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Martí’s Song for Freedom

When I was a kid, my father installed two gold-painted busts of famous Cubans in our front yard. One was of Antonio Maceo, the Afro-Cuban general who was a leader in the island’s struggle for independence from Spain. The other was of José Martí. Friends would sometimes ask, seeing the head of Martí (the larger of the two busts) only from a distance, if it was John F. Kennedy. As a child with no sense of history, I’d explain that it was just José Martí. In Martí’s Song for Freedom, Emma Otheguy’s picture-book biography of the poet and journalist illustrated by Beatriz Vidal, we learn that there was nothing “just José Martí” about him.

From the title page, framed by the fronds of palmas reales, Vidal’s paintings (which appear to have been rendered in gouache) illustrate the places and experiences that were central to the development of Martí’s activism and writing. Vidal’s style is reminiscent of Carmen Lomas Garza’s, who paints scenes from the everyday lives of Mexican Americans. Each page of verse is accompanied by a full-page painting of a scene in Martí’s life — from his childhood, when he developed a deep love for his homeland, to the final illustration in which a group of Cuban people celebrate the island’s independence from colonial rule, something Martí did not live to see.

Vidal manages to capture a sense of place and evoke mood with her use of color in each painting. The tropical landscape of Cuba is made up of brilliant shades of blues and greens. The autumnal colors of the Catskill Mountains, where Martí spent time, are a striking contrast to the island scenes but equally capture Martí’s love of nature. The more muted tones in the illustrations of city life in Cuba give a sense of a place in transition. Vidal paints the sugar cane fields where slaves toiled, the lavender sky indicating a long day of work that continues into dusk. Small details that correspond with the accompanying single-page paintings — a caged bird, pine cones, a horse-drawn buggy — frame the text pages, enriching both the visual and textual story.

One thing I noticed and wondered about in the paintings is that, with the exception of Martí’s recognizable appearance, the facial features on many of the individuals in groups are practically invisible. Perhaps this is intentional. I would also like to have read an illustrator’s note that gave some background on the inspiration for, or research done in, creating the paintings.

The members of the Caldecott committee are tasked with selecting the most “distinguished” book. I have my own personal reasons for finding these illustrations distinguished. Growing up with a Cuban father in the Cuban city of Miami, it was hard not to at least recognize the image of José Martí — the moustache, the black suit, the large forehead. We read his poetry in Spanish class. I got a scholarship in his name my senior year of high school. He was everywhere. And yet, he was also nowhere. Beyond the city limits, once you left south Florida there weren’t very many people who had heard of him. To see his iconic image acknowledged in a contemporary picture book isn’t something I ever imagined. That’s pretty distinguished to me.

But the Caldecott committee has much more to consider. In determining if a book is “distinguished,” committee members must consider criteria that includes the execution of the technique used; how well the theme, story, or concept is translated in images; the appropriateness of the style to the story (since it’s a biography in verse about a historical figure, maybe no speech bubbles); how well the images convey all the elements of the story; and whether the images fit the intended audience.

Does Martí’s Song for Freedom fit the bill? ¿Qué piensas?

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Marti’s Song for Freedom.

 

Celia C. Pérez About Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is a reference and instruction librarian at Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL. She is a former co-chair of REFORMA's Children and Young Adult Services Committee and served on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award committee. Her middle-grade novel, The First Rule of Punk (Viking) was published in August 2017.

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  1. “Does Martí’s Song for Freedom fit the bill? ¿Qué piensas?”

    I say it does absolutely! And it conforms to the specifications you presented in the preceeding paragraph. I purchased my own copy of this book back in September at the Princeton Book Festival, and was thrilled to briefly chat with the lovely author Ms. Otheguy at her table. Her poetic prose and the sumptuous paintings by Beatriz Vidal add up to a magnificent work, which will for sure inspire pride among many Cuban-Americans. The full page tapestries are uniformly handsome, but several are really spectacular, with the two Catskill mountain tableaus (the autumnal trees and the waterfall) and the opening canvas “Cuando Jose era pequeno” especially breathtaking. But several others are magnificent as well. I love the ones depicting Jose at his desk in a room with the three windows and the colorfully adored gathering of Cubans celebrating at the finale, and adore the pictorical ornamentation throughout. A unmitigated triumph for author and illustrator, this sublime book does to these eyes capture precisely what you eloquently observe when you discuss the use of blue-green in establishing mood and the sense of place which grandly enscribe Marti’s love of nature. MARTI’S LOVE OF FREEDOM is a smber, exhilarating, meditative and soulful biography blessed with lush illustrations that really get to the crux of Otheguy’s language. As such it gloriously qualifies for Caldecott’s aims, and along the way for readers young and all it is wholly ravishing.

    Thank you for this beautifully written and passionate account, Celia C. Perez!

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