Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer. New York: Puffin Books, 1995.

It seems fitting that the first Pura Belpre Award winner in the narrative category is by Judith Ortiz Cofer who, like Belpre, is a native of Puerto Rico. Cofer came to the United States at a young age and, like the characters in the stories that make up An Island Like You, grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. This collection of stories features Puerto Rican-American teens growing up teetering that all-too-familiar line between cultures. In addition to the cultural divide between the children and their parents, socio-economic and racial divisions, provide conflict throughout the stories. 
While twelve separate short stories, characters reappear throughout giving each distinct person an opportunity to share his or her voice. Each character is a study in adolescence with all its complexities and its ups and downs. The reviled bully of one story becomes the heartbreaking hero of another. The bad girl who draws little sympathy in one story mourns her father in another. Cofer created multidimensional characters that are more than just one thing or another. Weaving them throughout each other’s stories allows the reader to see them in different lights, to understand how they relate to one another, and to discover the sources of their pain and inner conflict, proving that there is often more than meets the eye. Cofer’s characters are diverse in personalities, interests, and appearances, breaking the stereotypes that often come with Latino, and in this case specifically Puerto Rican, characters in the media. You get the punk, the beauty, the ugly duckling, the brain, and more. Their cultural background makes them different in some ways, and yet, as teenagers they belong to a distinct culture of sorts that has nothing to do with differences in language or appearance. One of the most interesting features is the fact that many of the characters are not fluent in Spanish, perhaps one of the reasons why many of them struggle with conforming to the world in which their parents are trying to raise them, one in which they attempt to insert the culture, religion and ways of their own childhoods into a completely different time and place. One of my favorite passages that illustrates these clashing worlds is from “Home to El Building:”

Anita walks slowly past the familiar sights: shops, bodegas, and bars of the street where she’s lived all her life, feeling like she’s saying adios, and good riddance to it all. Her destination is the future. She is walking toward love. But first she has to get past her life that’s contained by this block. The barrio is like an alternate universe. That’s what they call it on Star Trek when the crew of the starship Enterprise find themselves in another world that may look like Earth, but where the natives have history turned around, and none of the usual rules apply. In these streets, on this block, people speak in Spanish, even though they’re in the middle of New Jersey; they eat fruits and vegetables that grow only in a tropical country; and they (Anita is thinking of her parents now) try to make their children behave like they were living in another century....

Having grown up in the alternate universe that was my Miami neighborhood, I know exactly what Anita is talking about, as will many other young reader growing up with similar experiences.

While there are no specific pop cultural references, some of the stories do have a somewhat dated tone. The story “White Balloons,” in which the neighborhood teens rally to help out a gay man who grew up on the barrio and returns, sick with AIDS, to fulfill a dream before he dies, feels like it comes from a very specific period in the past. I am not so deluded to think that uninformed and backward attitudes towards homosexuality and AIDS have changed drastically, but these have changed to some extent in the past couple of decades, which makes the story feel very early-to-mid-1990s. 

Not sure how often this book is assigned as high school or college reading. It was assigned in a recent class I took on books and other material for young adults. I have to wonder if this is a testament to its ability to stand the test of time or if there has been no other work of Latino-focused YA published since 1995 worthy of inclusion on the reading list of a YA literature course. Nevertheless, it is a classic of Latino youth literature. The struggle to find one's place will resonate with teens regardless of racial or cultural background.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pura Belpre Reading Challenge

This summer I had the pleasure of attending the Pura Belpré Award ceremony during the ALA (American Library Association) conference in New Orleans. I had no idea how inspiring it would be to listen to the speeches given by the amazing writers and illustrators being honored for their positive portrayal of Latinos in youth literature.  

The medals. So pretty! I really should not be allowed so close to award medals.

Being the fifteenth year of the award, the posters given out featured Carmen Lomas Garza's Quinceañera. Each table also featured one of the award winning books as its centerpiece. This one shows Amy Novesky's Me, Frida whose illustrator, David Diaz, won an illustrator honor.

The programs featured the art work of Eric Velasquez, who won the illustrator medal for his book Grandma's Gift

Oralia Garza de Cortés and Sandra Rios Balderrama, the ladies who started it all, escorting the symbolic quinceañera.

Recently I was thinking that I should read all the Pura Belpré books. There are a lot of Newbery reading challenges online, where readers challenge themselves to read all the Newbery winners. Why not a Pura Belpré challenge? So the goal for the next year is to read as many of the Belpré medal and honor books in both categories awarded. Won’t you join me? 

I’ve thought about doing this in some kind of order--oldest to current or the reverse. It just so happens that I’ve read three of the books honored in 1996, the first year the award was given, so I’m starting with 1996. However, I don’t necessarily plan to stick to reading the books chronologically as I’m currently reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer, the 2011 winner for narrative. 

Some interesting facts about the Belpré award that you may not already know: 
  • The Pura Belpré medal is awarded to a Latino or 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.”
  • The award is named for Pura Belpré (1899-1982), a Puerto Rican born author and storyteller who was the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. While at the NYPL she advocated for library services, including bilingual story time, to the growing Latino population in the city.
  • Pura Belpré wrote a number of children’s books that drew from her own cultural background, retelling the folk tales of Perez and Martina and of Juan Bobo.
  • The Pura Belpré Award is a joint award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, and REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking.
  • The Award, which is given in the categories of narrative and illustration, was first given in 1996. It was awarded every two years until 2008 after which it became an annual award.   
There is a complete list of the Pura Belpré Award winners and honor books on the award's Webpage. If you're interested in reading more about Pura Belpré or the history of the award and its winners, check out these resources:

The Pura Belpré Awards: Celebrating Latino Authors and Illustrators. Edited by Rose Zertuche Treviño. Chicago: American Library Association, 2006.

The Storyteller's Candle / La Velita de los Cuentos. Written by Lucía González; Illustrated by Lulu Delacre. San Francisco: Children's Book Press, 2008.