Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

Written by: Anika Aldamuy Denise

Illustrated by: Paola Escobar

For ages:  4-8 years

Language: English & Spanish

Topics Covered: Travel, Emigration, Puerto Rican Culture & Traditions, Literacy, Community, Trailblazer, Multilingualism, Latinx Authors.

Summary: The story opens in 1920’s Puerto Rico.  Pura leaves with her aunt to visit New York City for a wedding, and with her Pura brings the stories of her home.  Manhattan is very different from Puerto Rico, but Pura decides to make the move to NYC and thus begins her new life.  Working first in a garment factory, she is unsatisfied.  When a job at her local library becomes available, Pura is the perfect candidate because she speaks Spanish, English, and French!  She is perfect for the job and loves working there, until she realizes that none of the stories she grew up hearing are in the library.  Luckily, she has story seeds that are ready to be planted and grow.  During the children’s story hour, Pura dazzles listeners with tales she knows well and believes others should know!  She decides to learn to make puppets, and brings her beloved folktales to life within the walls of the library.  Pura performs in English and Spanish, and she is the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City.  Not satisfied, Pura writes down her stories and mails them to book publishers, hoping to make a book of stories.  She is published, and continues on her journey to plant story seeds in remembrance of her first home.  At a speaking engagement, Pura meets her husband Clarence and together they travel to new cities bringing stories and music to audiences all over the country!  After Clarence passes many years later, Pura returns to her original library and sees the fruits of her story seeds have flourished.

This important story tells the life of Pura Belpré, first mainstream Latinx author in America.  She used her storytelling abilities to build bridges between communities and advocate for her own culture and community.  In the back of the book is an Author’s Note that gives more extensive biographical information about Pura, as well as a bibliography, stories (including articles and films) for further reading, and some stories that Pura is responsible for bringing to mainstream publishers.  The book does a great job of integrating Spanish words and phrases into the story so it’s easily understood by both listeners and readers.  Pura Belpré is truly a figure that we have no business forgetting!  Both librarians and community activists alike can learn from Pura’s methods and legacy, and we all should continue to work in preserving her life’s mission of promoting folktales and bilingual stories.

Reflection Questions: 

  • How do you think Pura felt after moving to a brand new city?
  • Can you speak any other languages?
  • Why do you think it was important for Pura to promote bilingual storytelling and the folktales she grew up hearing?
  • What’s your favorite story?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Read the stories that Pura worked so hard to get published!  Do you recognize any of them?  Having bilingual books, even if students are not totally understanding both languages can introduce them different writing styles and literacy in additional to the vocabulary.
  • Make your own puppets and have a puppet show for another class!  What stories do you want told, and feel passionately about introducing to others?  Learn more about puppetry styles and crafting methods, and choose a construction style that works for your classroom’s ability and skill level.

About the Author & the Illustrator:

anikaAnika Aldamuy Denise grew up in Queens, in a book-loving, food-loving Puerto Rican-Italian family.

As a little girl, she enjoyed reading, writing short stories, and performing one-girl shows in her living room.

She graduated college with a degree in communications, and went on to get a Very Grown-up Job in advertising. While doing her Very Grown-up Job, she met lots of nice people and learned a great many useful things, but couldn’t shake the feeling she was meant to do something… different.

One day, she met the dashing children’s book illustrator Christopher Denise, who explained he drew “animals with clothes on” for a living… and encouraged her to write him a story. (Also, to go on a date with him.)

One wedding, three kids, and many messy first drafts later, Anika is back to writing short stories (in the form of picture books!).

She still enjoys those living room performances, but now plays the part of “Mom” under the direction of her three daughters: Sofia, Isabel, and Esmé. It has been her best role so far.

paolaPaola Escobar is a Colombian graphic designer and illustrator. She has worked for a variety of publishers including SM Spain, Planeta, Norma, Fleurus. In the UK she has worked with Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, Scholastic UK, Laurence King, HarperCollins and Little Brown Book Group, and Little Bee Books and Simon & Schuster in the US. In addition she has worked across a broad range of printed and digital magazines. She currently works as a freelance illustrator and lives very happily in Bogota with her husband and dog Flora.  You can find her on Instagram @paoesco8ar 

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