Eric Velasquez is, bar none, of my favorite children’s book illustrators. His paintings are luminous, and their realism lends an almost documentary-like quality to his work. We will discuss Velasquez’s work more than once during this Puerto Rican Kid Lit Month, but let us begin with the two books that garnered him well-deserved notice as both an author and illustrator.
First published in 2001, Grandma’s Records is a tribute to a beloved grandmother. Based on his own childhood summers spent with his grandmother, Velasquez shares with us a celebration of how music can transport us, and how it can bring together people of different generations.
For Eric and his grandmother, music is more than a way to pass the time. Grandma’s extensive record collection is a portal into family stories about growing up in Puerto Rico, and studying the album covers helps young Eric practice his drawing.
One day the boy and his grandmother receive a special visitor in the form of her nephew Sammy, who brings along Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, two of Puerto Rico’s most prominent musicians, in whose band he happens to play. Sammy has a surprise for them: tickets to the band’s show! It’s the first live show Eric and his Grandma will get to experience. And it is a night to remember. Ismael Rivera, the band’s singer, dedicates a song to Eric’s grandma (whose name is Carmen, by the way). They even get to go backstage!
For the rest of the summer, Eric and his grandmother Carmen relive the show over and over again. As Eric grows older, he and his grandmother continue to share music together, including the song that Ismael Rivera dedicated to his grandmother that unforgettable night.
Grandma’s Gift, the followup to Grandma’s Records, is set during the Christmas season. Eric will be spending his school break at his grandma’s house while his parents work. At the behest of his teacher, he has an assignment to complete during the holiday: he must visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see a very famous painting so that he could write a report. But before Eric can do that, he must help his Grandma get ready for Christmas.
Grandma’s first priority is to visit La Marqueta to buy the fresh ingredients she needs to make pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican dish at Christmas. Made with green plantains, root vegetables, stuffed with meat, and wrapped in plantain leaves or parchment paper, las Navidades aren’t las Navidades without them. Pasteles are a lot of work (the process of which Velasquez details in the book), but they are well worth it.
The Tuesday before Christmas, Eric and his grandmother travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s only a short bus ride down Fifth Avenue, but it’s completely different from El Barrio. Eric notes that no one from Puerto Rico is on the streets, and no one speaks Spanish. Grandma is a bit nervous, but they make their way to their destination.
Finally Grandma sees someone she recognizes, but it’s a painting! Eric and his Grandma are both transfixed by the painting of Juan de Pareja, an assistant to the famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. He looks so real to Eric, “much like someone we might see walking around El Barrio.” That night during Christmas Eve dinner, Grandma explains that she learned about Juan de Pareja as a girl in Puerto Rico. And she gives Eric a special gift: a sketchbook and colored pencils with which he can create his own art.
These books are best suited for school age children. Both books lend themselves well to further explorations of the arts, whether music or visual arts. A reading of Grandma’s Records can lead into learning about different forms of Latin, and specifically Caribbean, musical forms. Students in a classroom or storytime can draw self-portraits after reading Grandma’s Gift. The first-person narration used in both books can be used as a springboard for student writing.
One of the things I like most about these books is that they feature an Afro-Puerto Rican family. In her survey of Puerto Rican children’s literature “What Does It Mean to Be Puerto Rican in Children’s Literature?,” Maria Acevedo rightly notes that “Afro-Puerto Rican characters and stories are underrepresented within the umbrella of Puerto Rican children’s literature.” Puerto Rico owes much of its cultural patrimony to its population of African descent: our autochthonous musical forms of bomba and plena and their corresponding dances, for example, are African in origin. Rafael Cortijo-whose orchestra Eric and his grandmother see perform in Grandma’s Records-is in fact credited with bringing bomba and plena to more mainstream and concert hall audiences. In the author’s note to Grandma’s Gift, Velasquez notes that the portrait of Juan de Pareja had “a profound and lasting effect” on him, because it was the first time he saw himself and his people as a “part of history and not just a casualty of it.” Knowing that Juan de Pareja was an accomplished painter in his own right made it possible for young Eric Velasquez to imagine art as his future. In short, representation matters.
Written and Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
2004, Bloomsbury USA
Written and Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
2010, Bloomsbury USA
Awards: 2011 Pura Belpré Illustrator Medal Winner
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.