Book Review: Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez


Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure and mischief is too intriguing to pass up.

Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.

MY TWO CENTS: The stakes of activism are not the same for all who engage. Skin color, gender presentation, age—all of these are contributing factors to who is most at-risk when being a visible activist. But, as Celia C. Pérez’s sophomore novel, Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, rightly notes, “’[s]ometimes the desire for change is bigger than anything else’” (270). For Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane—the desire to change the outdated traditions of the scout troop, the Floras, is bigger than the risks they encounter. Spurred by Cat’s passion for birds, the girls decide to campaign to change the Floras’s most cherished symbol: the feathered hat worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest. The hat, however, is a relic of a past that nearly caused the extinction of multiple bird species across the United States.

AudubonWhile the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 outlawed the practices that lead to the creation of hats like those worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest, it didn’t outlaw the hats that already existed. The hat’s persistence in the lore of the Floras is problematic, but the hat represents different things for each girl. For Cat, the hat is the Floras’s suspension in the past; for Lane, the hat is an opportunity to rebel and make friends; for Ofelia, the hat is a chance to broaden her journalistic horizons; and for Aster, the hat parallels her desires to learn more about her own family history. Each girl’s storyline weaves together into a mission for change, even if the desired outcome (getting rid of the hat) stands in for something divergent for each.

When I first started reading, I struggled a bit with remembering the distinction between each character, but I settled into the text quickly and was soon immersed in the community of Sabal Palms, Florida. On an aesthetic level, the text is upbeat, funny, and conversational. It makes the reader feel like they’re right beside Lane, Cat, Ofelia, and Aster as they plan their various (and often ill-fated) maneuvers against the Floras. The book also contains paratextual material corresponding to each character—like recipes from Aster or journalism tips from Ofelia. Like many recent books for young readers, Strange Birds is a good introduction to activism for young people who want to become more engaged in their worlds.

Further, in these unique, young characters, Pérez has created an ensemble cast that will resonate with a wide array of readers. Each girl is quite different—in fact, when Pérez revealed the cover of the novel on Nerdy Book Club, she included a personality quiz that lets readers see which girl they are most like (I’m an Ofelia, for the record, por supuesto).

Nevertheless, with a cast of characters like this, of young women from such different backgrounds, there is always tension. That Pérez doesn’t shy away from these moments is significant. Rather than sugarcoat their friendships and smooth over any dissonance, Pérez reveals the ways each girl wrestles with what could easily become asymmetrical relationships. Lane, the granddaughter of Sabal Palm’s most affluent family, has a distinct privilege among the other characters, not just because of her wealth but also because of her race. Often posed against Aster—the granddaughter of the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University and whose ancestors worked for Lane’s—Lane’s privileges are thrown into sharp contrast. When she must confront these privileges, all of the characters, including the Latinas Cat and Ofelia, take a look at their positionality within their community. In confronting how their social statuses are stratified by race and class, the girls grow closer because they acknowledge their differences. Resultantly, I view this as a strong text to introduce readers to the concept of intersectional feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain that “because of [women of color’s] intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (from “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” published in Stanford Law Review).

Ultimately, this is not a novel of single experiences. This is a novel that celebrates diversity. As with her debut middle-grade novel The First Rule of Punk, Pérez has invited readers to experience childhood as a time of transformation and self-actualization, a time of difference and discovery. Importantly, Strange Birds allows space for and encourages those discoveries to unfold, spread their wings, and take flight.


image.pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Celia C. Pérez is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father.  Her debut book for young readers, The First Rule of Punk, was a 2018 Pura Belpré Award Honor Book, a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards honor book, a winner of the 2018 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was included in several best of the year lists including the Amelia Bloomer List, NPR’s Best Books of 2017, the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books, the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids, School Library Journal’s Best of 2017, The Horn Book Magazine’s Fanfare, and ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books. Her second book for young readers, Strange Birds, will be published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers in September 2019.

