Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pura Belpré Award | Libro por libro

This year marks the 20th presentation of the Pura Belpré awards, and a huge celebration is being planned for ALA Annual in June. Tim Wadham takes stock of the trends and themes that recur in the winning titles, all of which affirm the Latino cultural experience.
A scene from Gary Soto’s Snapshots from the Wedding (Putnam, 1997), illustrated by Stephanie Garcia. The work won the 1998 Pura Belpré Award for Illustration.

A scene from Gary Soto’s
Snapshots from the Wedding (Putnam, 1997),
illustrated by Stephanie Garcia. The work won the 1998
Pura Belpré Award for Illustration.

August 1996 marked the first presentation of the Pura Belpré awards for excellence in literature for young people in books that affirm the Latino cultural experience by Latino writers living in the United States. That year, the awards were presented to Judith Ortiz Cofer and Susan Guevara at the very first REFORMA National Conference held in Austin, TX. Since 2008, the award has been presented annually, showing the dramatic growth of excellent Latin@ authors writing eligible books. Last year was a watershed year, in which Yuyi Morales not only took home the Pura Belpré award for illustration, but was also the first Latina to be awarded the Caldecott Honor.

This year marks the 20th presentation of the Pura Belpré awards, and a huge celebration is being planned for ALA Annual in June. This anniversary is an opportunity to look back at these award winners and honorees, restock our collections, and do everything we can to promote these titles, use them in programming, and keep them in print. The Belpré books are the foundation of any collection of Spanish-language and bilingual books that specifically address aspects of the Latin@ experience. Twenty years after the first ceremony, it is fascinating to look back and see the patterns that have evolved over time and the themes that have emerged.



It is no surprise that immigration ranks high on the list of cultural forces that shape the Latin@ experience. Many of the Belpré winners address this ongoing issue. Here are some memorable examples. The 2014 Honor Book for both illustration and narrative, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2013; PreS–Gr 1), takes the absolutely brilliant conceit of using a Latino folklore trope—the wily coyote—and creates a modern folktale with the animal standing in for the human coyotes who many pay to transport them across the border, with rabbits standing in for migrants. Tonatiuh’s art, inspired by the pre-Columbian codex-style, captures the struggle of many families and touches a universal chord. Another picture book that honestly portrays the immigrant experience is 2004 Honor Book for narrative My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aquí hasta allá (Children’s Book Pr, 2002; Gr 2–5) by Amada Irma Perez and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. The realistic illustrations and Perez’s simple text present the point of view of a young girl making the cross-border journey. It is an important reminder of the huge toll that immigration takes on young people. For older readers, Francisco Jiménez’s memoirs Reaching Out (2008; awarded 2009) and Breaking Through (2001; awarded 2002), each garnered an Honor for narrative and are sequels to his collection of autobiographical short stories, The Circuit (1999, all HMH; Gr 7 Up). Jiménez’s works are must-read classics that create the iconography of the journey of the Mexican across the border to find work in the fields of California. Another book that movingly covers some of the same ground is Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising (Scholastic, 2000; Gr 6–8), which won the 2002 Award for narrative. Of course, Latin@s’s immigration occurs in places not directly on the border. The 2010 Medalist for narrative, Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (Knopf, 2009; Gr 4–7), tells the story of Latin@ immigrants in New England and their relationship with the farm family who has given them work. Political pressures also encourage immigration, and one thing that is quite apparent in looking at 20 years’ worth of Belpré winners is that politics, particularly surviving and escaping dictatorships, is a common theme. This past year’s Author Medal-winner, I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín (S. & S., 2014; Gr 5–8), is an elegiac view of a young girl who is separated from her parents because of the dangerous political climate in Chile. Celeste Marconi is ultimately reunited with them after spending some time in hiding in New England. In 2004 Medal-winning Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (Knopf, 2002; Gr 7 Up), protagonist Anita is not so fortunate. Her father and uncle are part of a group actively trying to assassinate El Jefe aka Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic for 30 years. Anita and her family have to go into hiding (in a closet) in a friend’s home until they can be rescued and taken to the United States, where Anita learns that her father and uncle have been killed by El Jefe’s son. Anita and her family try to maintain traditions and stay together in their new home in New York City.

Civil Rights

An important part of the immigrant experience is what happens to those individuals once they have arrived in the United States. Many of the Pura Belpré winners have featured Latin@s’ struggles with civil rights and discrimination. The 2015 Honor Book for Illustration Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2014; Gr 2–5) details the segregation that Mexican Americans in California had to face in school. Sylvia Mendez and her family stood up for her right to equal education. Sonia Manzano, Sesame Street’s Maria, wrote 2013 Honor Book The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic, 2012; Gr 6–9). It portrays the nationalist sentiments felt by many marginalized people, in this case the Young Lords group who occupied churches and hospitals in 1960s New York City to bring attention to the plight of Puerto Ricans. The very first Belpré winner for narrative, An Island Like You: Stories from the Barrio by Ortiz Cofer (Orchard Bks., 1995; Gr 5 Up), celebrates children in a Puerto Rican neighborhood struggling to embrace their Latin@ identity.


