Reviewed by Chantel Acevedo
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a young boy, Jose Martí traveled to the countryside of Cuba and fell in love with the natural beauty of the land. During this trip he also witnessed the cruelties of slavery on sugar plantations. From that moment, Martí began to fight for the abolishment of slavery and for Cuban independence from Spain through his writing. By age seventeen, he was declared an enemy of Spain and was forced to leave his beloved island. Martí traveled the world and eventually settled in New York City. But the longer he stayed away from his homeland, the sicker and weaker he became. On doctor’s orders he traveled to the Catskill Mountains, where nature inspired him once again to fight for freedom. Here is a beautiful tribute to Jose Martí, written in verse with excerpts from his seminal work, Versos sencillos. He will always be remembered as a courageous fighter for freedom and peace among all men and women.
MY TWO CENTS: Nineteenth century Cuba and New York come alive in the pages of Emma Otheguy‘s Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad. Otheguy tells the story of José Martí, Cuban poet and patriot of Cuba’s independence, in prose that feels like verse, in both English and Spanish.
Interspersed throughout are excerpts from Martí’s Versos sencillos, and the effect is a powerful one. Martí himself speaks his story in these moments, affirming with his lyricism what Otheguy has told us–stories of the poet’s childhood, of watching slaves cutting sugar cane, which makes José “shake with rage,” of finding himself in exile in the Catskill Mountains that made him homesick for Cuba, and of his return to Cuba, “like an eagle healed, to join in a new war for independence.”
Otheguy does a wonderful job of capturing the act of writing, which can be difficult to describe. We see Martí’s evolution from pamphleteer to journalist, speechwriter, to poet. The word “inspiration” comes up often, and the sources of that inspiration range from people and their suffering, to people’s excitement, to trees, birds, and of course, swaying palmas reales.
Growing up Cuban-American in Miami, José Martí’s poems were the first I committed to memory. My abuela would “test” me, and I would recite. In Martí’s poems for children, both beauty and soul resided. “Los zapaticos de rosa,” a favorite in my house, was a lesson in humility and generosity, the injustice of poverty, and the innocence of childhood. Would that all children, everywhere, in every language, could learn it! In the bilingual school I attended, we memorized “Cultivo una rosa blanca…” and said it together as a class, like a prayer. When students fought, the teachers would remind us that we were all supposed to be “amigo(s) sincero(s).” So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Otheguy’s book and share it with my daughters. The language, both in English and Spanish, is accessible. My five year old had no trouble listening to the story. The illustrations by Beatriz Vidal are rich with detail–from the colorful mantillas on the shoulders of women to Cuban tiles on the floor of rooms, to the birds that seem to alight on the text of each page.
Though I’ve heard of Martí all my life, I was surprised to learn of Martí’s time in the Catskills and the grueling work he did in a quarry while in prison, and so the book can be illuminating to readers beyond the elementary school level. Indeed, the battles Martí fought, both rhetorically and physically, and the forces of injustice that worked against him, are conflicts that resonate today across the globe. Reading the book to a child might be followed up by discussions of injustice today, and how the places where we live might resemble Cuba in the nineteenth century. Perhaps more importantly, a discussion of how we might be more like Martí could be a wonderful take-away.
The back cover features an actual portrait of José Martí, and a quote: “And let us never forget that the greater the suffering, the greater the right to justice, and that the prejudices of men and social inequalities cannot prevail over the equality which nature has created.” It is hard to imagine a Cuban childhood sans Martí, or a description of Cuba that does include reference to his influence. But beyond Cuba, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad comes at an important time when even young readers are thinking about how we might make the world a more just place.
WHERE TO GET IT: To find Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 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. Emma’s guest post for this blog provided a fascinating look at her Cuban heritage and her childhood development as a reader.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Beatriz Vidal was born in Argentina and attended the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of Cordoba University. In New York, she studied painting and design with Ilonka Karasz for several years. During that time, her career as an illustrator began with designs for Unicef cards and record covers. She has illustrated many children’s books, including The Legend of El Dorado, A Library for Juana, Federico and the Magi’s Gift, and A Gift of Gracias. She divides her time between Buenos Aires and New York City.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Chantel Acevedo’s novels include Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year, Song of the Red Cloak, a historical novel for young adults, A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press), winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, and National Bronze Medal IPPY Award, and The Distant Marvels, (Europa Editions), a Carnegie Medal finalist and an Indie Next Pick. Her latest novel, The Living Infinite (Europa Editions), is forthcoming. She is also the author of En Otro Oz (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poems. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, North American Review, and Ecotone, among many others. She earned her MFA at the University of Miami, where she is currently an Associate Professor of English, and advises Sinking City, the MFA program’s literary journal.