She lives in Chicago with her family where, in addition to writing books about lovable weirdos and outsiders, she works as a librarian. She is originally from Miami, Florida, where roosters and peacocks really do wander the streets.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Book Review: The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez


Review by Lettycia Terrones, MLIS, PhD Student

Malú and the D.I.Y. (with a little help from the Elders) Aesthetic of Punk Rock Girls

There is a scene half-way through Celia C. Pérez’s brilliant middle-grade novel The First Rule of Punk that pulls so powerfully at the heartstrings of all those who have ever struggled with forming their identity as a minoritized person in the U.S. Having just wrapped up the first practice session of her newly formed punk band, The Co-Co’s, Malú (María Luisa O’Neill-Morales), the novel’s protagonist, learns an important lesson about what it means to be “Mexican.” It’s a lesson that not only connects Malú to her cultural heritage in a way that is authentic, it also invites her to self-fashion an identity that encompasses all parts of her, especially her punk rock parts! The lesson comes at the hands of Mrs. Hidalgo, the mother of Joe (José Hidalgo) who is Malú’s friend-in-punk, fellow seventh-grader at José Guadalupe Posada Middle School, and the guitarist of her band. And, it’s a lesson that complements those imparted by the many teachers guiding Malú to incorporate the complexity of seemingly disparate parts that make up who she is.

Before leaving the Hidalgo basement, which serves as the band’s practice space, Mrs. Hidalgo asks Malú to pull out a vinyl copy of Attitudes by The Brat. Putting needle to the Image result for Attitudes by The Bratrecord, Malú listens to the first bars of “Swift Moves” the EP’s opening song and asks in wonder, “Who is she?” To which Mrs. Hidalgo replies, “That’s Teresa Covarrubias.” And, so begins a history lesson for the ages. By introducing Malú to Teresa Covarrubias, the legendary singer of The Brat—the best punk band ever to harken from East L.A. —Mrs. Hidaldo, in a true punk rock move, being that she’s one herself, reclaims the cultural lineages that are so often erased and suppressed by dominant narratives, by affirming to Malú: “And they’re Chicanos, Mexican Americans … Like us.” (Pérez 162). Mrs. Hidalgo opens a door and illuminates for Malú something so beautiful and lucent about our culture. She designates this beauty as being uniquely part of a Chicanx experience and sensibility. So that in this moment, Malú’s prior knowledge and understanding of the punk narrative expands to include her in it as a Mexican American girl. She too belongs to this lineage of Mexicanas and Chicanas that made their own rules, which as Malú will go on to learn, indeed is the first rule of punk (Pérez 310).

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Joan Elliott-Said a.k.a. Poly-Styrene

This “like us,” this cultural resonance, this CORAZONADA to our heritage as Chicanx people in the U.S. is exactly the attitude and voice that can only come from one who has experienced what it’s like to live in the liminal spaces where as you’re neither from here nor from there. Pérez, herself of bicultural Cuban and Mexican heritage, indeed speaks to this experiential knowledge, saying in a recent interview in The Chicago Tribune that it wasn’t until college when she read Pocho by José Antonio Villareal that she recognized her own experience reflected in the pages of literature for youth (Stevens). Pérez in The First Rule of Punk speaks to the same imperatives that Marianne Joan Elliott-Said a.k.a. Poly-Styrene, another legendary woman of color, punk rock innovator, and singer of the classic British punk band X-Ray Spex, expressed when she sang following lyrics: “When you look in the mirror/ Do you see yourself/ Do you see yourself/ On the T.V. screen/ Do you see yourself/ In the magazine” (“Identity” X-Ray Spex).

Pérez holds up a mirror to all the weirdo outsiders, all the underrepresented youth who are made to not fit in, and shows them a story that reflects and honors their truth. She takes on the complexities and messiness of culture and identity construction, doing justice to this tough work of self-fashioning by presenting to us the diverse ingredients that combine in such a way to produce a beautifully vibrant, brave, and rad punk rock twelve-year-old girl, Malú. Most importantly, Pérez shows us the significance of our elders, our teachers who assume different roles in guiding us, and guiding Malú, to always “stand up for what she believes in, what comes from here,” her/our corazón (Pérez 190).

Malú is a second-generation, avid reader, and bicultural kid (Mexican on her mom’s side, Punk on her dad’s side), who has to contend with starting a new school in a new town, making new friends, and dealing with her mom’s fussing over her non-señorita fashion style. She moves to Chicago with her mother who (in the type of first-generation aspirational splendor so integral to our Chicanx cultural capital that many of us will surely recognize) will begin a two-year visiting professorship. Malú dances away her last night in Gainesville to The Smith’s Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want with her dad, an old punk rocker who owns Spins and Needles, a records store. She brings with her handy zine supplies to chase away the homesick blues, creating zines and surrendering her anxieties to her worry dolls.

