Digging for Words

Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built By Angela Burke Kunkel, Illustrated by Paola Escobar (2020) – hardcover

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Reading Level: Lexile AD730L | Fountas & Pinnell N

I absolutely adored this book! Debut author Angela Burke Kunkel was inspired to write Digging for Words after seeing a video of José Alberto Gutiérrez’s library of salvaged books. After watching some of his interviews, I can definitely understand why Kunkel felt the need to tell his story. This isn’t exactly a biography but more of a fictional story inspired by Gutiérrez and his library.

Gutiérrez was a municipal garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia. One day, along his collection route, he salvaged a discarded book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. He read it over and over again, every time being transported to a wondrous, faraway place.

This one book turned into literal tons of salvaged books, all of which he kept in his home. He decided one day that he would open up his home on the weekends as a sort of public library. Children would come to browse the bookstacks and also have a safe place to complete their homework.

In Digging for Words, Kunkel creates a fictional character, a young boy also named José, who is a regular patron of Señor José’s library. During the week, young José awaits with excited anticipation for Saturday to arrive, when he can visit Señor José’s library! It’s like paradise browsing through the endless bookstacks. We follow young José and Señor José as they live vicariously through the fanciful stories they read. This is where illustrator Paola Escobar’s illustrations truly take your breath away! A spread of the Josés as captain and sailor, on rolling blue waves, marine life and mermaid included, is an absolute delight to behold. There’s also a gem of an illustration for fans of The Little Prince!

Additional content includes an author’s note that serves as an extended biography of José Alberto Gutiérrez, a list of featured books from the story, and selected online resources used by the author.

Take-away message: I was reminded of the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Most avid readers would consider it blasphemous to trash a book. Gutierrez would certainly agree. He has since established a foundation, La Fuerza de las Palabra, (The Strength of Words) which provides reading materials to school, organizations, and libraries across Colombia. Digging for Words teaches kids valuable lessons about recycling and the importance of community leaders. And, more broadly, Gutirerrez’s story is a reminder of the power of words to inspire, spark curiosity, and foster a thirst for knowledge and learning.

TAGS: Notable POC, Colombian, Latinx, male lead, Spanish edition, hardcover

Also available in Spanish!
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Meet José Alberto Gutiérrez!

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