I’ve come across mentions of the Pura Belpré awards a few times in recent months. There are lots of children’s writing awards, mostly named after literary figures, so I hadn’t taken time to find out who Pura Belpré was.
Then I read “The Storyteller’s Candle/La Velita de Los Cuentos,” written by Lucía González and illustrated by Lulu Delacre. This picture book is historical fiction that highlights Belpré’s impact on Latino children and families. It features text in both English and Spanish.
In 1929, two children, Hildamar and Santiago, are enduring the biting New York City winter — a harsh change from there native Puerto Rico. On their cold walks to school they gaze at the grand public library building, wondering what’s inside. Their aunt tells them it’s not a place for Spanish speakers.
Enter Pura Belpré, the city’s first Latina librarian.
She visits Hildamar and Santiago’s school to tell stories and perform a puppet show. She invites all the children to the library, saying, “La biblioteca es para todos.”
The library is for everyone.
The story continues with Hildamar and Santiago passing on that message to their families and a cultural celebration of El Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) being planned at the library.
In addition to teaching me a little about Pura Belpré, “The Storyteller’s Candle” made me think about library access and atmosphere in my own city, which has a large Hispanic population. I know that there are bilingual and Spanish language programs, but I wonder how many of the staff are bilingual. I go there about once a week and have never heard staff conversing in Spanish with patrons.
But back to Pura Belpré. The awards named after her are “presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”
Marjorie Agosín won this year’s Belpré medal for narrative with “I Lived on Butterfly Hill.” And Duncan Tonatiuh has been an illustration honoree three times. There are a handful of other books/creators I recognize among past winners, but most are going on my to-read list.