Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy.

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Eric Velasquez, the winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for Grandma’s Gift.


Review by Lila Quintero Weaver

Grandma's GiftDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Every year, Eric spends his winter break with his grandmother in El Barrio while his parents are at work. There’s much to do to prepare for Christmas, including buying all the ingredients for Grandma’s famous pasteles, a special Puerto Rican holiday dish.

But Eric also has an assignment for school that requires a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a new painting. Grandma and Eric are nervous about leaving El Barrio but are amazed by the museum and what they see in the painting—a familiar face in a work of art by the great painter Diego Velázquez. That day Eric’s world opens wider, and Grandma knows the perfect gift to start him on his new journey.

In this prequel to Grandma’s Records, Eric Velasquez brings readers back to a special day spent with his grandmother that would change his life forever.

MY TWO CENTS: Eric Velasquez is the award-winning illustrator of more than 25 children’s books, including three that he wrote. In Grandma’s Gift and Grandma’s Records, reviewed here, Eric brings to life childhood moments that illuminate the warm and meaningful relationship he enjoyed with his grandmother, a native of Puerto Rico and resident of El Barrio, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem.

In a category where such books are woefully rare, both of Velasquez’s Grandma stories represent positive images of Afro-Latinx children and their families.

Although the story in Grandma’s Gift takes place inside a few square miles of contemporary New York City, it also casts a spotlight on a long-ago historical figure. Juan de Pareja was an enslaved man of African descent who worked in the studio of 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez and who became a painter in his own right. When Eric was a boy, Velázquez’s luminous portrait of de Pareja was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a price exceeding $5 million.

Grandma’s Gift contains two additional distinguishing aspects: elements of Puerto Rican culture preserved and passed down by the boy’s grandmother, and contrasting views between two physically proximate but culturally distant worlds, represented by El Barrio and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

At the story’s beginning, Eric is leaving school for Christmas break, in the company of his grandmother. His school assignment, to be completed during the holidays, is a visit to the Velázquez exhibit. But first, grandmother and grandson go shopping at La Marqueta, once a central feature of El Barrio, composed of bustling shops tucked under a railroad trestle. At La Marqueta, it’s evident that Eric’s grandmother is a respected and beloved member of the community. Not only do butchers and greengrocers call her by title and name—Doña Carmen—they are also familiar with the high standards she expects from every cut of meat and vegetable she purchases. When the shopping is done, Eric and his grandmother return to her apartment, where she launches an elaborate preparation of traditional Puerto Rican holiday dishes. Here, she is clearly in her element, deftly handling each step of the cooking, filling, and rolling of the pasteles, much to the admiration of young Eric.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Nearly all of Doña Carmen’s dialogue is parenthetically translated into English, immediately behind her Spanish words. While this solution is not particularly elegant, it reflects the challenge that authors and publishers face in including authentic representations of a Spanish-speaking environment within an English text. The story translates greetings in Spanish by shopkeepers, words of wisdom spoken by the grandmother, and details relevant to the story, such as the names of the root vegetables used in making pasteles: calabaz, yautía, plátanos verdes, guineos verdes, papas.

El Barrio is a place that Eric’s grandmother comfortably navigates day after day. Here, her native tongue predominates, and everyone is a shade of brown. But when she and Eric head for the museum, a short bus ride away, they leave behind that familiar environment and land before the facade of the Metropolitan, cloaked in cultural status and imposing architecture. As Eric notes, there’s no one “from Puerto Rico on the streets and no one was speaking in Spanish.” At this point, Eric becomes her guide in this English-speaking world, translating the signs and captions that they encounter, stepping into a role that second- or third-generation immigrant children often play in their elders’ lives.

Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez

Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez

The highlight of the story arrives when Eric comes face to face with the portrait of Juan de Pareja, hanging in its gilded frame in one of the august exhibition halls of the museum. As a young person of color in the 1970s, he has never seen a member of his own people elevated to such a status: “He seemed so real—much like someone we might see walking around El Barrio. I couldn’t believe that this was a painting in a museum.” Eric is amazed and proud to learn that Juan de Pareja eventually achieved freedom and became a painter in his own right. For Eric, this discovery is a revelation that sparks artistic fire. On Christmas Eve, after everyone enjoys a traditional holiday dinner, Eric sits under the Christmas tree and opens his grandmother’s gift. It’s a sketchbook and a set of colored pencils. He immediately begins to draw a self-portrait. Through this gift, Eric’s grandmother expresses a clear vote of confidence in her grandson’s dreams, underscoring that he, too—a child of El Barrio, an Afro Latino—can follow in the footsteps of Juan de Pareja.