On the first day of school, Malú puts on her best punk rock fashion armor: green jeans, Blondie tee, trenzas, silver-sequined Chucks in homage to the OG Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and some real heavy black eyeliner and dark lipstick, yeah! Of course, she gets called out. First, by her mom who tells her she looks like a Nosferatu(!), and then by the popular Selena Ramirez, her nemesis, who calls her weird, and then by the school policy, which lands Malú in the auditorium full of all the other kids who also stick out. Pérez captures the sticky reality of socialization where school serves as an agent of assimilation. She renders this moment with a tender humor that grateful adult eyes can point to when dealing with our children who will also likely experience this rite of passage. Malú resists being boxed in. She doesn’t want to assimilate. She doesn’t want to be “normal,” and neither does her friend Joe, whose bright blue hair and Henry Huggins steelo communicates an affinity with Malú’s punk aesthetic.

Thus, Pérez sets the stage. Malú, and her Yellow-Brick-Road crew comprised of Joe, Benny (trumpet player for the youth mariachi group), and Ellie (burgeoning activist and college-bound), are all Posada Middle School kids brought together by Malú’s vision and verve to start a punk band to debut at the school’s upcoming anniversary fiesta and talent show. Rejected, some would say censored, for not fitting into Principal Rivera’s definition of traditional Mexican family-friendly fun that she intends for the fiesta, The Co-Co’s decide to put on their own Do-It-Yourself talent show. Dubbed Alterna-Fiesta, The Co-Co’s plan to feature themselves and all the other students rejected from the school showcase for not fitting the mold.

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The Plugz

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Ritchie Valens

The self-reliance of D.I.Y. ethos, however, does not overshadow the importance of collectivism and solidarity that supports Malú’s response and agency toward expression. Again, she has her elders to thank. Mrs. Hidalgo helps set up the Alterna-Fiesta stage, which they improvised outside the school directly following the “official” talent show. Señora Oralia, Joe’s grandmother and Mrs. Hidalgo’s mom, turns Malú on to the power of Lola Beltrán, whose rendition of “Cielito Lindo” Malú transforms into a punked-out version in the tradition of Chicanx musical culture—from Ritchie Valens to The Plugz—that fuses traditional Mexican songs with rock and roll. Even Malú’s mom, who often projects her notions of what Malú should look and be like, is also the source of an important lesson. She teaches Malú about her abuelo Refugio Morales who came to the U.S. as a Bracero, and about her abuela Aurelia González de Morales who migrated to the U.S. at sixteen years old. She helps Malú see her grandparents’ experiences reflected in her own day-to-day life in Chicago.

Malú recognizes her family’s story of migration in the lives of her peers at Posada Middle School who might be recent immigrants. She reflects upon today’s workers, whose hands, like those of her grandfather, pick the strawberries she sees in the supermarket. Through zine-making, Malú makes sense of her world. She synthesizes the new information she’s learned about her family history to create new knowledge, as documented by her zine: “Braceros like my abuelo worked with their arms … and their hands manos (Abuelo’s tools). I work with my hands, too. Not in a hard way like Abuelo. But we both create (my tools) … scissors, paper, glue stick, markers, stack of old magazines, copy machine” (Pérez 116-117). Through the creative process of making zines, Malú weaves herself into her family’s tapestry of lived experiences, values, and character that are collectively shaped by her family. Malú’s Bracero zine exemplifies what Chicana artist Carmen Lomas Garza describes as the resilient function of art, which works to heal the wounds of discrimination and racism faced by Mexican Americans—a history that is also part of Malú cultural DNA (Garza 19). Her Bracero zine is an act of resilience through art. It reflects a creative process tied to collective memory. Indeed, she calls upon herself, and by extension, her reader, to remember. For it is the act of remembering and honoring who and where we come from that enables us to integrate and construct our present lives.

Malú’s family tapestry also includes her father, who despite being geographically far away, is firmly present throughout Malú’s journey. Malú seeks his counsel after Selena calls her a coconut, i.e. brown on the outside, white on the inside. Selena, the popular girl at Posada Middle School, embodies all of the right “Mexican” elements that Malú does not. She’s dances zapateado competitively, speaks Spanish with ease, and dresses like a señorita. Confused and hurt by Selena’s insult, Malú, being the daughter of a true punk rocker, flips the insult around and turns it into the name of her band, The Co-Co’s. The move, like her father said, is subversive. And it’s transformative as it addresses how divisions happen within our culture where demarcations of who is “down” or more “Mexican” often mimic the very stereotypes that we fight against. And it’s her father’s guidance to always be herself that equips her to resist the identity boxes that try to confine her. Malú, through the course of this story, figures out her identity by shaping, combining, fashioning—even dying her hair green in homage to the Quetzal—and harmonizing all the parts of herself to create an identity that fits her just right.

