Picture books for National Caribbean American Heritage Month 2022

National Caribbean American Heritage Month is celebrated in June, a time to recognize “the significance of Caribbean people and their descendants in the history and culture of the United States.” The following seven picture books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, star Caribbean people or those of Caribbean descent and focus on family and community and the warmth therein. See also A Song of Frutas and Climb On! on our Summer Reading: Picture Books list; Guide/Reviews Database subject: Caribbean; and more articles, interviews, and booklists.

Tía Fortuna’s New Home
by Ruth Behar; illus. by Devon Holzwarth
Primary    Knopf    32 pp.    g
1/22    978-0-593-17241-4    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17242-1    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17243-8    $10.99

Estrella’s tía Fortuna must leave her casita in Miami’s Seaway before it is torn down. She is moving into La Casa de los Viejitos, a facility for seniors. As she and Estrella say goodbye to various elements of the Seaway, Tía Fortuna’s attitude is accepting — her home will be a memory, like the home she left in Havana years earlier — though there are hints that she shares some of Estrella’s apprehension. Bittersweet though the story is, the overall atmosphere is one of warmth, both in the reassuringly portrayed Casa de los Viejitos as Tía Fortuna settles in and meets her neighbors and in the central Sephardic Jewish family. The dreamy mixed-media illustrations are filled with references to all aspects of Tía Fortuna’s background, both in her remembrances and physically among her belongings, with the (somewhat lengthy) text granting particular significance to a mezuzah, a key, and, of course, tasty borekas. An author’s note gives more information about Sephardic Jews and Behar’s own connection to the story, and a glossary defines the many terms from Spanish, Hebrew, and other languages used within the text. A welcome story about change and aging loved ones, and about Sephardic culture. SHOSHANA FLAX

Malaika’s Surprise
by Nadia L. Hohn; illus. by Irene Luxbacher
Preschool, Primary    Groundwood    32 pp.    g
3/21    978-1-77306-264-8    $18.95
e-book ed.  978-1-77306-265-5    $16.95

Malaika, a recent transplant to Canada, continues to grapple with her changing family and settle into her new community in this third entry. Malaika is playing carnival (the Caribbean cultural festival introduced in Malaika’s Costume, rev. 5/16) with her white stepsister Adèle when another recently arrived, brown-skinned immigrant girl in the neighborhood catches her attention. Malaika comforts the homesick Malayka (who speaks English and Arabic), and the two become fast friends. Meanwhile, Malaika learns surprising news — her Black Caribbean mother and white French-Canadian stepfather are expecting their first baby, due to arrive around Malaika’s birthday. At first she feels threatened by the idea of a new family member, but after learning a thing or two from life’s little surprises, she comes to appreciate the big ones. Luxbacher’s softly smudged mixed-media collages reflect the colorful meeting of worlds inherent in our protagonist’s intercultural, multilingual family and capture the tender possibilities of starting over in a new country. Narrated in Malaika’s signature voice — a blend of Caribbean patois and standard English — this outing delivers the cultural poise of the previous two books while introducing new themes of empathy and sibling jealousy. Front matter includes a glossary of Arabic, Caribbean, and French words. A warm portrayal of a loving, close-knit community, this is a refreshing alternative to immigrant stories that highlight traumas and cultural conflicts. SUMMER EDWARD

The Little House of Hope
by Terry Catasús Jennings; illus. by Raúl Colón
Primary    Porter/Holiday    32 pp.    g
6/22    978-0-8234-4716-9    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5301-6    $11.99
Spanish ed.  978-0-8234-5203-3    $18.99

A “little house” is at the center of this story about generosity among members of an extended immigrant family and the stability they provide for one another. When Esperanza, her brother, and their parents emigrate from Cuba, they need a place to live that “doesn’t cost too much money.” They find la casita. “Even though they were far from home, the family was together. They were safe. They were happy in la casita.” In an ­economical and sensory-rich text, Jennings describes the family’s new life in the U.S. Esperanza’s parents each work two jobs, and she and her brother have responsibilities around the house. “After work and after school,” la casita holds “the scrumptious smells of beans and sofrito and plantains — the memories of home bubbling in Mami’s pots.” Relatives arrive from Cuba, and later a family from Mexico: “La casita offered a home for those who didn’t have a place to go.” Colón’s (Imagine!, rev. 9/18) signature crosshatched drawings bring out the house’s character. His watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations in a palette of muted greens, blues, and oranges show the many roles la casita plays as it evolves, expanding to become a haven for hope. In her author’s note, Jennings shares her own immigrant family’s experiences. Simultaneously published in Spanish as La casita de esperanza. LETTYCIA TERRONES

Alicia and the Hurricane / Alicia y el huracán: A Story of Puerto Rico / Un cuento de Puerto Rico
by Lesléa Newman; illus. by Elizabeth Erazo Baez; trans. into Spanish by Georgina Lázaro
Primary    Children’s/Lee & Low    40 pp.    g
4/22    978-0-89239-455-5    $19.95

