Professional Reading: Pura Belpre biography, Little Golden Books gift

Belpre bioGonzalez, Lisa Sanchez. The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpre, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and New York Public Librarian. Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College of the City University of New York, 2013. 285p. $24.99. ISBN 978-1878483805.

Renowned children’s librarian, storyteller, and advocate for library service to Latino children, Pura Belpre is the focus of this academic study that will be of interest to children’s librarians. The writing style is somewhat formal; this is not a light biography by any means, but is backed with clear factual information as well as a passion for the subject.

Gonzalez begins with a relatively brief (about 60 page) biography on Belpre, from what few facts are available about her youth in Puerto Rico, to her life in New York City, and her career as a children’s librarian. The latter portion of this biographical essay talks about her publishing career and importance to the field of Latin American folklore for children, and bilingual education and library service to children.  There is also a small but helpful section of b&w photos of Belpre and her friends and family.

The biographical information is helpful in setting up the thesis that Belpre’s work had a very positive influence on both librarians and publishers recognizing the importance of serving the Latino youth population, in both English and Spanish. Gonzalez has copious footnotes at the back of the book, as well as index, glossary, and long list of works cited.

The biographical essay is followed by two sections of stories written by Belpre, both published and unpublished.  The bulk of these are folktales from Latin America, although Belpre didn’t include sources notes. The footnotes for these sections give Belpre’s original publication information, or in the case of the unpublished works, some research notes on where Belpre found the tale. Both of these sections will be helpful to librarians and professional storytellers who want to adapt these for library performances or puppet shows, as the stories are aimed at young listeners.

BelpreThe first story is probably the best-known: “Perez and Martina,” but there are many more that children will appreciate include a few versions featuring the Juan Bobo character. Most are two or three pages long, making them just the right length to adapt for a performance.

The final section has an intriguing selection of unpublished essays by Belpre.  Many read like speeches for a library or teacher conference, or articles for a children’s library or literature journal. She discusses her work as a children’s librarian and author serving Latino and African-American children, her interest in bilingual education, and other subjects that are still relevant today. These essays show that not much has changed in the 40 years since they were written; we still see too few non-Caucasian main characters in books for children, as seen in recent studies by Lee and Low Books and others.

All children’s librarians will find this useful, but those of us in California should seek this out.  We serve a large Latino population, and even though more of our youth are from Mexican-American families and not Puerto Rico, most of the same issues apply.  Plus, the stories Belpre wrote come from various parts of Latin America (not just Puerto Rico) and will be fun for all listeners as they are great stories.

Golden BooksMuldrow, Diane. Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book. Golden Book, 2013. 96p. $9.99. ISBN 978-0-307-97761-8.

Already on the bestsellers’ lists, this whimsical book for adults features illustrations from various old Little Golden Books.  Many baby-boomers will recognize these illustrations, and have fun with the premise.  Muldrow has written a brief inspirational essay on life that begins “Is your life starting to feel like a circus? Don’t panic…Today’s a new day!”  Each phrase or sentence is set onto an old “Golden Book” illustration that seems to match the phrase’s sentiment. For example, a picture from The Poky Little Puppy is accompanied by the phrase “but remember to stop and smell the strawberries,” which is exactly what the puppy is doing.

This would be a great gift to a children’s librarian or preschool or Kindergarten teacher. The sentiment is very suitable for overworked, busy, multitasking working parents – almost a book version of a pep talk. But the illustrations will remind readers of the distinguished illustrators of Little Golden Books, such as Mary Blair, Eloise Wilkin, Richard Scarry, Feodor Rojankovsky, Garth Williams, Gustaf Tenggren, the Provensens, and Leonard Wiesgard. Many of these artists went on to be Caldecott Medalists.

In some ways, this is like a long greeting card, but the artwork and message is not as sentimental as many greeting cards. So this is a nice, small gift book for anyone who likes children’s literature.  And it reminds readers that back in the day, some of the Little Golden Books were quite well done, with distinctive, accomplished illustrations, and with stories with plenty of child appeal (and by some great authors like Margaret Wise Brown).

Penny Peck, San Jose State Univ., School of Library and Information Science

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