Under the Sky and Over the Sea: A Cuban-American’s Reflections on Childhood Reading

By Emma Otheguy

Every Thursday afternoon the summer I was fourteen, I volunteered at story hour. The public library had a small lawn where they would set up a chair, and us teenagers would read while the younger kids sat in the grass around us. I always came straight from dance class, and I remember so clearly how the world looked from my big reading chair: my flip-flops and convertible tights, the lawn grass and its summer scent, the kids looking up at me as I looked down at them. I discovered Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There and marveled at how it could be so mysterious and yet so familiar: a goblin’s kingdom, and a protective older sister.

That summer was the first time I was aware of not being a child myself, realizing that I had changed and that my perspective in the big chair was different from that of the little faces sitting in the grass. I was finding for the first time that I could no longer go waltzing in the front door of children’s worlds, that to access the viewpoint of these kids I would have to be like Ida in Outside Over There, who reaches the goblin realm by going backwards out the window. Ida’s story reminded me of Rubén Darío’s Margarita, sailing under the sky and over the sea to reach a kingdom where stars grow like flowers. I knew by fourteen that you could not go knocking at the door to other galaxies, that they could only be reached by an angled approach, and magic.

I knew all about finding my way to outside over there, because it was an exact reflection of my experience as a child of immigrants: translating one culture for the other, figuring out if backwards out the window or sideways through the rain was the right way to help my parents understand the latest American trend. It’s what adults do when they read picture books to children, and it’s what children do when they hold two cultures within themselves. I didn’t visit Cuba until I was a teenager, and so my parents’ homes, their memories and our family and friends in Cuba, were known to me only through this act of translation. Each summer we visited our family in Puerto Rico, my parents’ attempt to sail through the sky and pluck the stars, to show us the world we couldn’t know. We walked along El Pasaje de la princesa in San Juan, and they told us about el malecón in La Habana. In Luquillo there were memories of Varadero, and in all that sun and green and salty air we tried to find Cuba, tried to reach the world we couldn’t access in the normal way, the world we could only know backwards out the window and through the rain.

I read the Narnia books, and Julie Edwards’ Mandy and Anna Elizabeth Bennett’s The Little Witch with different eyes than the other kids in my school, with a fierce identification, because I knew all about worlds tucked away in cedar for safekeeping, about gardens under lock and key, about children and parents who could visit only in magic mirrors. Cuba was all of these things to me, and in children’s books I saw the willing together of separate worlds that I associated with the gap between my parents and me, and my role in explaining the United States to them.

But for all I learned from Ida and Margarita, I couldn’t in those days close the divide between the books I read in school and those I read at home. They might as well have existed in their own separate realms, so completely inaccessible were they to one another. At home, we read poetry and picture books that my parents picked up on their travels, or that we got as gifts from family in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We read what my parents remembered of their own childhoods, like Darío’s Margarita and Martí’s Los zapaticos de rosa. Those stories were dear, and magical, and wholly confined to my life at home.

Today, Latinx children’s authors have finally brought the books of home and the books of the school and library closer together. There are too many to name in one blog post, so I will only say that it has been a tremendous privilege to read and share the titles that have been featured on this site. These books mean that children today don’t have to experience the world as divided and distant, they mean that home and town can be closer together. They mean that it’s safe to love both Sendak and Darío.

My debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom, is a biography of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí, but it is more importantly the story of the connections he made between Latin America and the United States, of how he loved Cuba while living in New York. This book honors Martí’s activism and his fight for justice, and it also tells the story of how Martí learned to go outside-over-there: how he found in the sighing pine trees the sound of the Cuban palmas reales he missed so much, how he lessened the distance between Cuba and New York. He came from everywhere and was on the road to every place, he knew how to dip under the sky and over the sea, how to close the gaps between divided worlds. He used poetry and passion to accomplish it. He too, would know about picture books, and his story is for every child who learns to share and hold our diverse cultures together.

MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM / MARTÍ Y SUS VERSOS POR LA LIBERTAD hits shelves July 17th, 2017. To learn more about the inspiration for this book, read Emma’s earlier blog post at Anansesem. MARTÍ is now available for pre-order from any retailer, and Emma is sending signed bookplates and stickers to all pre-orders. Fill out this form to get yours!

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com.