Whatever their country of origin, the glue that holds most people of Latino heritage together is family. Family is probably the most common theme in the list of Belpré winners; so common, in fact, that a simple perusal of the titles of all the winners and honor books will bear this out. The work of Carmen Lomas Garza is iconic and perhaps best represents the cultural significance of family in Latin@ culture. Her classic title, Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia (1990), which is a 1996 Honor Book for illustration, uses folk art–style paintings paired with reminiscences to capture what might seem like ordinary events, but which are in reality traditions that are at the very core of what it means to be Latin@. Garza’s follow-up, My Family/En mi familia (1996, both Children’s Book Pr.; Gr 1–4), a 1998 Honor Book, is equally stellar. The 1998 winner for illustration, Snapshots from the Wedding by Gary Soto (Putnam, 1997; Gr 2–5), with sculpt clay three-dimensional artwork by Stephanie Garcia, depicts a wide range of family who partakes in a wedding celebration, with cultural markers, such as specific foods and mariachi music. The 2006 Medalist for text, The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales (Random, 2005; Gr 6 Up) is an example of a long-form narrative about the active role of the extended family in a teen’s life and how that family and their cultural traditions are impacted when Sofia is accepted at a boarding school.


Place figures strongly in the Pura Belpré winners, whether it be the homelands of Mexico, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, or the barrios of New York City or Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, Cuba is the most represented country in the 20 years of Pura Belpré winners. Margarita Engle’s titles make a showing again and again. She often showcases Cuba’s literary heroes in her books, including Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose life and work is the focus in the 2014 Honor Book for narrative, Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (HMH, 2013; Gr 7 Up). Engle has also written about Juan Francisco Manzano, known as the “Poet Slave of Cuba,” in her 2008 Medal Winner for narrative, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Holt, 2006; Gr 7 Up), illustrated by Sean Qualls. The island nation has also inspired lovely memoirs from great Latina authors, such as Alma Flor Ada in her Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba (Atheneum, 1998; Gr 4–7), which won the 2000 Medal for narrative. Cuba is also rich in stories and folklore. While Belpré herself immortalized the Puerto Rican version of the folktale “Perez and Martina,” this classic is also represented in its Cuban incarnation in Carmen Agra Deedy’s Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale (Peachtree, 2007; K–Gr 3), illustrated by Michael Austin, which received an Honor for narrative in 2008. Lucia González, a Cuban immigrant, gave us the 1996 narrative Honor Book, The Bossy Gallito/El Gallo de Bodas: A Traditional Cuban Folktale (Scholastic, 1994; PrS–K), illustrated by Lulu Delacre. This story demonstrates the familiar patterns of folklore the world over. Though this tale of a rooster traveling to a wedding is very specifically Latin@ in origin, it can be embraced by children of any culture.

Artists and Creators

Finally, we have nonfiction and biographies of Latin@ and Latin American heroes—the great artists, poets, writers and musicians. Many of these have been honored with Belpré medals or honors. Perhaps the greatest Latin American novelist is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who made magical realism a literary staple. Monica Brown’s My Name Is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Me llamo Gabito: la vida de Gabriel García Márquez (Luna Rising, 2007; PreS–Gr 3), illustrated by the incomparable Raul Colón, won an Honor for illustration in 2008. Pam Muñoz Ryan pays tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the 2011 Medal-winning The Dreamer (Scholastic, 2010; Gr 4–9). Visual artists are also well represented among the winners, perhaps most memorably by the 2015 winner for illustration, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales (Roaring Brook, 2014; Gr 1 Up). Latin music is lively with danceable rhythms that make listeners want to get on their feet. Some of the most exciting illustrations honored by the Pura Belpré award depict the lives and music of Latin@ musicians, such as Celia Cruz in My Name Is Celia/Me Llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/La vida de Celia Cruz by Monica Brown (Luna Rising, 2004; Gr 2–4). Rafael Lopez’s illustrations in this 2006 Honor Book all but leap off the page in an explosion of color and sound. The absolute joy of music-making is also reflected in this pair’s other award-winning collaboration, Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del Mambo (HarperCollins, 2013; K–Gr 3), a 2014 Honor book for illustration. Truly, 20 years of the Pura Belpré Award has brought riches of cultural exploration and celebration to Spanish-speaking children as well as children from other cultures who can learn about the warmth and richness of Latino culture as portrayed in outstanding literature by a growing cadre of Latin@ book creators who put their whole selves into these works.

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