author: Lucía González
illustrator: Lulu Delacre
translator: Lucía González (?)
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2008
Because of language and cultural barriers, people who immigrate to the US can often experience public institutions such as libraries as unwelcoming and inaccessible. In 1929, Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican librarian to be hired by the New York City Public Library system where, at the 115th Street branch (and later the 110th Street branch), she instituted bilingual story hours, purchased Spanish-language books, and implemented cultural programs. Belpré was an advocate who helped shape the public library into a community space in which the Spanish language was used and valued.
Told through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl who moves to New York and meets Pura Belpré, The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos captures the magic of the public library in a way that is unusual in children’s books. Though the story is heavy handed in delivering the message that the public library is for everyone, it’s an important message nonetheless.
Delacre’s artwork is exceptional on two levels. Beginning with sepia tones to take the story back in time, she layered oil washes and paper collage onto bristol paper that she had primed with clear gesso. The paper collage consists of pieces of an original copy of The New York Times from January 6, 1930; each piece contains information that correlates with a particular aspect of the story. And Delacre’s softly toned oil washes show the many faces of the Puerto Rican people—indeed, “Rainbow People”—with skin tone, hair, bone structure and facial features different from each other.
However, there are two major problems with the English version of this story. Usually when words are left in Spanish in the English version of a text, it is because they have important cultural connotations that would be lost in translation. Here the story seems to be randomly peppered with Spanish words that add nothing and only serve to make the English version awkward and tokenize the characters as “Spanish speakers.” For example, when the children ask if they can go into the library, their aunt answers, “The library isn’t for noisy niños like you.” Who talks like that?
It is also awkward that, in the English version, there is dialogue in English about how the characters don’t speak English. For instance, the aunt says, “We don’t speak English, and the people in there don’t speak Spanish.” It is confusing, to say the least, and the story would have been much better in the English version without dialogue.
Despite these problems, Pura Belpré’s story is an important one. So, La velita de los cuentos (Spanish version) is highly recommended. On the other hand, The Storyteller’s Candle (English version) is way not recommended.
—Grace Cornell Gonzales