Lighting the Candle: Pages of Pleasure

El Paso, Texas, a city on the U.S.–Mexico border, the city where Mom, my three siblings, my three children, and I were born.

I grew up in a loving, bilingual home, English and Spanish — the second-most spoken language in the United States. Neither of Mom’s parents spoke English, though her quiet, proper father, a judge in Mexico, tried to learn the language of his new country. A widower, he’d moved his daughters across the Rio Grande at night, bullets flying overhead, at the time of the Mexican Revolution.

Mom, his daughter in his second family, fictionalized as the star of my book The Rainbow Tulip, was an avid reader. That’s a key sentence in this reflection. When she was young, she’d read with a flashlight under the covers until her father called out, “Estelita!” A fine student, Stella could not afford to go to college, but thanks to her and to Dad, my siblings and I grew up in a great home with books. Mom also took us to the library. I joined (and loved) the summer reading club.

One afternoon, a box arrived at our house. I don’t know how old I was. Mom said that what was inside was for all of us and that we’d open it with Dad. The box was heavy.

It was a treasure box. Inside were hardback books, seven by eleven inches with orange covers and white, black, and blue images embossed on them. Childcraft. I enjoyed a number of the volumes, but ah! Volume 1. It was titled Book of Verse. On the cover were images — a boy looking at his shadow; a rabbit munching a carrot; and a toad sitting under a toadstool for protection from the rain. Just looking at that cover makes me smile.

I’m looking at it now — not the original my siblings and I received, but one I bought a few years back. I keep it for friendly company on a shelf with my own published books. Many are poetry for children, teens, and adults.

Periodically, I let myself flip through familiar pages of that Book of Verse. I see a very dapper “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-Eater” and his wife waving from their ample, round pumpkin house. (I now know, of course, that Peter wasn’t such a nice guy.) I am again entranced by “A Fairy Went a-Marketing,” who is herself entranced by the fish she’d put “in a crystal bowl.” My siblings and I certainly had such glass fishbowls in our home, but the poem tells us that the kind fairy gently releases her fish into a pale blue stream nearby. I’ve never lived by a stream, though it sounds lovely. When I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Cow,” I get teary-eyed. Who wouldn’t love a friendly cow that gives “cream…To eat with apple-tart”? Page after page, I see poems and illustrations I’ve loved for years.

I feel fortunate to be a reader and a writer. Mom was my first editor, an astute one, and it’s thanks to her that the poems in the sturdy Childcraft Book of Verse years ago revealed the pleasure and music of poetry.

Reading and writing poems sustains me.

    Years ago, verses delighted me,

                                inspiring me to write poetry.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here. Photos of Pat Mora as a child and the cover of Childcraft Volume 1, Book of Verse courtesy of Pat Mora.

Pat Mora

Pat Mora's Doña Flor won a 2006 Belpré Honor for narration. Her Book Fiesta! (Rayo/HarperCollins), about Día, the holiday she founded, won the 2010 illustration award for Rafael López. Her latest title is My Singing Nana (Magination).

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