Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver
FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!
Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.
MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)
The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.
As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.
As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:
I struggled to become a teacher
and a poet, so I could use words
to fight for equal rights for women,
and work toward meeting
the needs of poor children,
and speak of independence
for Puerto Rico.
Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:
But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,
I finally figure out how to feel useful,
Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.
As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.
In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.
Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.
Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is a jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own website, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.