The Storyteller’s Candle / La Velita de los Cuentos
By Lucia Gonzalez
Illustrated by Lulu Delacre
Children’s Book Press
Bilingual – English/Spanish
On shelves March 28, 2008
We children’s librarians are used to picture books pandering to us. It’s common knowledge. If an author wants some easy library lovin’ they just whip up some kind of tale involving a heroic librarian in the hopes of instantaneous shelf space. The most blatant of these ( The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians I am SO looking at you!) leave horrible tastes in our mouths. Yet not every librarian-based picture book is a shameless sauntering hussy. Sometimes, and this is rare, but sometimes you get a book with a purpose above and beyond catering to a librarian constituency. Particularly when the subject of the book is the remarkable Pura Belpre (the only librarian with an ALSC Medal named after her). I was pretty leery when I saw that someone had turned Belpre’s life into a work of picture book fiction, but when I saw that the author was none other than magnificent storyteller Lucia Gonzalez, I was intrigued. Better still, illustrator Lulu Delacre has used a melding of print and paint to tell the story of New York Public Library’s first Puerto Rican librarian. And as a librarian myself (at NYPL no less) I can tell you that while I am not an uninterested party, I am more inclined to be skeptical when I see that the hero of a tale is of my own occupation. Fortunately Gonzalez and Delacre are up to the challenge and will win over readers, both young and old.
For cousins Hildamar and Santiago, New York is a cold place to live. It is the winter of 1929 and Hildamar has only recently arrived from her native Puerto Rico. She would love to celebrate El Dia de los Reyes, Three Kings’ Day, but has she moved too far away from home to celebrate it? The answer comes in the form of a children’s librarian that visits her class one day with puppets. Her name is Pura Belpre and she assures all the children that the library is for everyone, children and non-English speakers alike. When Ms. Belpre announces that there will be a Three Kings’ Day celebration in the library, everyone wants a chance to help out with the performance of the story Perez and Martina. And when the day arrives everything goes beautifully and the children get to blow out the storytime candle for one single wish all together.
This is hardly Gonzalez and Delacre’s first book together, you know. You may be familiar with Senior Cat’s Romance, or the highly amusing (and fantastic readaloud) The Bossy Gallito. In fact, if you haven’t already read The Bossy Gallito, drop whatever it is that you are doing and run (don’t walk) to the library to pick yourself up a copy. If I were to make a list of required picture book reading, The Bossy Gallito would be mighty high on that list. Because of their history together, Gonzalez and Delacre have a comfortable working relationship. Gonzalez writes bilingual books and Delacre finds ways to illustrate around the English and Spanish sections without sacrificing the look of the story. To often when I pick up a bilingual picture book I’ll find a very blocky method of text on one page and a picture on the other. Sometimes this is because the book was not originally published as bilingual and was adapted after the fact, but just as often publishers will show almost zippo interest in getting creative with their words. Delacre, however, knows how to weave images behind and around Gonzalez’s text blocks, making for a more vibrant presentation.
As an author, Lucia Gonzalez must have decided at some point that a story about El Dia de los Reyes that incorporated Pura Belpre into the text would be much more interesting than a straight birth to death biography. She may be right at that. In its current state, the book is classified as fiction and will end up in picture book collections rather than biography sections. Kids will pull it from the shelf and be read it more frequently than they would if it was considered non-fiction. Sad but true. There is a brief biography at the end of the story, as well as a Glossary of Spanish terms. I would have liked a small timeline too, if only to get a sense of Ms. Belpre’s accomplishments, but space clearly seems to have been an issue. Most notably, the author is donating her royalties from this book to the Pura Belpre Award endowment. As some of you may know, the Pura Belpre Award is given every other year to a Latino writer and illustrator, “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience.” I’ve never known any writer to eschew payment so as to help promote this award’s endowment, so this is notable.
As for illustrator Lulu Delacre, she has a relaxed style to her illustrations that initially put me off, I admit. The human faces seemed competent but clunky to my eyes. Yet once I overcame my initial resistance I was able to see some of the clever things Delacre has done with this book. As a note in the back of the book says, the art in this title was created, “with layers of oil washes and paper collage on bristol paper that she primed with clear gesso.” The early sepia toned paints in the first few pages set the book squarely in the past. Most impressive, however, is her use of newsprint. I had vaguely noticed that newspaper would crop up as sidewalks, walls, floors or other parts of these illustrations. Many times you wouldn’t notice them on a first reading, and only on subsequent rereads would the newsprint appear as books on a shelf or the back of a pew. And many times the newsprint will refer to the scene in which it appears. As the book says, “on page 3, the artwork contains pieces of a timetable of new arrivals into Manhattan by steamship.” This is paired with a section discussing how recently Hildamar arrived in New York from Puerto Rico. A news item from San Juan, Puerto Rico makes up the wallpaper in Hildamar’s kitchen. Marriage announcements appear in church on a pew. And a weather report lies not far from a roaring fire, while outside the weather grows dark and stormy. You could spend a long time just identifying each newspaper section as you made your way through the book for fun, if you had half a mind to do so.
At New York Public Library I am happy to report that the librarians still close out their storytelling sessions by having everyone in the audience blow out the storytime candle together. If there is any librarian that deserves to be lauded in a picture book, I couldn’t think of a better candidate than Ms. Pura Belpre. For anyone looking for a book about a real person with a bit of Spanish to round out the old vocabulary, The Storyteller’s Candle should do quite nicely. It lauds without pandering which is rare. A worthy addition to your collection.
Notes on the Endpapers: Children’s Book Press has opted for old-fashioned endpapers for this particular book. There’s a nice little “This Book Belongs To” box at the front, and the pattern of the pages themselves reminds you of old books from the time of Ms. Belpre herself. Subtle and commendable.