The First Rule of Punk is outstanding in its ability to show authentically how children deal with the complexities and intersections of cultural identity. It reminds us of what Ghiso et al. interrogate in their study of intergroup histories as rendered in children’s literature. As children’s literature invites young people to use its narrative sites to engage the intellect in imagination and contemplation, the researchers ask, “whether younger students have the opportunity to transact with books that represent and raise questions about shared experiences and cooperation across social, cultural, and linguistic boundaries” (Ghiso et al. 15). The First Rule of Punk responds affirmatively to this question in its resplendent example of our connected cultures and collective experiences. Malú, in making whole all the parts that comprise her identity, models for us, the reader, our own interbeing, our own interconnection. It’s like she’s asking us: “Wanna be in my band?” I know I do! Do you?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from her website): Inspired by punk and her love of writing, Celia C. Pérez has been making zines for longer than some of you have been alive. Her favorite zine supplies are her long-arm stapler, glue sticks, animal clip art (to which she likes adding speech bubbles), and watercolor pencils. She still listens to punk music, and she’ll never stop picking cilantro out of her food at restaurants. Her zines and writing have been featured in The Horn Book MagazineLatinaEl AndarVenus Zine, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation and Along for the Ride. Celia is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father. Originally from Miami, Florida, she now lives in Chicago with her family and works as a community college librarian. She owns two sets of worry dolls because you can never have too many. The First Rule of Punk is her first book for young readers.

To read a Q & A with the author, click here


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lettycia Terrones is a doctoral student in the Department of Information Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she researches Chicanx picturebooks as sites of love and resilient resistance. She’s from East L.A. Boyle Heights.






Works Cited

The Brat. Attitudes. Fatima Records, 1980.

Pérez, Célia. C. The First Rule of Punk. New York, Viking, 2017.

Garza, Carmen Lomas. Pedacito De Mi Corazón. Austin, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, 1991.

Ghiso, Maria Paula, Gerald Campano, and Ted Hall. “Braided Histories and Experiences in Literature for Children and Adolescents.” Journal of Children’s Literature, vol. 38, no.2, 2012, pp. 14-22.

Stevens, Heidi. “Chicago Librarian Captures Punk Aesthetic, Latino Culture in New Kids’ Book.” Chicago Tribune, 23 August 2017. . Accessed 25 August 2017.

X-Ray Spex. “Identity.” Germfree Adolescents, EMI, 1978.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 2: Celia C. Pérez


By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the second in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Celia C. Pérez.

Inspired by punk and her love of writing, Celia C. Pérez has been making zines for longer than some of you have been alive. Her favorite zine supplies are her long-arm stapler, glue sticks, animal clip art (to which she likes adding speech bubbles), and watercolor pencils. She still listens to punk music, and she’ll never stop picking cilantro out of her food at restaurants. Her zines and writing have been featured in The Horn Book MagazineLatinaEl AndarVenus Zine, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation and Along for the Ride. Celia is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father. Originally from Miami, Florida, she now lives in Chicago with her family and works as a community college librarian. She owns two sets of worry dolls because you can never have too many. The First Rule of Punk is her first book for young readers.

Celia C. Pérez

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I think for me it just went hand in hand with being a reader. The earliest memory I have of writing something and realizing writing might be something I was good at was when I was in the third grade. All the third graders had to write an essay about what our school meant to us. One essay would be picked and that student would get to read it at our graduation. Mine was chosen. I don’t have the essay anymore and it’s been so long that I can’t remember what Comstock meant to me, but I do remember that it was the first time I felt like perhaps my writing held some power. And as someone who grew up a quiet, shy child of immigrant parents, it really was that sense of power it gave me that kept me writing throughout my life.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. I love middle grade books above all others! My fondest memories of my life as a reader start in the later years of elementary school so I have a soft spot for middle grade. I think that age range that middle grade covers (eight or nine to twelve) is such a vibrant and varied period of life. It’s this time of life when kids are teetering between childhood and adolescence and all the contrasts and clashing emotions that are part of those stages. They’re often still full of wonder and curiosity and innocence but also full of difficult questions and realizations about the world around them that aren’t always pleasant. There’s just so much to discover and explore there.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. I love the Pacy Lin books by Grace Lin (Year of the RatYear of the Dog, and Dumpling Days); When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle; Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Oldies that are dear to my heart are Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (and will always associate dumbwaiters and egg creams with her), but I remember especially enjoying Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. Although, to be honest, I feel like that’s a book I would probably have to reread because she’s a white woman writing an African American family. I also have a soft spot for my earliest favorites like Witch’s Sister by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry. I’m always afraid I’m leaving something out, and I likely am.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Oh, boy. I have a lot of advice for my middle grade self but let’s start with these:

Keep everything you write even if you think it’s terrible. You’ll be happy you did.

