Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to get advice on children’s and young adult books with Latina/o themes from your local librarian or bookstore. Even online reviews can be unreliable, depending on who wrote them.
Fortunately, there are several awards offered each year that recognize excellence in children’s and young adult books with Latina/o characters and themes.
For example, the Pura Belpré Awards recognize Latina/o writers and illustrators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” This year’s Pura Belpré Award winners are, as usual, an excellent group.
The 2011 Author Award Winner is Pam Muñoz Ryan, for her book The Dreamer (Scholastic, 384 pages, grades 4-9). The Dreamer reimagines the youth of the poet Pablo Neruda, who was born in Chile with the name Neftalí Reyes. The book explores Reyes’s self-discovery as a creative force and the development of his worldview and poetic voice. This journey of discovery is impeded by Reyes’s domineering father, who wants Neftalí to become a successful businessman instead of an artist. Muñoz Ryan has been lauded for her “lyrical, minimalistic text” and poems in the style of Neruda.
One reviewer at Amazon.com summed up the book’s themes nicely:
Though written for children, it is a story readers of all ages will find much value in: a tale of perseverance and poetry, family and power, art and identity, written in Ryan’s sure and slightly unconventional hand. She asks her audience to ponder with Neftalí questions such as, “Where is the heaven of lost stories? Who spins the elaborate web that entraps the timid spirit? What wisdom does the eagle whisper to those who are learning to fly?” Peter Sis’s drawings that accompany the tale are airy and fantastical — a perfect illustration of Neftalí’s thoughts and experiences.
The 2011 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner is Eric Velasquez, for the book he wrote and illustrated, Grandma’s Gift (Walker Publishing Company, 40 pages, grades K-3). Set in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the book traces the details of young Eric’s day as he prepares for a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas celebration with his grandmother, then moves to a trip to the museum to view the work of Diego Velázquez as part of a homework assignment. Seeing Eric’s fascination with the artwork, Eric’s grandmother gives him a special gift: a set of colored pencils and a sketchbook.< The committee issuing the illustration award noted the way Velasquez’s use of oil on watercolor paper allows for a warmth and depth of detail, and highlighted as well how he uses color and light to mirror the moods of the book’s characters.
The runners-up for the 2011 Pura Belpré prize include the following Author Honor Books:
¡Ole! Flamenco, written and illustrated by George Ancona, (Lee and Low Books, 48 pages, grades 3-5)
This book provides an excellent introduction to Flamenco’s highly expressive form of dancing, singing, and guitar playing. In this book students learn how to move their hands, arms, bodies, and feet to the traditional rhythms of the music. Each aspect of flamenco is explored in detail, as are the origins of the art form in India, North Africa, and the Arab world. This photo essay also takes the reader to Santa Fe’s annual Spanish Market in July, where we see younger and older dancers perform in the town plaza.
The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cub , written by Margarita Engle (Henry Holt and Company, 160 pages, grades 6-12)
In the middle of the nineteenth century, women and girls in Cuba didn’t have the freedom to roam. Yet when Fredrika Bremer visits from Sweden in 1851 to learn about the people of this magical island, she is accompanied by Cecilia, a young slave who longs for her lost home in Africa. Soon Elena, the wealthy daughter of the house, sneaks out to join them. As the three women explore the lush countryside, they form a bond that breaks the barriers of language and culture.
90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis (Roaring Brook Press, 304 pages, grades 4-7)
When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami as part of Operation Pedro Pan–which moved 14,000 children between 1960 and 1962–the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves. The book was inspired by Flores-Glabis’s own experiences as a child in Operation Pedro Pan, and features well-developed characters and a fast-moving story.
The Pura Belpré committee also honored these runners-up with Illustrator Honor Books awards:
Fiesta Babies, illustrated Amy Cordova and written by Carmen Tafolla (Tricycle Press, 24 pages, grades preK-3)
Me, Frida, illustrated by David Diaz and written by Amy Novesky (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, grades K-3)
Like a tiny bird in a big city, Frida Kahlo feels lost and lonely when she arrives in San Francisco with her husband, the famous artist Diego Rivera, who was painting murals for the Pacific Stock Exchange. It is the first time she has left her home in Mexico. And Frida wants to be a painter too. However, as Frida begins to explore San Francisco on her own, she discovers more than the beauty, diversity, and exuberance of America. She finds the inspiration she needs to become one of the most celebrated artists of all time. Booklist described the book’s charcoal and acrylic paintings as “glowing with warm, vibrant colors” that combine to “create distinctive, statuesque people within imaginatively conceived landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors.”
Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, grades K-3)