World of Books: Picture Books from Cuba

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Recently I traveled almost the length of Cuba on a people to people, educational tour, something only possible recently because I am an American. For nearly fifty years this was forbidden. I learned so much about the people and culture. I brought copies of one of my books as gifts and listened to children playing music, dancing, and singing.

These beautiful Cuban children will grow up in a land that in many ways is frozen in time; however glimmers of change bring hope for their future. Two books I bought from a used book vendor at an open air market a few weeks ago in Havana hint at the prospects for Cuban niñas and niños.

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In front of every school in Cuba there is a bust of the poet José Martí. Why? He is the country’s hero because he used his writing to promote liberty. In 1895 he gave his life to help free Cuba from the rule of imperialist Spain. Much later, he became Fidel Castro’s hero too. Fidel strayed from Martí’s idea of democratic freedom though, because he feared new imperialism from outside. Martí’s poems could not save his good people from the starvation of Cuba’s Rough Period, but life there is slowly getting better. Now Fidel Castro is gone and his brother Raúl continues to lead. While I was in Havana a new American President was chosen. Will life in Cuba continue to improve? Time will be the judge.

w-jose-marti-1The niña in the orange dress in Santiago de Cuba and this niño in the yellow pants in Trinidad will be taught about Martí’s hopes for all Cuban children.

The poet wrote Ismaelillo in 1892 for his son of the same name. Martí was in exile and missed his little boy, so he reached out with this book. Here is I Dream Awake, one of the poems written for Ismaelillo.

I Dream Awake (Sueño Despierto)

Day and night
I always dream with open eyes
And on top of the foaming waves
Of the wide turbulent sea,
And on the rolling
Desert sands,
And merrily riding on the gentle neck
Of a mighty lion,
Monarch of my heart,
I always see a floating child
Who is calling me!

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Here is a newer story by Ivette Vian Altarriba whose books were a hit at the Havana International Book Fair this spring.

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The well-developed cast of hopeful characters include Marcolina, who has a magic yellow parasol which does not speak, but hears everything; her friends Enrique Chiquito, fun-loving Anita, Chele and Albertico (who loves rap music); along with Monchi the mailman, Juan the always traveling naturalist, and Dun Dun, her little white dog.

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This core cast hints at the fun within this picture book. The plot involves tongue twisters, instructions for making a paper duck, songs about Don Quixote and Ñeñeo the goose, and a recipe for fruit pudding intended for the gastronomic pleasure of an extraterrestrial named Worantitesiusinelodasconin from the planet Neueve-Nueve-Nueve (Nine-Nine-Nine). In case you are wondering why his name is so long, it’s because on his planet everyone lives for hundreds of years and for each hundred, a new syllable is added.

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La Sombrilla Amarilla by Ivette Vian Altarriba is actually the screenplay for an episode from a popular series on Televisión Cubana. This lively children’s show has a Facebook page  and some episodes are on YouTube.

The watercolor illustrations by Arístides Hernández (Ares) are lively and free-flowing with different perspectives and textures. His style relies on exaggeration and movement along with wildly changing scale, so the unpainted negative space helps keep the art from being overwhelmingly busy. Ares has illustrated more than 70 books and in 2002 received the National Cultural Medal from the Cuban Cultural Ministry. The artist includes characters of all races and colors to reflect the new pragmatism of his homeland. The story and pictures are open to the world and beyond and are filled with the music, creative problem solving, and love of life evident everywhere in a small island country with a big heart.wyellow-parasol4

Ismaelillo by Jose Marti and illustrated by Rosa Salgado Hurtado, Editorial Gente Nueva, Vedado, La Habana, Cuba, ©1977 (recent editions are available)

La Sombrilla Amarilla by Ivette Vian Altarriba and illustrated by Arístides Hernández (Ares), Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Gente Nueva, Plaza de la Revolución, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba. ©2005.

2 comments

  1. Yes, it was thought-provoking on many levels. The amount of text you see here may or may not be representative. I was not there long enough to find a bookstore with a good children’s section. I visited one that had quite a few YA books with no pictures, but I was looking for picture books and that book store had none. Since “La Sombrilla Amarillo” parallels a TV program, the book reflects how much can be done in a TV episode, which moves more quickly. When you convert the same content onto paper, it seems much longer. Is that length typical of picture books in Cuba? I’m not sure. it is possible that since they have to be conservative about resources, books with more in them make better economic sense. And in the parasol book there are lots of short things strung together to make the overall story, therefore for a younger child a parent might just do one craft activity like the paper duck, or the recipe, whereas the whole book can be used with an older child. I am totally guessing, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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