Book Review: Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad written by Emma Otheguy, illus. by Beatriz Vidal

 

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 GoodreadsAmazon, 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.


Photo of Beatriz VidalABOUT 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.

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.