Flight into Egypt, by Juan de Pareja

Flight into Egypt, by Juan de Pareja

This touching, autobiographical story is richly illustrated in Velasquez’s photorealistic style, which authentically depicts settings and brings dimension to each character. Eric imbues his subjects with individually distinct physical characteristics, lending to each an air of nobility. He lovingly paints his grandmother as a lady of dignified bearing and warmth, usually dressed in subdued colors. But he often lavishes this humanizing treatment even on background characters, such as fellow passengers on the train and a nameless guard at the museum. In most of the illustrations, Eric employs a wide and vivid range of hues, but like Diego Velázquez, he sometimes falls back on a deliberately limited palette. When the boy and his grandmother stand before the portrait of Juan de Pareja, the rich browns of the ancient oil painting harmoniously come together with the rich browns of the grandmother’s clothing, as well as the skin tones of all three figures. He puts this deft touch with a monochromatic palette to great effect in the story’s electric moment of revelation, as the child Eric looks on the portrait of Juan de Pareja and grasps a new possibility for his future.

Eric VelasquezABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Eric Velasquez is an Afro-Puerto Rican illustrator born in Spanish Harlem. He attended the High School of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and the famous Art Students League in New York City. As a children’s book illustrator, Velasquez has collaborated with many writers, receiving a nomination for the 1999 NAACP Image Award in Children’s Literature and the 1999 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for The Piano Man. For more information, and to view a gallery of his beautiful book covers, visit his official website.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Learn more about El Barrio from the definitive museum that bears the same name.

After decades of decline, La Marqueta is attempting a comeback. (This article is in Spanish.)

Here, a resident of El Barrio relates her memories of La Marqueta during its heyday.

See the official page for the Juan de Pareja portrait on The Met’s website.

 

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. 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 websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Evelyn overBy Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: There are two secrets Evelyn Serrano is keeping from her Mami and Papo: her true feelings about growing up in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her attitude about Abuela, her sassy grandmother who’s come from Puerto Rico to live with them. Then, like an urgent ticking clock, events erupt that change everything. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, dump garbage in the street and set it on fire, igniting a powerful protest. When Abuela steps in to take charge, Evelyn is thrust into the action. Tempers flare, loyalties are tested. Through it all, Evelyn learns important truths about her Latino heritage and the history makers who shaped a nation. Infused with actual news accounts from the time period, Sonia Manzano has crafted a gripping work of fiction based on her own life growing up during a fiery, unforgettable time in America, when young Latinos took control of their destinies.

MY TWO CENTS: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (a Pura Belpré Author Honor Book) by Sonia Manzano  opens with a frustrated fourteen year old Evelyn getting ready for her summer job at the Five-and-Dime. Her desire to fit in to American society and distance herself from her Puerto Rican heritage is disrupted when her Abuela comes to stay with them. Abuela’s orange hair and bright clothes make her anything but the traditional grandmother Evelyn expected. Abuela taking over Evelyn’s bedroom with makeup, hair rollers, and flashy clothes is only the first of many changes that serves to transform Evelyn’s understanding of her own identity.

While Abuela’s presence creates tension in the Serrano household, a new youth group arrives to challenge discriminations against their neighborhood. The Sanitation Department eventually stops picking up the garbage, and as it continues to accumulate, so does the tension around the Young Lords’ intent to politicize El Barrio. The rise of the Young Lord’s movement gives Abuela and Evelyn an opportunity to discuss the relationship between what is presently happening in their community and the Ponce Massacre (1937) of which Abuela has kept newspaper clippings. The Young Lords organize El Barrio in a way that Evelyn has never experienced, and their demonstrations and marches provide El Barrio with a visibility they later utilize to demand social change. As the political situation intensifies in El Barrio, Evelyn and Abuela become more involved with the Young Lords. Their involvement creates a rift between them and Evelyn’s mother, but it is through all of this process that Evelyn recognizes the importance of her Puerto Rican heritage.

