Lighting the Candle: The Moments That Inspired the Journey

Alma Flor Ada at age five, in front of the Quinta Simoni in 1943. Photo courtesy of Alma Flora Ada.

Growing up in Cuba at my grandmother’s home, the Quinta Simoni, surrounded by family and nature, was a most magical time. My parents, aunts, and uncles were all still young, and I, the only child, delighted in their care.

Words were a treasure around me, and I thrived on them. Everyone in the family enjoyed meaningful conversations, and the most varied topics were shared during mealtimes. My mother and aunts would unexpectedly burst into song or poetry, or they would invent their own rhymes under any pretext. My grandmother, father, and uncle were gifted storytellers, always ready to delight us with a tale.

Their stories were of different sorts. My grandmother told vivid folktales, surprising Greek myths, and important moments of Cuban struggle to obtain independence from Spain. My uncle Manolo told family stories, so vividly it seemed we were present when they happened. My father, instead, created every night for me a new story that would explain how ancient peoples might have come up with the simple discoveries that evolved to create civilization. I loved them all.

The old house was filled with books, and my passion for reading started very early, with my mother’s childhood books. The first being a thick unabridged version of Heidi, hardbound in red cloth, which she had lovingly saved for the child who someday would take the place of the dolls to whom she used to read.

Heidi fascinated me. No reality could have been more different from mine: her Swiss Alps, covered with pines and shrouded in white snow, and my warm tropical plain of tall royal palms and blooming flame trees. Yet, I could feel that her love for her surroundings was the same that I felt for mine, and her visits to Pedro’s blind grandmother made me think of my daily visits to my blind great-grandmother in a new way. While I would not have then been able to describe it in words, from the beginning I felt that books would both give me new worlds and make me understand my own world better.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors. Reading while sitting on the roots of an ancient flame tree or on the trunk of a large fallen tree that had continued to sprout new branches was an unsurpassable delight.

Young Alma in her "flag" dress in Cuba's flag colors. Photo courtesy of Alma Flor Ada.

These childhood memories are the theme of my memoir Under the Royal Palms, which was honored with the 2000 Pura Belpré Medal, and of Where the Flame Trees Bloom, now collected along with a few other memories in Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba.

While I had much to share in those books about my home life, and the people who enriched it, memories vividly retained, I did not write a lot about school, since it was dull and tedious. I spent much of the time sitting at a confining desk, thinking about how different it all could be: students reading comfortably, preferably outdoors, numerous and diverse books, learning of history and amazing places, of extraordinary people and discoveries, all through wonderful stories; dressing up like the protagonists and reenacting their dialogues, and having fun solving math problems as puzzles.

On one of those hot, boring school days, I began thinking that maybe, when I grew up, I would convince people that schools should be the joyful places I imagined, and perhaps I could even write some of the exciting books I loved.

And it has been a wonderful journey, trying to do just those two things.

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.

Alma Flor Ada

Alma Flor Ada won the 2000 Pura Belpré Award for narrative for Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba (Atheneum). Her latest book is Arenas y trinos / Sand and Song (Piñata).

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