Avid picture book readers, close followers of the children's publishing industry, and librarians may very well be familiar with Pura Belpré, but the publication of a new picture book biography about this trailblazing librarian and storyteller is the perfect (and well deserved) opportunity to make her name and contributions more widely known.
The delightful new picture book Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré tells the story of Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian to be 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 tales- Pérez y Martina, Juan 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 background) 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 of this vitally important figure illustrates that Pura Belpré's work in the last century-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.