Your voice is worth listening to. Don’t be afraid to express yourself.

You’re a good athlete. Stop reading during P.E. and play!

Q. Please finish this sentence: “Middle grade novels are important because…”

A. Middle grade novels are important because more than any other type of book I believe they give young readers the keys to discovering their place in the world.


Come back on Thursday to see our review of THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK!


photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

The Pura Belpré Award: Continuing Belpré’s Legacy of Lighting the Storyteller’s Candle–Part 2


Portrait by Robert Liu-Trujillo. Read more about the portrait and his projects at Permission to post given by artist.

Portrait by Robert Liu-Trujillo. Read more about the portrait and his projects at Permission to post given by artist.


By Sujei Lugo & Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez

Yesterday, we provided a history of Pura Belpré’s work and the start of the Pura Belpré Award. Today, we continue the post with interviews with Oralia Garza de Cortés, Sandra Ríos Balderrama, and Celia C. Pérez, co-founders of the award and former award committee members.

Oralia Garza de Cortés, Co-founder of the Pura Belpré Award

Oralia Garza de Cortés

Oralia Garza de Cortés

How did you first learn about Pura Belpré and her work? 

As a young mom, I embarked upon a quest to find all those books for children related to my cultural heritage that I could introduce my young daughter to. I discovered that the most knowledgeable children’s librarian who could help me was at the newly renovated (at the time) Carnegie Branch of the Houston Public Library. It was Louise Yarain Zwick who first introduced me to Pura Belpré and her wonderful stories in the early eighties. Years later, while doing research one day at the University of Texas while I was in a library school, I discovered a recording of Pura Belpré telling her stories to the children. I heard the deep, rich inflection in her voice as she mimicked the characters to her classic Pérez y Martina: A Puerto Rican Folktale (F. Warne, 1932) I was mesmerized by her storytelling. Then on a visit to Brownsville one hot summer day, I visited the college library where I happened upon a copy of Libros en Español: An Annotated List of Books in Spanish that she edited with Mary Conwell (New York Public Library, 1971). My quest grew into a passion fueled by the artifacts she had left behind, stories and documents left like clues for me to study closely in an effort to re-weave this rich literary tapestry.

Why did you want to co-found the Pura Belpré award?

There is no denying the power that comes from recognition. Certainly the impact of awards such as the Caldecott and Newbery is undeniable. But the twenty-fifth anniversary awards program of the Coretta Scott King Awards moved me beyond words. As we struggled to establish the Belpré Award through the ALA bureaucratic process, that ceremony sparked my imagination for the potential and the possibilities and served as the impetus for getting the Belpré Award through to the home stretch. We established a set of guidelines that re-defined quality in children’s literature so that the cultural content of the writing and the depictions of Latinos in illustration was as equally important a factor as the other criteria for quality children’s literature. This was critical, as we felt strongly that Latino children needed more positive images of themselves other than the “Speedy González” and “frito bandito” stereotype images that continued to prevail in the media and in the kids’ cartoon networks.

Why named it after her?  

When we started talking concretely about an award, we brainstormed and soul-searched names. Many names were suggested, discussed and argued over. But as names were tossed out, the key question became: What is their contribution to children vis-a-vis literature and libraries? It was our dear colleague and REFORMISTA Toni Bissessar who brought up Pura Belpré’s name. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that if there was any one person with a significant track record of library service for children, it was this amazing pioneering librarian and storyteller, Pura Belpré who also demonstrated the value and importance of outreach as a first step to bringing the children to the public library.

What is the significance or impact of giving this book award to Latino/a children’s books authors and illustrators?

