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Alma and How She Got Her Name

The first time I saw Juana Martinez-Neal’s Alma and How She Got Her Name was as a thumbnail image on a website alongside scores of other books. Even in low-resolution, postage-stamp size, I felt its softness and personalness, and I wanted to reach in and hold it. The cover — featuring Alma’s name spelled out in large hand-lettering, as well as Alma herself in gently blurred graphite edges and rosy-colored pencil stripes — gives off a creaminess that feels both nostalgic and new. The mood established carries throughout. Alma’s story is soft, in some ways unfolding all from the safety of her father’s lap in a cozy living room, and it is personal — a story of her dawning identity and how it is shaped by the things she loves and longs for and believes in and the people who have come before her.

The next time I saw Alma was when my own copy arrived, and I got a better look at Alma on the cover, holding a pencil, appearing to have just finished writing the title; this is her story. By peeking underneath the jacket onto the board, I found a similar image of Alma, but this time in grayscale, framed as a photograph, already captured in memory. This casual weaving of the present with the past sets the tone for how Martinez-Neal pictorially depicts a story that belongs both to Alma and her ancestors.

The media of graphite and colored pencil work to underscore Alma’s agency throughout the book. We see her as a writer through her own handwriting and as an artist in the depictions of her own graphite drawings. It didn’t take longer than the first spread, where I was introduced to Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela and the problem of her too-long name, to notice Alma’s excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience. Using penciled lettering that appears to be Alma’s, the illustration shows how two pieces of paper taped together can barely fit Alma’s full name. When I later showed this book to students, one exclaimed in sympathy, “Are you kidding me? Two sheets?!”

Martinez-Neal uses every jot and every smudge of graphite to create emotion-filled spreads that are rich with meaning. One of the ways she does this is through eye contact. It is hard to miss the bird with whom Alma shares eye contact on the cover, who then follows her through each spread, sharing her story. When Alma’s father offers to tell Alma the story of her name, their eyes meet. When he begins to guide Alma through a photo album and share the stories of Alma’s namesakes, we see Alma connecting with her ancestors through eye contact as well. These private connections, which are never mentioned in the text, point to Martinez-Neal’s exceptional ability to delineate plot, theme, and characters through her pictures. An example of this comes in a spread in which Alma’s father shows her a picture of Esperanza, Alma’s great-grandmother, who had always longed to travel. The verso and recto appear to hold separate scenes, one with Alma and her father and one with Esperanza, but the reader can see Alma peering curiously across the gutter at Esperanza, who leans forward out of the static photograph to lock eyes and share a subtle smile with Alma.

The next spread features Alma, amidst some of Esperanza’s belongings, mapping out all the places she’d like to visit. The text here reads, “I am Esperanza” — with Esperanza’s name fanned out in lettering used only for her. These separate custom-designed fonts for each character are an integral part of the visual narrative and one of the most distinctive elements of the book’s illustrations. The repetition of this visual component reinforces the individuality of each character in a clear, strong way.

The next time I saw Alma was with a classroom full of first graders. “The PINK is for the NOW people and the BLUE is for the DEAD people!” one student enthusiastically discovered, as he noticed the meaning imbued in the two-color aesthetic. The reader is continually invited to associate pink with Alma — her font, her bird, her jasmine flowers, her string — as her story unfolds in the here and now. At the same time, the reader is invited to associate blue with the past — the color of the lettering, Esperanza’s trunk, Pura’s cloak, Candela’s striped pants. This visual approach puts children in the driver’s seat, exemplifying Alma’s respect for children’s ability to understand, appreciate, and make meaning of what they see.

Finally, I had the chance to read Alma with my own daughter — with her in my lap, like Alma in her father’s lap. When we reached the end and saw the author photo of Juana Martinez-Neal as a child, eyes peering to the side as if to make contact with a tiny bird, my daughter gasped, “Alma really did write this story!” I can imagine the Caldecott committee gasping in much the same way as they take in this quietly enchanting book and the singular visual experience it offers to children.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Alma here.]

Emily Prabhaker About Emily Prabhaker

Emily Prabhaker is the librarian at Campus School of Smith College.

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Comments

  1. Lisa Echevarria says:

    Lucky me to get to work with Emily Prabhaker at Campus School of Smith College! Her keen eye and enthusiasm for the artistry that goes into the making of a children’s book such as ALMA is a gift she offers our students and teachers every day. As with this article, Emily inspires us all to look closely, to luxuriate in the detail of books she shares.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    This book exudes warmth and comfort-from the color palette to the softly curving illustrations to the delicately textured paper. Although the illustrations have sparse background details, I think the committee will find a lot to discuss in each double-page spread. The use of a different font for each name is inspired. The spread that caught my attention was the one with Pura and Alma because Alma fits so comfortably beside her great aunt. Emily, your review mentions so many excellent things about the book. Thank you.

  3. Our own first-graders reacted enthusiastically to this book, which I have added to our library. the lovely, earthy graphite is so perfectly attuned to this material and the cover and end papers have that old scrapbook allure. Beautifully written and observed review.

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