#WorldKidLit Month 2020: Trailblazing Puerto Rican Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

Photograph of Pura Belpré

Avid picture book readers, close followers of the children’s publishing industry, and librarians may very well be familiar with the Pura Belpré Medal, given annually to Latinx illustrators and writers whose book “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience.” However, how much do we about the trailblazing librarian and storyteller for whom the award is named? In this blog post I want to highlight a very recent picture book biography that serves as a wonderful #kidlit introduction to this extraordinary Boricua. I will also present other resources that can be used for deeper immersion into the life and work of “one of the most important public intellectuals in the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Published just last year, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré is a luminous picture book biography of Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian hired by the New York City Public Library. Although Puerto Ricans first began emigrating to New York City in the mid-19th century, and in earnest after the First World War (reaching a height in the 1950s known as “the Great Migration”), when Belpré arrived in New York City in 1921 and began working at the library a few years later, Puerto Rican stories were nowhere to be found. She soon set out to rectify this problem. 

Belpré began telling stories in the Children’s Room of a library branch in Harlem, in both Spanish and English. She began each story time by lighting a candle, blowing it out when she and the children were done for the day. She made her own puppets, and used them to bring the stories she learned as a child in Puerto Rico to life for both new audiences and for those who missed the stories they learned as children. Belpré later wrote down traditional Puerto Rican folk talesPérez y MartinaJuan Bobo, and others- so that they could become more widely known. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for literacy, Puerto Rican folklore and letters, and for the greater Spanish speaking community in New York City. 

Author Anika Aldamuy Denise (herself of Puerto Rican descent) deftly achieves a balance between pertinent biographical information and engaging narrative text. It’s neither too wordy nor dense, and it lends itself well to reading aloud. Denise also sprinkles Spanish words throughout her book, thereby honoring Belpré’s use of both languages in her storytelling and writing. Colombia-based illustrator Paola Escobar’s art is full of details to pore over: colorful flowers that represent the stories that Belpré shared, busy storefronts in both Puerto Rico and Manhattan, and the friendly faces of the Pérez and Martina puppets Belpré made and used in her storytimes.

Simultaneously published in a Spanish language edition, this picture book biography demonstrates that Pura Belpré’s work -telling stories in Spanish, making sure that books were from a diverse range of cultures, and ensuring that children could see themselves and their communities represented- should not be an afterthought to a public library’s mission, but should rather be central to its outreach.

This book is a wonderful nonfiction title to use in the classroom. Taking a cue from Belpré’s use of puppets in her storytimes, this book can be used in a storytelling unit wherein elementary school students learn how to dramatize a story, including learning how to use storyboards, and even make their own puppets! For further suggestions, check out this teacher’s guide from the book’s publisher.

Teachers looking for curriculum materials about Pura Belpré for older students (even up to high school) should definitely take advantage of the wealth of resources available from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. In addition to being the only “university-based research institute solely devoted to the interdisciplinary study of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States,” Centro also houses Pura Belpré’s papers, some of which can be accessed digitally. Centro has also produced an extensive Teaching Guide, and a documentary about Belpré (watch the trailer here).

Librarians can use this book in storytimes focusing on real-life persons, especially educators, storytellers, and other famous bibliophiles. One could also envision a Pura Belpré themed storytime using this book, used in conjunction with some of the very stories that she told in her New York City storytimes.

Some of Pura Belpré’s books are harder to come by, however. In The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and New York Public Librarian, Lisa Sánchez González includes a selection of Belpré’s stories, both published and unpublished. An enterprising children’s librarian might very well tell one of her stories aloud using puppets, just as Belpré did.

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré 

Written by Anika Aldamuy Denise; Illustrated by Paola Escobar

2019, HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 9780062748683

Awards: 2020 Pura Belpré Author Honor 

Page Count: 40 

Reviews: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Latinxs in Kid Lit, The Horn Book 

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.

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