Sunday, January 19, 2020

Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise

Anika Aldamuy Denise is the author of the new children's picture book biography Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. Her other books include Starring Carmen! and Monster Trucks. She lives in Rhode Island.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s picture book biography of librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré? 

A: Something I came to understand in writing this book is that despite Pura Belpré’s huge contributions to children’s literature and bilingual librarianship, many people outside of the book and library community have never heard of her. 

Kids often learn about the Pura Belpré Awards, but most children I meet at school visits aren’t aware why the award was named after her, and everything she did to make public libraries (and library catalogs) accessible and welcoming to Spanish-speaking communities. 

As a writer and a woman with Puerto Rican heritage, it was important for me to be among the voices celebrating and preserving her legacy. 

Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 

A: The most powerful thing I did was visit her archives at Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College. I was able to see correspondence written in her own hand, read speeches with her notes scribbled in the margins, and view her original handmade puppets.

Of course I also read books, articles, and watched the brilliant documentary about her produced by Centro, but exploring the vast treasures of her archives really helped me feel closer to Belpré and her story. 

What surprised me most is the depth and breadth of her writing that remains unpublished. Belpré was prolific throughout her life. Reading her published books and essays only scratches the surface. 

Q: What do you think Paola Escobar’s illustrations add to the book? 

A: They are EVERYTHING! Paola’s art is exquisite. It captures the sophistication and grace of the subject matter while remaining kid-friendly and accessible.

I love how she wove the theme of planting into the spreads and the authentic details in the scenes in both Puerto Rico and New York. (Also…those endpapers! I would wallpaper a room in my house with them if I could.)

Q: What do you see as Pura Belpré’s legacy today, and what do you hope kids take away from the book? 

A: One of the greatest pieces of her legacy is transforming libraries into vibrant community spaces for immigrant populations.

She understood what public libraries are and should be for various ethnic enclaves in New York — and with a handful of her colleagues, worked tirelessly to bring the library to them, and not the other way around.

Belpré’s legacy is in every cheerful children’s room of every public library in America.

It’s on the lips of hundreds of bilingual library staff and volunteers who mobilized to make public libraries temporary shelters, information centers, and lifelines for families displaced by Hurricane Maria.

It’s in the tenets of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and it’s in the delighted smiles of kids who watch their favorite books turned into plays or puppet shows. 

What I hope kids will take away from Planting Stories is that inclusion — in stories, in friendships, in our public institutions — is right and important. That stories connect us. And that like Belpré, they can use their talents and energy to change their communities and the world. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished a new picture book biography on Rita Moreno, which will be out at the end of the year. And I have new picture books and a middle grade novel in the works!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that folks can find me online at and on Twitter and Instagram @AnikaDenise! And thanks for having me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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