Book Review: Planting Stories By Denise & Escobar

It is a rare and beautiful moment when a book takes my breath away. A few months ago, I stopped to look at this one in a beloved local bookstore. I was hearing good things about it from other reviewers and I was delighted by the cover that greeted me in the store. I started to flip through it, ended up sitting down to read it, and then proceeded to the register to take it home. This book is captivating from end page to end page. A beautifully narrated and breathtakingly illustrated biography about Pura Belpré – the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. This book is a must see: Planting Stories The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrations by Paola Escobar, 2019.

Pura’s life and this book begin in Puerto Rico, where Pura retold favorite stories she heard from her abuela. Those stories traveled with Pura as a visit to New York turned into a new city to live and explore. Opportunity unfolded beautifully for Pura when she perfectly filled a need in the Harlem Public Library for a bilingual assistant. But Pura was surprised to find no Spanish folktales on the shelves of a library of a growing Spanish-speaking community. No actual Spanish books in the library at all!

Lucky for the library, Pura was prepared. “Pura has story seeds ready to plant and grow.” Pura began a story hour in the children’s room where she told the beloved tales of Puerto Rico. She learned to make her own puppets, bringing the folktales, in English and Spanish, to life on a stage.

But a library needs books on its shelves. So Pura wrote them. She traveled from branches to schools to community hubs, sharing the stories of home in their own language. She met and fell in love with musician Clarence White, taking a break from the library with a new life filled with music and stories.

But Pura’s story circled back to the library, where her touch never really left. Others came to carry on her task of sharing the stories she had planted, “la lengua y los colores of home.”

Oh, this book. I am moved and delighted every time I read it; a spectacular example of a fantastic picture book. The story of Pura is charming and inspiring in and of itself, especially as told by Denise; but then the addition of the stunning illustrations by Escobar have created a warm, inviting, beautiful experience. I honestly admit that I can be a bit of a snob about digital illustration; but Paola Escobar’s work is the kind that makes me teary and amazed.

I am wowed by the layout of the illustrations, and even more so the architecture depicted by Escobar. The color palette is mind-blowing in its beauty. There is a classic and timeless feel to the illustrations. I love the patterns in the details, but also the surprise of the flowers flowing throughout the story. Escobar’s characters are cute and respectful in an expertly executed way.

I would be remiss to not mention the lovely Author’s Note in the back of the book, giving more details to Belpré’s life and author Denise’s introduction and connection to her. There’s also a full spread of notes including references for the biography and further reading! I also love the way Denise drops Spanish words in the text flawlessly, keeping the story flowing fluidly. My high-school Spanish holds up pitifully in these types of moments; but I found her inclusion of Spanish phrases to be an asset and not a burden, making me feel much more understanding than I am.

I find myself turning the pages again and again – smiling at the puppets, running my fingers along the illustrated bookshelves, admiring the costumes and the city streets. What is it that keeps drawing me back into the book? Perhaps it is the charm of this time period and NYC. Perhaps it is the skillful collaboration of the author and illustrator. Or it may just be that Pura Belpré and her story seeds planted long ago are still flowering their magic and blooming in the hearts of each of us who hear and celebrate her life thanks to this book.

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