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All the Way to Havana

Thanks to All the Way to Havana, the vibrant and evocative book written by Margarita Engle and inventively illustrated by Mike Curato, I learned something very interesting about modern-day Cuba. Many of the cars on the road there are pre-1959 American automobiles. We meet a boy whose family owns such a vehicle, lovingly called “Cara Cara.” Passed from one generation to the next, the car needs constant repair, and the resourceful lad at the story’s center loves to grab tools and help. He and his family must prepare Cara Cara for a trip from their rural home to the bustling city of Havana, where they will celebrate his newborn cousin’s “zero-year birthday.”

Once on the road, we see the trip through the boy’s excited eyes, the same color blue as Cara Cara. He looks out the window, marvels at the dramatic cityscape, enjoys a party, drifts off to a contented sleep, and then wakes up the next morning to his papá’s promise that Cara Cara will someday be his. The Caldecott terms and criteria say that a Caldecott contender should display “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” By putting this relatable boy, who serves as a first-person narrator, at the center of the story, the child reader feels more involved with the trek. All the while, Engle’s energetic language sings. And Curato takes her words and runs with them, creating mixed-media illustrations that burst off the page (they look three-dimensional) with color and life. The artist’s note says he used pencil, acrylic, paper, photo overlay, digital color in Adobe Photoshop, and other mixed media to create the illustrations. The back matter tells how he visited Cuba to see the cars for himself, creating the illustrations by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from the photographs he took while there. His research paid off.

Some of the very best picture books are cinematic, with the illustrator assuming a role similar to that of a cinematographer. Each illustration in All the Way to Havana feels like a shot in a thoughtfully composed motion picture (for me, it ties the remarkable CaldeNott Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, for the most cinematic picture book of the year). The book’s dimensions (11.3 x 0.4 x 8.8 inches) call to mind the dimensions of a movie screen. Throughout the book, Curato whisks us inside, outside, up, and over the vehicle, offering a wide variety of POV shots. Early on, for example, when Cara Cara starts malfunctioning, Curato positions us at the front of the smoking car. The automobile seems to be popping off the page. As the boy helps fix the car, Curato has us looking up at the wrench-bearing child. Then when the car starts running again, the engine backfires, and Curato offers a comical close-up of a flapping chicken, startled by the noise near the tailpipe.

The artist does a beautiful job with light and shadow. In one spread we see, from the perspective of the car’s hood, that the family has been joined by neighbors in need of a ride. They crowd inside the vehicle, and we see sunlight glare off of the windshield. The Caldecott terms and criteria say that a Caldecott contender must provide a “visual experience,” and in that regard All the Way to Havana more than excels.

The book’s many panoramic, detail-packed double-page spreads really deliver. The best one shows Cara Cara on a busy “curved road by the seawall.” The boy’s mamá points out the other old, noisy cars, in a wide array of colors; the bright red car with huge sharklike fins is a real showstopper. The blue sky, the greenish sea, the light brown road — this is a feast for the eyes. The next several spreads do an impressive job of showing the boy watching the action going on outside the car. In one spread, we are inside the car looking over his shadow-covered shoulder as he looks inside busy stores. Then we are outside the car as he waves at a couple, just married, in a bright pink convertible in the next lane (look at the details on those surrounding buildings). In a nice touch, the font becomes larger and colorful when sound effects fill the air.

All the Way to Havana offers so many other visual delights. For example, I love the haziness of the final spread with the father lifting his boy in the air, promising him that one day Cara Cara will be his (note how the car stands proudly in the foreground). The endpapers are filled with retro-style drawings of the pre-1959 automobiles, each surrounded by a splash of color, with our eyes drawn to the strikingly blue Cara Cara. And in an added surprise, removing the dust jacket reveals a striking overhead shot of Cara Cara.

All the Way to Havana is an unforgettable road trip through Cuba, one I hope the Caldecott committee takes careful note of.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of All the Way to Havana.

Brian Wilson About Brian Wilson

Brian E. Wilson is a children's librarian at Evanston Public Library. He served on the 2015 Odyssey Committee and the 2017 Caldecott Committee.

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Comments

  1. “The Caldecott terms and criteria say that a Caldecott contender should display “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” By putting this relatable boy, who serves as a first-person narrator, at the center of the story, the child reader feels more involved with the trek. All the while, Engle’s energetic language sings. And Curato takes her words and runs with them, creating mixed-media illustrations that burst off the page (they look three-dimensional) with color and life.”

    This incredibly brilliant passage says it all. A masterpiece on a masterpiece is how I size up this review by Brian Wilson and the subject of his veneration. This is one of those books that needs only a single viewing to pull in the viewer hook, line and sinker. And the pairing of Engle, a veteran children’s book luminary and Curato, an illustrator par excellence at the top of his game resulted in a very special release and a book surely to be revisited again and again by a committee faced with the unenviable task of deciding in a year of such riches. I love old cars as much as the next person, but never knew until I read Engle’s prose and completed subsequent investigation that Castro has put the clamps on newer American models being imported to the island. This leaves Cuba as a far better sourse of antique automobiles than any museum, no matter how extensive the holdings may be. I came to appreciate old cars largely through their use in movies, and marveled then as I do now how they are able to assemble such a fleet for films set in that era needing dozens of old cars. Curato’s vibrant art -I LOVE your use of cinematic reference points and in fact your entire contention that this is a cinematic book with images that jump off the page- ravishes the senses. The cover, with the title craetively affixed to the wall and the boy standing aside the blu Buick is an arresting one, and what a treasure trove of antiques on the end papers, and who can fail to resist the stunning double page highway spread introduced by “toward the curved road by the seawall, where Mama points out noisy old cars of every color–yellow, pink, purple, green, orange……” is quite the exhilarating panorama, with that splendid red-winged Caddilac at the center! Curato, spurred on by Engle’s prose sets the stage with that fantastic opening spread too with the red-shirt boy carrying the package ro the palm tree hamlet with the pastel blue antique near an outdoor clothesline.

    What is most astounding is that time has stood still, and those by their nature nostalgic can in some measure see our own cherished 50’s and 60’s living on in Havana, where in view of this edict an aspect of our culture though long losty by technical inovations will thrive well into the foreseeable future in large measure because of Cuban resilience and makeshift creativity.

    For all Curato’s Caldecott worthiness of course, one must again look at Engle’s whose indelible sound system for this book brings these treasures to live, affording readers the necessary aural accompaniment for this festive feast for the yes. Any book that Engle writes seems poised for Newbery inspection. Her poetry for the 2017 “Miguel’s Brave Knight” (Raul Colon, illustrator) shows her as diverse and quality-prolific!

    Love the way you broach light and shadow, and include the factual information about Curato visiting Cuba for all the necessary measures of authenticity. Again, congratulations on this masterful investigation into a picture book jewel!

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Brian – thanks for your excellent review (and thanks for your service on the Caldecott Committee!!). I love All The Way To Havana – and you articulate so many of the reasons why.
    Additionally, this book hits home for me personally. I grew up in India in the 1970s when India was doing the same things with its cars left over from the British Raj. I rode in what to an 9 year old seemed like majestic cars called the Ambassador. They too were lovingly repaired for 40+ years and were beloved in every family. Oh the memories.
    Here’s hoping for this book.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Great review, Brian! You pointed out so many wonderful details in this book. I especially love the car under the paper jacket. Wow!

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