Among many things, Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is a historical young adult novel. (Re)tellings and (re)imaginings of history are currently a popular strategy in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy (2005) and Bejamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012), Manzano asks that today’s young adult reader travel back to a time when their grandparents and/or parents were children and adolescents.

This literary move to focus on a historical event is brilliant for many reasons. First, it asks Latina/o readers to examine their own background as a way to understand their present identity. In The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it is extremely significant that there are moments of reflection that help Evelyn understand that her presence in El Barrio is not coincidence. In other words, Evelyn needed to learn her parents’ and grandparents’ journeys to understand her own identity and her relationship to El Barrio.

Secondly, novels like Manzano’s center stories that have remained marginalized in mainstream history books. Evelyn is such a wonderful character precisely because she sounds and behaves like a typical teenager. At the beginning of the novel, Evelyn wants nothing to do with her parents and their stories. She is embarrassed of them and her community—and this right here is a very honest and common feeling (that too often remains silent) among Latino children and teenagers of (im)migrant parents. Throughout the novel, Evelyn learns to center her Puerto Rican culture as a way to find empowerment rather than to feel embarrassed by it.

Lastly, Manzano’s novels, and others like hers, create intergenerational discussions around issues of discrimination and gender (to name a few themes present in Evelyn Serrano). In other words, novels like these emphasize that significant social change requires a community talking to one another. While the Young Lords were central in the mobilization of El Barrio, it was also with the support of their elders and younger members that they were able to stand strong against the discrimination the community faced.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano presents a genuine story of identity formation for a young Latina coming of age at a moment in U.S. history when Latinos are violently forced to assimilate into mainstream society or risk their lives by speaking up and challenging the discrimination they experience.

TEACHING TIPS: When teaching The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it will be helpful to provide a historical context for the novel from which to guide student discussion. Manzano provides a bit of this discussion in her afterward where she explains that the events in the novel are based on true events. The Young Lords: A Reader (2010) edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer and Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971 (2011) are excellent resources for educators to learn more about the group’s history, motivations, and outcomes. Pairing the novel with some of the essays in these sources for more advanced or older students can also provide a basis for discussing race, class, and gender both within the party and in the context of the US.

A thematic approach to teaching Manzano’s novel can be one way to broadly discuss the Civil Rights Movement and relating topics. Novels like Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2011) about three young African American sisters and their adventures with the Black Panthers and children’s books like Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (2010) about the leaders of the farm workers’ movement can provide rich conversations about the array of issues impacting people of color at this time. Discussing children’s and YA books on the Civil Rights movement not only allows students to learn more about specific racial discrimination and community empowerment but also creates opportunities for students to discuss how those issues impact them now.

Another approach to teaching the novel is to discuss characters and character development. Evelyn’s relationship with her abuela is a complicated one because they have different personalities and because Abuela represents a cultural heritage Evelyn wishes to avoid. Their relationship, however, is central in the novel. Other YA novels like Claudia Guadalupe Martinez’s The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (2008) and Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003) present similar granddaughter/grandmother relationships wherein both characters engage and learn from one another. Asking students to interview their grandparents or a family elder could be a possible assignment for students of any age to participate in an exercise similar to the character development of the protagonists they read.

AUTHOR (from her website)Sonia Manzano has been a presence on Public Television since the 1970’s. Raised in the South Bronx, she attended the High School of Performing Arts. A scholarship took her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and in her junior year, she came to New York to star in the original production of the off-Broadway show, Godspell. Within a year Sonia was cast as “Maria” on Sesame Street. After ten years as an actress, Sonia began writing scripts for the series and has fifteen Emmy Awards as part of the Sesame Street writing staff. Sonia also wrote for the Peabody Award winning children’s series, Little Bill, for Nickelodeon and for a short time wrote a parenting column for the Sesame Workshop web site called Talking Outloud. In addition to The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, Manzano has written two picture books: No Dogs Allowed! and A Box Full of Kittens.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.