This September marks the third anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico. By now much has been written on the impact of the storm, the devastation it wrought, and the objectively inadequate response to the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Puerto Ricans continue to wrestle with the psychological, emotional, and economic effects of Hurricane Maria, even while successfully organizing against an unpopular governor, dealing with a series of destructive (and ongoing) earthquakes, and navigating a troubled election. And all of this on top of a worldwide pandemic.
Never let it be said that Boricuas are not a resilient people.
But how have children interpreted these events, and Hurricane Maria specifically? Books can help us make sense of big events, and the big emotions that come along with them. While the focus of GLLI is global literature in translation, sometimes there is a text worthy of mention that has not yet been translated into English. This is the case with Por ahí viene el huracán (Here Comes the Hurricane). A wonderful example of Puerto Rican Kid Lit published specifically on the island, it definitely deserves a wider audience.
As the book opens, the book’s protagonist, Isa, is expectantly waiting the end of the school day. All week long everyone has been talking about the hurricane that is on the way. At home, Isa confides in her cat Mau that everyone seems to be really worried. The next day shows itself to be a whirlwind of activity and preparations; Isa’s parents board up the windows, while Isa packs “a very important backpack” filled with things she and Mau will need, like bottled water, snacks, and canned cat food.
From their balcony Isa and Mau see their neighbors preparing as well, walking to and fro loaded down with batteries, water, candles, and other hurricane supplies. It’s all a bit dizzying, but Isa’s mother has some good news: her grandmother Lela is sleeping over that night. It’ll be a slumber party!
That night is anything but a slumber party, however. The electricity goes out, making the air hot and stagnant, waking Isa. The wind outside is terrifyingly loud, making it so that she can’t fall back asleep. The rest of the night is “like the fragments of a movie”: Isa’s parents get up in the middle of the night to reinforce the windows with more wood, the house creaks, and the fear on her father’s face unsettles her.
The next day the hurricane is still buffeting the island. The wind continues to howl, and now water is coming into the house! Isa pulls on her galoshes to help her parents mop up the water. The day is exhausting, but they pull through.
The next few days are filled with heat, the realization of the devastation of the hurricane, and the knowledge that the roads to the family home are blocked by fallen trees and electrical posts. Once the roads are finally cleared by soldiers, Isa is able to go to town with her mother. People are in line everywhere for everything, which makes Isa a bit impatient.
The book’s narrative actually continues into the ensuing months, making it an accurate depiction of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the effects of which lingered for months. In October Isa learns that her best friend Nico has to move away because his home was destroyed in the hurricane, and as November arrives, Isa’s school is still closed because there is no electricity. But there are bright spots: the leaves have begun to return to the mountain’s trees, the coquis are once again singing, and every Sunday her neighbors put together a big communal meal for the community. It is Isa and Mau’s favorite day of the week.
I like that Por ahí viene el huracán centers a child’s emotions and recognizes them as valid. Why is everyone so busy? Why do mom and dad look afraid? Why did the hurricane have to come? Children who have experienced natural disasters need to ask questions about what happened, and what’s going to happen next. Adults need to honor those questions and hold space for them, even if the answer is “I don’t know” (children appreciate honesty, by the way). Reading together is a great way to start a conversation.
Children who have questions about what going through a hurricane is like, and Hurricane Maria specifically, would appreciate this book. What do you need to prepare when a hurricane is coming? If you were packing “a very important backpack” like Isa, what would you put in it? Children who live in hurricane or cyclone prone areas (for example, I grew up in Florida, in the continental United States) need to know how to prepare for a storm and how to contribute to an emergency plan, like the one Isa’s dad discusses with the neighbors.
Author Laura Rexach Olivencia‘s text is on the wordier side, which makes it more appropriate for school-age children rather than preschoolers. Its use of onomatopoeia, however, gives it an engaging storytelling flair. Instead of using it in a storytime, a librarian may want to use it in a school-age book club. There are select vocabulary words in bold print throughout the text, and there is a glossary for them on the last pages. This lends itself well to a Spanish vocabulary lesson in the classroom.
Illustrator’s Mya Pagan‘s drawings are on the simpler side, but bright and fun. They further reinforce the idea that Por ahí viene el huracán is a child’s account of Hurricane Maria. I particularly like Isa’s imagining of what her grandmother sleeping over will be like, with her, Abuela Lela, and Mau all jumping on the bed. The end papers (which I think should always be given consideration by picture book readers!) are dotted with hurricane supplies like flashlights, bottled water, and canned food.
It is my hope that a willing and expert translator takes on the responsibility to render this book into English, and that librarians purchase the book in either language for their patrons.
Written by Laura Rexach Olivencia
Illustrated by Mya Pagán
2018, Editorial Destellos, LLC
Page Count: 33 pages
Reviews: Latinxs in Kid Lit (review in Spanish)
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.