The Pura Belpré Award Celebrates 20 Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature

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By Steve Zalusky

A love affair between a cockroach and mouse and the chance hiring of a library assistant were among the fortuitous factors that spawned an enduring cultural legacy and a monument to the commitment of one special librarian to the spread of Latino children’s literature.

Established in 1996, the Pura Belpré Award honors the works of Latino/Latina writers and illustrators whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, and is given during the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting during the annual Youth Media Awards celebration. It is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and an ALA affiliate, REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking).

The upcoming year promises to be extra special, with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the award.  Held at the 2016 American Library Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book “The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature” and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy.

The book is a labor of love for Teresa Mlawer, director of educational partnerships with Rosen Publishers, which is publishing the book, as well as a member of the award’s selection committee, which is composed of members of ALSC and REFORMA. Mlawer herself has been a pioneer in Spanish-language publishing in the U.S., with a career that reaches back to 1963, when she joined Lectorum Publications and oversaw the development of Spanish-language books for children and young adults, eventually translating more than 300 children’s books from English to Spanish.

Additionally, Andrew Medlar, ALSC president, traveled to Puerto Rico to work with 2010 Belpré Honor winner Georgina Lázaro León to film a promo for the 20th anniversary. In his blog, he states, “Working together with our Belpré partner, REFORMA, we shot it on the grounds of Escuela Central de Artes Visuales, the building where Pura Belpré attended high school in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, which is where she lived until moving to New York in the 1920s and going on to be the first Puerto Rican librarian at New York Public Library.”

Not only was Belpré a groundbreaking librarian – she was an author and storyteller who wrote and re-interpreted Puerto Rican folk tales. 

Born in Cidra, Puerto Rico around 1900, she graduated from Central High School in Santurce in 1919 and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. In 1920, she attended her sister Elisa's wedding in New York, where she would remain for the remainder of her life. 
 After working in the garment industry, she used her Spanish language skills as a springboard to a new career. She was hired as the Spanish-speaking assistant at the 135th-street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem, thereby becoming the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the New York Public Library (NYPL).

Belpré, quoted in the Centro Journal, said that head librarian Ernestine Rose became “…aware of a sudden sprouting of Spanish business around the place, thought it was the beginning of a Spanish speaking community and requested the services of a Spanish assistant. The position was offered to my newly wed sister, Elisa, but she had other plans, and suggested I go. I did, was interviewed, and was accepted. Thus I became the first (Puerto Rican) Librarian in the New York Public Library.”

The article goes on to describe her pivotal work in the children’s room. She is quoted as saying, “One of my duties in the children’s room was to “read” the fairy tale shelves. Thus the folklore of the world opened for me. As I shelved books, I searched for some of the folktales I had heard at home. There was not even one. A sudden feeling of loss rose within me. “

In 1926 she began formally attending library school at the NYPL, where she especially enjoyed a course taught by storyteller Mary Gould Davis, "The Art of Storytelling." As a course requirement Belpré wrote a folk tale based on a story she had heard as a child from her grandmother in Puerto Rico. "Pérez and Martina," a tale revolving around Martina, a fickle cockroach and one of her suitors, Pérez , a gallant mouse, became the first Puerto Rican tale to be shared with children at a story hour in the public library.

In the documentary, Pura Belpré, A Storyteller, she says, “the first story that I heard from my grandmother’s lips … has been my golden key in opening doors for me everywhere.

In 1929, she was transferred to an NYPL branch at 115th Street, where she reached out to the Spanish-speaking community by establishing bilingual story hours, buying Spanish language books and incorporating traditional holidays such as the celebration of Three Kings Day. 
As her library career thrived, so did her burgeoning reputation as a writer specializing in Puerto Rican folk tales, including the first English collection of Puerto Rican folk tales published in the U.S., "The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales.” An advertisement in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in April, 1946 for Easter books describes “The Tiger and the Rabbit” as presenting the “magic of beautiful princesses, brave men, and evil sorcerers lives again in these charming folk tales from Puerto Rico.”

Belpré died on July 1, 1982, shortly after being honored at former Mayor Edward Koch’s Awards of Honor for Arts and Culture. During the ceremony, Miriam Colon Edgar, actress and founder of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, called Belpré a “quiet pioneer” and said she had enriched the lives of the city’s Spanish-speaking children.