Given the publishing industry’s dismal track record of publishing Latino authors and illustrators, the Belpré Award serves a very useful purpose in leveling that very uneven playing field. Increasingly, we are seeing Latino children’s authors and/or illustrators who have gone on to receive Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz Awards or honors as a result of the visibility and recognition they first received through the Belpré Award. Winning the award immediately identifies these authors and illustrators to publishers who want to produce materials on the Latino experience but who may not want to take a chance on new, first-time authors or illustrators. The down side of this, of course, is that publishers tend to play it “safe” and so we may see the same authors and illustrators, oftentimes to the delay of new, innovate talent they could take a chance on. The Belpré Award also serves as a very useful selection tools for schools and libraries needing to beef up their Latino collections. But even more importantly, the Belpré identifies authors and illustrators who children and their parents need to see coming to their schools and in their communities and at book fairs like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books or the Texas Festival of Books. They are exemplary role models for Latino children to know and emulate. It’s part of how we’re going to grow the future generation of Latino writers and illustrators of books for children, and how other children will get to know about Latinos and their vast culture.

Any future plans with the awards?

The period immediately following the 20th Anniversary Celebración will be a good time to reflect upon the last twenty years and is sure to spark some ideas about the direction and future of the award. This is surely a discussion topic for both sponsors of the Belpré Award to discuss and plan as we continue to work together collaboratively in order to insure its continued success.

As we move on to celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré award, can you talk a little bit about the Celebración at ALA Annual? 

The Celebración is quite a unique ceremony that happens every year during the annual meeting of the American Library Association. The Celebración is at once a joyful, colorful, festive, and quite moving and invigorating event. It is a gathering space for the familia of librarians and publishers that come together annually to pay homage to the honorees. The two winning medalists give acceptance speeches, which in many instances move more than a few audience members to tears to hear these authors and illustrators speak from their heart about what the honor really means to them. Children in colorful costumes dance and audience members line up for a chance to get their book signed. It is REFORMA’s way of honoring these honors we consider literary heroes who are creators of a growing sector of a the body of work we call American children’s literature.

What would you like to see in the next 20 years in terms of Latino children’s literature?

Certainly the slim production of titles about the Latino experience is reason enough to insist that we do better by the growing population of Latino children who deserve so many more stories in all genres and formats that mirror their realities. It always amazes me that given what we know today about the well-established precept of books as ‘windows and mirrors’ as necessary for children to learn, we still find librarians and bookstores oblivious to award winning books such as the Belpré and are reticent to buy these books and add them to their library collections or sell them in their stores. But we also need the publishing industry to better understand the necessity and the need for titles with culturally relevant content and the critical role these books can play in the education of readers who may not be familiar with the nuances of Latino culture. With an increasingly segregated America, how else will we learn about the ‘other’ if not through books with main character like Esperanza or Manny Hernandez? These protagonists for young people are the perfect anecdote that serves to counter-balance the omissions notably missing in history books and in the media at large. Finally, publishers would do well to recognize that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world. If they are really serious about the future of reading, they would do well to steep themselves into culture and move beyond merely translating the popular books that they are familiar with. Imagine more Spanish children’s book with culturally relevant content! Now that would be change!

Any favorite or memorable moment during these last 20 years of the award?

I distinctly remember Victor Martinez’s parents at the 1998 Belpré Celebration when he won the Belpré for Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida. It was heartwarming for me as I realized that I had come full circle when I discovered that Victor’s parents were originally from the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where I’m from originally. But then seeing the joy and tears and the expression in their faces as their son received the Belpré Medal was all the affirmation I needed, the very reason REFORMA insisted that we have a Celebración as a way to honor and recognize our winning authors and illustrators, welcome their families, and further develop that comunidad necessary for the development of readers to take root.

Any advice for future Latino children’s books authors and illustrators?

Trust your instincts, learn from the past, and impress us with your talent!


Sandra Ríos Balderrama, Co-Founder of the Pura Belpré Award

Sandra Rios Balderrama

Sandra Rios Balderrama

How did you first learn about Pura Belpré and her work?

I learned about Pura Belpré from Toni Bissessar one night on the balcony of a New Orleans restaurant. Toni, Oralia, and I were having dinner after a long day of ALA conference and we began to brainstorm names for our future award. “Vivan los niños!” was one. Naming it after César Chávez was another possibility. The napkin that we were writing the names on had a long list. (I wish we still had that napkin! An archival piece!). Then, Toni asked if we had ever heard of Pura Belpré and she began to explain who she was. We knew, then and there, at that moment, as Toni was telling the story of Belpré, that we found our name. It was a perfect fit.

Why did you want to co-found the Pura Belpré award, and why named it after her?

