#WorldKidLit Month 2020: Afro Puerto Rican Bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

In yesterday’s post, we learned about trailblazing librarian and storyteller Pura Belpre. Today I want to present another monumental figure of the Puerto Rican diaspora, noted book collector, historian, researcher, writer, and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Often recognized as one of the fathers of Black history, his enormous book collection formed the basis of what is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Librarians and teachers looking for an ideal title with which to introduce Arturo Alfonso Schomburg to their students have to look no further than Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. Written by Caldecott Medal Honoree and Coretta Scott King Award winner Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, this picture book biography is an artistic and literary achievement.

The book begins with Schomburg’s childhood in Puerto Rico, where his fifth grade teacher alleged that “Africa’s sons and daughters had no history, no heroes worth noting.” She was wrong, of course. Moreover, this was the spark that lit the fire in Schomburg to seek knowledge willfully obscured (like the African origins of John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, and even Beethoven), to collect books and art, to write and to speak, to show that yes, Africans and their descendants have been actors in world history.

The bulk of the book covers Schomburg’s adult life and work, from his arrival in New York City in 1891 (while Puerto Rico was still a Spanish colony), his research and writing, to his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance movement. While working as a bank clerk to support his family, Schomburg began collecting books, papers, pamphlets, and artwork produced by people of African descent. His enormous collection of materials (which, according to anecdotal accounts, was so overwhelming that it threatened to push the Schomburg family right out of their own apartment) became the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Boston Weatherford’s lyrical prose is very accessible for the younger reader. It is more appropriate, however, for older elementary students, even middle schoolers. It is a longer picture book, with more heft than most. Each “chapter” is actually a column of text no more than two pages long, making the information easier to digest. Velasquez’s illustrations draw the reader into Schomburg’s world. Together, they form a engrossing narrative of the life, impact, and legacy of Arthur Schomburg. Now also available in a Spanish language edition (translated by Teresa Mlawer), this is a book not to be missed.

This book does not really lend itself well to a storytime read-aloud, but a librarian could perhaps read a selection or two and then do an activity such as having children curate a small collection of library books about a subject area that interests them. Teachers could also do the same in the classroom, introducing elementary and middle school students to vital library research and citation skills. If you are looking for a Teacher’s Guide, Candlewick Press has one available on their website.

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library 

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford; Illustrated by Eric Velasquez

2107, Candlewick Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House 

ISBN: 9781536208979

Awards: 2018, The Golden Kite Awards for Younger Reader’s Non-Fiction

Page Count: 48

Reviews: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, The Horn Book, School Library Journal 

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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