Inspired by the desire to encourage Latino authors and illustrators in their efforts to produce children’s works celebrating the Latino experience in the United States, Oralia Garza de Cortés, Sandra Ríos Balderrama and Toni Bissessar of REFORMA and Linda Perkins, then president of ALSC, appeared before the ALSC Board at the 1993 Midwinter Meeting.

Ana-Elba Pavon, chair of the 2016 Belpré Award selection committee, said, “They wanted to encourage Latino authors to speak about our Latino culture, to write and illustrate books that would be relevant to children in the Latino culture, so that they can identify with the characters and the situations that occur in these books.”

After enough funding was secured to sustain the award, REFORMA and ALSC established a biannual award in 1996.

The first award recipients were announced at the ALSC membership meeting during that year’s Annual Conference in New York City, with Judith Ortiz Cofer (An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio) as the narrative winner, and Susan Guevara (Chato's Kitchen) as the illustration winner.  The awards were eventually presented the following August at the REFORMA First National Conference in Austin, Texas.

In anticipation of the 2000 Pura Belpré Award, a search was initiated for an artist to design a medal on par with the Caldecott and Newbery medals for the two Belpré award categories of author and illustrator. Emanuel Martinez, a Colorado artist produced a design approved by both ALSC and REFORMA. Using photographs of Pura Belpré obtained from her papers housed at the Puerto Rican Institute at Hunter College in NYC, he portrayed Pura Belpré with two children, capturing her true likeness and spirit. In 2009 the Belpré became an annual award.

Since then, the awards have helped bring to prominence such authors and illustrators, among them Yuyi Morales, Pam Muñoz Ryan and Julia Alvarez.

Winners such as Alvarez have acknowledged the debt they owe libraries, while many have mentioned the importance of the Pura Belpré awards.

“People born into this birthright of public libraries often don’t realize what an amazing privilege and resource this is. I know I never would have become a writer if I hadn’t had access to the American treasure house of public libraries,” Alvarez said in 2009.

Margarita Engle stated in a video interview, “The Pura Belpré Awards for (“The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano” and “The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom”) were such an amazing experience for me. They were some of the highlights of my life to receive those awards. That librarians had read those books and understood them the way I intended them meant so much to me. For a writer, being understood is the most important result of what you do. It’s your goal."

Morales celebrated her medal in 2014 for “Niño Wrestles the World” by dancing in a video.

Pavon said the awards definitely give the books more significance in the publisher, giving the example of Lucia Gonzalez, whose work is still in print as a result of the recognition.

Mlawer said, “It has given recognition to these voices among those in the publishing industry. Publishers reach out to us to send us books that they are publishing, so they are aware of this award and the importance of this award.”

Rita Auerbach, co-chair of the  Belpré 20th Anniversary Celebration Task Force, said of the book awards, “It has not only survived, but it has thrived. “However, she said, “I just wish that there were even more books than we have to look at,” noting that, “compared with the size of the Latino population in this country and the dynamic growth of the Latino population in this country, the number of books is sadly too small.

“There are very fine illustrators as well as authors. But we need even more.”

Mlawer said the commemorative book is nearly finished – the missing piece of the puzzle is the section with the 2016 winners, who have yet to be announced.

“The idea is to get this book into the hands of as many school librarians as possible – and not only school librarians, teachers also. While the award is very well known among public librarians, I still think that many schools throughout the United States are not that aware of the award,” she said.

“Pura Belpré was the first Hispanic librarian hired by the New York Public Library. That in itself is important, but I think more importantly, she introduced storytelling into the public library for children, not only for the Hispanic children. She was a wonderful storyteller and puppeteer,” said Mlawer, who said that Belpré would sometimes visit her Spanish bookstore in New York, which had a children’s theater on the second floor, and perform puppet shows there.

Auerbach said there is a great deal of excitement surrounding the upcoming celebration.

“The spirit of the people working on it is just glorious. The people working on this award just care so much about Latino books, about the children who need the book and about the quality of the books that we want to make available to them.”

The 2016 Pura Belpré Awards will be announced at 8:00 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, January 11, 2016, along with all ALA Youth Media Awards at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting & Exhibition in Boston.  Join us for a live webcast!  Learn more about all the ALA Youth Media Awards.