Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré By Anika Aldamuy Denise, Illustrated by Paola Escobar (2019) – hardcover
Recommended ages: 4 to 8
Reading level: Lexile 860L
Planting Stories tells the story of Pura Belpré, a Puerto Rican immigrant who became a pioneering librarian. The story beings in 1921, when Pura first arrived in New York City. As a trilingual, she answered a call from the public library for bilingual librarians. She became the first Latina librarian hired by the New York Public Library. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she loved to read and share Puerto Rican folklore. She was excited for the opportunity to share those same types of stories as a librarian in the United States, but was quickly dismayed. Cultural books were nowhere to be found.
Thus began Pura’s career of advocating for bilingual and culturally relevant materials for Latinx children. Children flocked to her storytelling sessions. She also learned to make puppets to incorporate with the stories. Her puppet and storytelling shows became so popular that entire families would attend.
In 1932, she authored the first Spanish-language children’s book, Pérez y Martina, published by a mainstream U.S. press. She’d go on to publish over a dozen more stories.
Pura’s work would live on in the countless librarians that continued her puppet and storytelling shows and in those that continue to advocate for bilingual and cultural materials.
Author Anika Aldamuy Denise tells her story in a digestible and poetic way for young readers. For further exploration, she includes an extended biography at end of the book. She additionally provides the following content:
- Selected Biography
- Archive Collections
- An article, movie, and additional readings about Pura
- Additional details on the stories by Pura mentioned in the text
This all combines to make the perfect book for educators wanting to teach the history of a pioneering Latina. Pura’s legacy lives on in the Pura Belpré Award. Established in 1996, the award is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latinx cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.
I’d be remiss not to point out Paola Escobar’s illustrations in this book. If ever you bought a book just for the illustrations, Planting Stories is it. Escobar’s warm, vintage-looking color palette gave the feeling of sifting through an old family photo album. From the impeccable outfits to the city storefronts, her illustrations transport readers to a bygone era.
Take-away message: Pura’s story is a shining example of why representation in children’s literature matters. Before her work with the library, Spanish-speaking children and families thought that the library was only for Enlish speakers. And they wouldn’t be mistaken. She inspired a generation of children to fall in love with reading and storytelling simply by speaking their language and including their faces and stories in published literature.
TAGS: Notable POC, female-lead, Puerto Rican, Latinx, Spanish edition, hardcover
Teaching Guide from Harper Collins Publishers
Check out the trailer for the documentary “Pura Belpré: Storyteller”