Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first author to win the Pura Belpré Award for her first young adult book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. On December 30, 2016, she passed away at the young age of 64, due to cancer. This week, we celebrate her life and work with reviews of four of her books and a giveaway. Please scroll to the end of this post to enter!
Review by Toni Margarita Plummer
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “A bailar! There’s music in the park today—let’s dance!” Marita and her mother are finishing their Saturday chores and anticipating Papi’s salsa concert in the park that night, so Mami makes the broom her dance partner to show her daughter how to dance to the music. “Listen to the claves, the bongos, and the cowbells. Listen to the maracas, the timbales, and the giro, they will tell you how to move your shoulders, your hips, your feet.” They dance faster and faster, so fast that they fall down on the floor laughing.
That afternoon, they put on their best dresses and dancing shoes, and old Don Jose says they look like “dos lindas flores.” He follows them slowly, “his cane tapping out a salsa beat on the sidewalk.” The music floats in and out of the barrio’s alleys, calling listeners to move, move, move. Soon Marita and her mother are leading a parade of neighbors and friends dancing and singing their way to the concert. And at the park, Papi plays notes on his trombone that are a secret between him and Marita: te veo, te ve-o, te ve-o. I see you, I see you, I see you!
Judith Ortiz Cofer’s lyrical text combining English and Spanish is complemented by Christina Ann Rodriguez’s vibrant images of the neighborhood’s unique characters—viejitos, fruit sellers, boys on skateboards and even babies—reveling in the beat of the music. Families will delight in reading together this warm, energetic look at one community’s enjoyment of the sights and sounds of salsa music.
MY TWO CENTS: The story begins with Mami and Marita singing and dancing while they clean in the kitchen. They have made up a song to Papi’s music, and Marita makes claves out of spoons to tap out the beat. The lines of the song, given in Spanish and English, permeate the book, weaving in and out of the other text. “Move move move to the rhythm that makes us…that makes us feel happy.” This creates a lovely rhythm, one which the reader feels propels the mother and daughter on their walk to the park, where Papi’s salsa band will play. On their walk/dance Marita and Mami recruit more people, calling out to all they meet, singing their song. One stop is the hairdresser’s, where they enlist a woman who comes out still wearing her curlers and salon cape. In this way they gather a substantial following, and though not everyone can join them, they bring joy to all they meet.
Christina Ann Rodriguez’s illustrations are beautiful. My favorite was the one of Marita and Mami on the kitchen floor, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. It’s such a happy, spontaneous moment. We can feel their laughter. Another touching one is of Marita when they arrive at the park, a little girl surrounded by taller adults, trying to find her father on stage. The illustrations are dotted with musical notes, which hits home the idea that music is an integral part of this world. Children will enjoy finding the little dog (a Pomeranian, I think) in each spread as he follows Marita and Mami to the park, crossing the street, looking up at a skateboarder, sitting high atop a stack of watermelons.
Judith Ortiz Cofer takes young readers on a delightful journey which highlights the joy of music and the warmth of neighbors and a community. This is a book for older children, ages five to eight, as there is quite a lot of text. But even younger children will enjoy the colorful pictures and the rhythm of the words.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Ortiz Cofer is an award-winning author known for her stories about coming-of-age experiences in the barrio and her writings about the cultural conflicts of immigrants. She is the author of many distinguished titles for young adults such as An Island Like You, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and The Line in the Sun. She was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. In 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Christina Ann Rodriguez obtained her BFA in illustration from the University of Hartford. Her work has been included in various publications, including Spider Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondo Fellow, a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize, and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for more than ten years. Toni now freelance edits and lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Visit her website at ToniMargaritaPlummer.Wordpress.com.