken heart. Moving through an ocean of people I took the hour train ride to Zocalo station. Leaving the metro was like stepping back into another time, surrounded by Neo-Classical buildings on my way to the Hemeroteca, the city’s central library. Among the stacks there were ancient, sometimes dusty, heavy leather bound books. More than just words and pictures it was the grain of the paper, the smell and feel of the way a book ages that awakened my curiosity. On weekends my parents would take me to the Lagunilla flea market. I held my father's hand tightly as we searched for treasure. On these expeditions we got lost in our quest for old relics and discovered the magic of collecting books that other people left behind.
This morning I am once again reminded of my childhood passion for books as the American Library Association announces the 2012 Caldecott, Newberry, Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré Awards for children's literature. Chasing down incredible picture books is something I do all year long and those early experiences in Mexico have left me most curious about Latino writers and illustrators. Over the years I've learned who to look for and I've been so fortunate to become friends with extraordinary and inspiring authors and artists.
Pura Belpré was a writer who re-interpreted Puerto Rican folk tales and was a gifted storyteller. She was the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system who was genuinely effective in her efforts to reach out to the Puerto Rican community. Through her dedication the New York Public Library decided to acquire culturally relevant materials and connect to the Spanish speaking community.
In 2010 I got the gift of a lifetime by winning the Pura Belpré medal for illustration with Book Fiesta! written by Pat Mora. It's difficult to express what a defining moment the Pura Belpré was in my life. My mother Pillo flew from Mexico to Washington D.C. for the 2010 Pura Belpré ceremony and I will never forget the look on her face. Growing up she had taught me to believe in my dreams of becoming an artist. I realize how important it is to communicate the important message to children that their aspirations can become reality. The incredible works of gifted artists and writers who make children's books affirm and celebrate that anything is possible. My thanks goes out to the librarians, teachers, parents and volunteers who day in and day out turn the pages of books and help make the words and pictures come to life.
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 2012 Author Award went to Guadalupe Garcia McCall for her mesmerizing book Under the Mesquite. The story recounts the experience of 14 year old Lupita, growing up in a bicultural community in Texas while dealing with her mother's terminal cancer.
Bravo to the 2012 Author Honor books: Hurricane Dancers: The First Carribbean Pirate Shipwreck by Margarita Engle and Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller by Xavier Garza.
The 2012 Pura Belpré for illustration went to Duncan Tonatiuh for his amazing book Diego Rivera: His World and Ours. Using artful digital collage his illustrations have elements of Mayan art and juxtapose the past with contemporary Mexican time. Duncan also lives part time in my other hometown, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Way to go Duncan, I'm sure the fireworks are going off over the parroquia tonight.
The 2012 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Books include Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match written by my friend Monica Brown with playful mixed media illustrations by Sara Palacios.

I'm thrilled to report that our book The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred written by the kind and clever Samantha Vamos picked up the other illustration honor. I can't imagine a more wonderful team then working with Samantha and our insightful friends at Charlesbridge, Susan Sherman, Donna Spurlock, Lily DeSisto, Yolanda Scott and Lili Cohen. My warm thanks to the Pura Belpré Committee for these generous words describing Cazuela.
Nothing is better than a delicious bowl of arroz con leche unless, of course, a host of farm animals have a hand in the preparation! Lopez's blazing illustrations for the rhythmic, rollicking cumulative tale, "The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred" radiate a cheerful exuberance and are peppered with Latino cultural details that extend Vamos' perky narrative.
Thanks to all those who believed in and supported The Cazuela especially the kids who wrote to let me know they plan to grow up to be an artist one day. The color that comes to mind when I think of your letters is vibrant, radiant yellow. Your drawings and words help me preserve the spirit of my own childhood, reminding me to live a life full of wonder.

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