Review of Letters in Charcoal

Letters in Charcoal Letters in Charcoal
by Irene Vasco; illus. by Juan Palomino; trans. from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Primary    Lantana    32 pp.
9/23    9781915244512    $18.99

An unnamed narrator relates how she learned to read as a child in her coastal Afro-Colombian pueblo. In Palenque: “Letters were in kitchens, on tables, and right in front of everyone’s noses, but nobody read them,” except for Señor Velandia, owner of the only shop in town, depicted stoically reading a newspaper. Along with the weekly boat delivery of provisions for the town arrive love letters addressed to the narrator’s older sister, Gina, from a long-distance admirer. Spurred by her curiosity about the letters’ contents, the narrator entreats Señor Velandia to teach her to read in exchange for help in his shop. Slowly but determinedly, using the names of relatives and customers, she learns the letters of the alphabet and passes on the gift of literacy to others—an endeavor she continues into adulthood—by drawing letters with charcoal on the ground. Letters are ubiquitous in Palomino’s earth-tone digital illustrations, from newsprint to a “Welcome to Palenque” sign along the riverbank to the colorful embroidery on Gina’s holiday dress. The historical context underscoring the narrative and the significance of the setting—Palenque is a village founded by people who escaped enslavement—is explained in Vasco’s author’s note and reinforces this quietly empowering ode to literacy.

From the November/December 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jessica Agudelo

Jessica Agudelo is the youth collections coordinator at BookOps for the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library, and a member of the 2023 Newbery committee.

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