Newman wrote this book in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, and people’s subsequent worry about whether the tiny tree frogs, or coquíes, a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico, would return. Every night, Alicia’s mami tells her, “Hop into bed like a little frog, mi corazón, and los coquíes will sing you to sleep.” But then a hurricane strikes, and while Alicia and her family are staying in a shelter, she can no longer hear the frogs’ song. After the storm passes, her community comes together to rebuild her devastated neighborhood, but it is only on the last page that Alicia is sure that the coquíes have returned, too. Baez’s detailed acrylic on canvas illustrations aptly convey Alicia’s emotional journey as well as the bright, tropical colors of Puerto Rico. The layout of this bilingual book foregrounds the Spanish translation by Lázaro, a Puerto Rican children’s author and poet in her own right, and the English text includes Spanish words readers can understand from context, as cognates, or using the book’s glossary. An author’s note includes detailed information about tree frogs, Puerto Rican identity, hurricanes, and hurricane relief efforts. LARA K. AASE

Starting Over in Sunset Park
by José Pelaez and Lynn McGee; illus. by Bianca Diaz
Primary    Tilbury    40 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-88448-844-6    $17.95
e-book ed.  978-0-88448-846-0    $17.95

Arriving in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, “homesick and a little afraid,” a young girl wonders whether her new life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, could ever be beautiful. At first, she and her mother stay with family, but after Mama gets a job at a factory making holiday decorations, the two find an apartment and begin to make their own way. It takes time, and it’s not always easy: frustrated at not being able to keep up in English at school, the girl lashes out at her teacher; but Mrs. Kowalski, herself an immigrant from Poland, understands. At a conference with Mama, who gently insists on speaking English, the girl feels supported in learning a new language. Mama helps, too, along with upstairs neighbor Mr. Palmieri, who introduces them to cat-sitting (“People pay you for that?” asks Mama). Soon their cozy apartment becomes a temporary home for a comical assortment of cats, and as everyone settles in, the girl finds that “this strange new place began to feel a little magical.” Diaz renders Sunset Park in culturally specific detail and with a rainbow of tropical colors; amid a variety of page layouts, a muted double-page spread of Central Park in the snow stands out beautifully. Meanwhile, Pelaez and McGee’s text is compassionate and earnest; occasional Spanish sentences are translated in parentheses throughout. Back matter includes a list of resources for immigrants and those who want to learn more about immigration. ANAMARÍA ANDERSON

Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories
by Annette Bay Pimentel; illus. by Magaly Morales
Primary    Abrams    40 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-4197-4941-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-498-9    $15.54

“Pura Belpré always knew that many stories worth telling aren’t in books” is the lingering message of this picture-book biography. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Belpré listened as her abuela told vivid cuentos that elicited “giggles…shivers…sighs,” reactions later mirrored by the enthralled library audiences with whom Pura shared those same folk stories. Belpré began library work in Harlem among a growing Spanish-speaking diaspora, at a time when the library lacked both staff to communicate in their patrons’ language and books to reinforce a connection. Recognizing how the rigid traditions of storytime limited her ability to promote culturally relevant stories — stories shared had to be read from a book — Belpré proposed her own oral storytelling practice to the library “bosses” (all depicted as white). Eventually she published those stories and devoted herself to reaching the public beyond library walls, paving the way for practices of modern librarianship. Pimentel (Girl Running, rev. 3/18) captures Belpré’s dazzling storytelling (“She hisses…murmurs…roars”) through text that carries a soft rhythm apt for reading aloud. Morales’s (A Piñata in a Pine Tree, rev. 11/09) digital images feature a bright and distinct color palette and illustrate Pura’s liveliness through dynamic perspectives and expressive gestures. Deftly incorporated details throughout the art, including a coqui and characters such as Pérez and Martina, evoke Belpré’s childhood influences and culture. An author’s note, a source list, and a selected bibliography are appended. Pair with González and Delacre’s The Storyteller’s Candle and Denise and Escobar’s Planting Stories (rev. 1/19). JESSICA AGUDELO

¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!: The Dance That Crossed Color Lines
by Dean Robbins; illus. by Eric Velasquez
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-5362-0608-1    $17.99

In 1948 at New York City’s Palladium Ballroom a new dance craze — the mambo — was born. Robbins (Margaret and the Moon) and Velasquez (Octopus Stew, rev. 1/20) team up to tell the story of Latin jazz, dance halls, and some of mambo’s brightest stars. We open on the streets of New York with an introduction to dancers Millie Donay (“in her Italian neighborhood”) and Pedro Aguilar (“in his Puerto Rican neighborhood”) in action, their dance moves exploding off the pages in energetic, realistic oils. What follows is an overview of the segregated status quo of 1940s New York (“Black people danced in Black places. Jews danced in Jewish places”), before the focus lands on the Palladium Ballroom and its open-door policy that allowed people of all backgrounds to enjoy the sounds of Latin jazz band Machito and His Afro-Cubans. Meeting there for the first time, Aguilar and Donay would together smash through society’s barriers while becoming the best mambo dance team in the country. In Robbins and Velasquez’s hands, this early challenge to segregation makes for a lively, compelling piece of history. Back matter includes an author’s note with further information about the 1940s, Latin jazz, and mambo — and some of the musicians and dancers that made them famous. ERIC CARPENTER

From the June 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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