I met Oralia in 1986 or 1987. I was a children’s librarian in California and she was one in Texas. We met at an ALA conference and this is when the spark that we both held in our hearts and souls, took flame. We shared our frustration of not having the tools to do our work i.e. providing collections that our families wanted and finding storybooks that reflected affirming story and imagery for our story hours. The roots of the award began with valuing effective library service to our communities. As we kept talking, we realized the role of publishers, reviewers of children’s literature, and the perceived lack of Latinx writers and illustrators. We spoke highly of the Coretta Scott King Award books and began to wonder what it would be like to have an award for Latinx authors & illustrators for books that would provide the diverse Latinx experience of/for children in the USA and that would get beyond the stereotypical images and characters. To meet Oralia was serendipitous and our work was synchronous and synergetic! The decision to create an award sprung from those passionate and insightful conversations at the many tables we shared during those years way before 1996.

After learning that Pura was a librarian and that she established bilingual story hours and services at the NYPL, AND that she was the first Latina librarian that we know of, to serve in this capacity – we decided that the vision of the award was aligned with her work. The vision for the award was based on affirming Latinx children, authors, illustrators, books, and storytelling. Her work was about inclusion, and “naming” native languages, culture, heritage, thus, giving her bilingual and bicultural communities the service they deserved. This is also what the award is about – the spirit of service aligned with the richness and inclusion of Latinx in the narrative and illustration of the United States’ experience.

What is the significance or impact of giving this book award to Latino/a children’s books authors and illustrators?

The significance is that we’ve come closer to achieving justice, equity, inclusion, and celebration of a more realistic, genuine, world. We still have a ways to go in the ongoing effort to see that our books are published, however this award, like others, gives a boost of acknowledgement and value. Value. The award affirms the potential and power of Latinx to tell our stories, in our way, in our voice and with our brush. The selections are made by librarians with experience in working with Latinx communities so they have insights into the needs and interests of their patrons. The illustrators and authors, themselves become positive imagery for future authors and illustrators i.e. children who may be artists, poets, and storytellers. I always say that invitation is not inclusion. This award is a table that was sculpted by many people, for the authors and illustrators to sit at with pride, knowing that we value their work and their contributions to the world of books, libraries, classrooms, and living rooms.

What would you like to see in the next 20 years in terms of Latino children’s literature?

We are a dynamic people. We treasure our components of culture and heritage and at the same time evolve within our settings and the times we live in. We are not static in how we define ourselves and how we write /paint/digitize/imagine our stories. I hope the next 20 years brings Latinx children’s literature beyond my wildest dreams! And lots more of it! The important elements to retain are diversity, dynamism, and dreaming.

Any favorite or memorable moment during these last 20 years of the award?

The Celebraciones I have attended always make me tear up when I hear the authors and illustrators speak. For me they embody, bring to this lifetime and this earthly plane, a beautiful dream of my Comadre Oralia and myself, as well as all of the people that helped, struggled, and worked on behalf of justice and inclusion, along the way Without the Pura Belpré authors and illustrators we cannot preserve, disseminate or evolve. Without them, we as librarians and libraries remain irrelevant. We can not say we are global institutions, without these authors and illustrators. I feel proud, that the illustrators and authors represent the diversity of Latinx culture and experience, in the way they tell, write, speak, paint, digitize, collage, craft, create, imagine, and uncover the many stories that, once published, and once in the hands of all children, help to make our world more genuine, true, and complete.

Any advice for future Latino children’s books authors and illustrators?

Peruse the Pura Belpré titles. Enjoy them. Give attention to the story, stories and the questions about a possible story to be uncovered, that pound in your heart and won’t let you rest. Listen to the call of the paintbrush and the easel. We are multilingual and “magic realism” for others is our daily life. Your story and imagery are of great worth. Don’t give up. We are fighting for you in the backrooms of libraries, publishing houses, and selection committees. Aho. Ashé, Adelante!


Celia C. Pérez, Past Pura Belpré Award Committee Member

How did you first learn about Pura Belpré and her work?

I feel like I have known about Pura Belpré forever because the award has been such a significant part of my life in the last few years, but reaching back into my memory, it really hasn’t been that long. I’m not a children’s librarian by training, so I don’t think the award or the woman it was named for were on my radar until recent years. I certainly didn’t learn about the award, much less the woman, when I took a class in children’s materials while in library school! I’ve always been interested in children’s books but it took a while for me to enter that world on a professional level, beyond my own reading for pleasure. In 2010, I enrolled in a post-graduate program with a focus on youth services, and it was during this time that I turned my focus to children’s books by and about Latinos. It was probably around that time that I discovered who Pura Belpré was and her significance in the world of children’s librarianship and literature.

What is the significance or impact of giving the Pura Belpré book award to Latino/a children’s books authors and illustrators?

You know we often think about awards in terms of recognizing the authors or illustrators. While this is, of course, the case with the Belpré, its significance is bigger than that as well. It’s not just recognition of the creators but of a group of people, of the presence of Latinos in the U.S. and of our varied cultures, histories, and experiences. The award puts a spotlight on our stories as created by our people. In awarding it specifically to Latino authors and illustrators the Belpré serves to really highlight the work of authors and illustrators that are often otherwise not especially well-represented or recognized in the worlds of publishing and libraries. It also puts a spotlight on Latino literature for young people in general. It doesn’t just highlight the best of, but also in a sense, can give a picture of what is missing and what the state of publishing is for these types of books.

As a past award committee member, could you talk a little bit about your experience? Criteria people should keep in mind when evaluating Latino children’s books?

My time on the Pura Belpré committee was one of my most rewarding professional experiences. As with all of ALA’s awards, members serving on committees are not able to divulge details of the deliberation process and discussions. However, I can tell you that the committee members I worked with took on the responsibility of selecting the award winners with a deep reverence and thoughtfulness for the process, for the artists and authors, and for the award and its namesake. The Belpré adds a twist to the standard requirement of excellence in that it also requires that the selection be made with even more refined criteria in mind–work that best represents the “Latino experience.” That can be the tricky part because I think it’s important to be able to view that concept, “the Latino experience,” in many ways. It requires familiarity with Latino cultures in an intimate sense, but it also requires that you think about Latinos as we are situated in larger society. What is a Latino? Where do Latinos fit in American society and culture? What are the historical and current experiences of Latinos in the U.S? And how does one accurately depict that experience? Of course, we can’t forget that the term “Latino” includes so much diversity within, so it really is a challenge.

As we move on to celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré award, can you talk a little bit about the Celebración at ALA Annual?

The 20th Celebración is going to be fantastic! All Belpré celebraciones are, of course, but this will be a time to celebrate the current winners as well as honor the history of the award and all who have come through in the past twenty years. In addition to speeches by this year’s winners, and I should mention that all the winners and honors for a given year are invited to speak at the Belpré celebración, there will be music and a youth dance ensemble, a book signing by winning authors and illustrators, and an auction of original art by winning illustrators. There will also be a commemorative book that’s being published by Rosen and will include essays by past winners.

What would you like to see in the next 20 years in terms of Latino children’s literature?

I would really love to see the concept of the “Latino experience” broaden in terms of how it’s written and illustrated, as well as how publishers, editors and librarians think of it. We are more than just historical figures and holidays. It’s great to embrace the idea of “diversity,” but we need to evolve in how we think about diversity as well. It’s not enough to say publishing is becoming more diverse if the books that are being published are about the same topics, often placing Latinos and other underrepresented groups in a historical context and not as people you see in your everyday world. I also think there’s a need for more middle grade and YA with Latino protagonists, so let’s up the representation!

Any favorite or memorable moment during these last 20 years of the award?

Every ceremony I’ve attended has been special. I don’t think I ever leave without shedding a few tears and feeling super inspired. It’s festive and joyful and you really get a feeling of being connected to people. My favorite ceremony was the one I was a part of as a committee member in 2014 (shout out to my committee homies and our winners!), but all the ceremonies are unique and wonderful. It’s always free and open to anyone who wishes to attend so I invite everyone to experience it for themselves. I guarantee it will be one of the most fun things you do at the annual conference! Since we’re talking about memorable, I should also note that my favorite speech to date has probably been the one Benjamin Alire Sáenz gave when he won for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Crying like a baby, I was.

Any advice for future Latino children’s books authors and illustrators?

My advice would be the same as it would be for any writer. It’s important to write what comes naturally. I dislike the idea of feeling boxed into expectations of what a Latino author or illustrator should create. Latinidad comes in all forms. Our differences in cultures, upbringings and life experiences can make for a varied and robust body of work, and that’s a great thing!



SujeiLugoSujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on Latino librarianship and identity. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member of REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. She is the editor of Litwin Books/Library Juice Press series on Critical Race Studies and Multiculturalism in LIS. Sujei can also be found on Twitter, Letterboxd and Goodreads.


FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit