The Pura Belpré Awards: A window into the Latino cultural experience

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By Steve Zalusky

The Pura Belpré Award is presented to a Latino writer and to a Latino illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children. The award, announced annually at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards presentation, is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA, and the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA), an ALA Affiliate.

The award honors Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican to be hired by the New York Public Library. She pioneered the library's work with the Puerto Rican community.

Inspired by the desire to encourage Latino authors and illustrators in their efforts to produce children’s works celebrating the Latino experience in the United States, Oralia Garza de Cortés, Sandra Ríos Balderrama and Toni Bissessar of REFORMA and Linda Perkins, then president of ALSC, appeared before the ALSC Board at the 1993 Midwinter Meeting.

After enough funding was secured to sustain the award, REFORMA and ALSC established a biannual award in 1996.

The first award recipients were announced at the ALSC membership meeting during that year’s Annual Conference in New York City. The awards were eventually presentedthe following August at the REFORMA First National Conference in Austin, Texas.

In anticipation of the 2000 Pura Belpré Award, a search was initiated for an artist to design a medal on par with the Caldecott and Newbery medals for the two Belpre award categories of author and illustrator. Emanuel Martinez, a Colorado artist produced a design approved by both ALSC and REFORMA. Using photographs of Pura Belpré obtained from her papers housed at the Puerto Rican Institute at Hunter College in NYC, he portrayed Pura Belpré with two children, capturing her true likeness and spirit.

Lucia González, who has served as chair of the award committee and is co-chair of the task force organizing the celebration of the 20th awarding of the Pura Belpré Award, said the award was the culmination of conversations that had been taking place within REFORMA since the 1980s.

“REFORMA members realized that just like the Coretta Scott King Award had helped to bring visibility to authors and illustrators, we needed something similar,” she said.

Although the idea and inspiration for the award started with REFORMA,” González said, “We knew we wanted the award to be bigger. We wanted it to grow. We wanted it to have as much visibility and support as we could. For that, we needed ALSC’s support. We needed the partnership.”

Rita Auerbach, who was on the ALSC board when the award was first proposed, said, "It’s an award that’s given to Latino authors and illustrators for works that celebrate the Latino tradition. And there are too few such books.

“And I think the thinking was that one way to encourage publishers to hopefully publish more such books and to get those books into the hands of children is to celebrate that work. And that was the thinking behind the award. What’s unique about award, which is quite wonderful, is that ALSC has six book awards, but this award, Pura Belpre, is the only award which is a cooperative award between ALSC and another organization, in this case REFORMA."

González said the award is a way to highlight quality literature that depicts the Latino culture.

“Without the award, without that medal on those books, it’s just part of a sea of books that are being published every year. Having that award makes it special and allows librarians and teachers to become aware of these wonderful books that are being written,” she said.

As a result, she said, in the 1990s and 2000s, publishers discovered there was a market for works depicting the Latino experience. In 2009 the Belpré became an annual award.

However, she said, lately there has been a neglect in the publishing world, with publishers retreating from works that celebrate diversity.

“We see it in the amount of books that are brought for consideration for the Belpré committee each year,” she said.

In 2013, no honor books were awarded for illustration.

González said, “That year there were a lot of wonderful books there.” But she noted that it was also a year in which not as many books were published. She added, “The medal doesn’t have to be given if the committee doesn’t feel there is one book that deserves the award.”

Recently, attention has been focused on the need for diverse books, especially in the area of children’s books.

Awareness on this issue was raised last year by a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin.

According to the CCBC’s blog, a sampling of middle grade and young adult fiction revealed, “Of the 650 books about human beings, 614 feature white characters, and just 36 feature people of color as main characters. That amounts to just 5.27% of the total.”

The results are especially striking at a time when the United States is undergoing a demographic shift

“The next half century marks key points in continuing trends — the U.S. will become a plurality nation, where the non-Hispanic white population remains the largest single group, but no group is in the majority,” said U.S. Census Bureau Acting Director Thomas L. Mesenbourg last year.

The issue is of particular concern as it relates to Latino literature, as noted by Motoko Rich in a 2012 article in the New York Times.

She wrote, “Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers. (Dora the Explorer, who began as a cartoon character, is an outlier.)

“Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.”

She said a panel addressed the issue about the lack of diversity in children’s books at one of the ALA Annual Conferences in the wake of the New York Times article.

“The discussion was very lively,” she said. “We had publishers in that panel.”

Also, she said, “Articles have been written. Online conversation is very lively to this day.

“Publishers have an agenda, and, of course, that drives whatever it is they want to publish each year. I think that we need to be more proactive in organizations like REFORMA in letting (publishers) know here are these needs and we need to have them addressed.”

It could mean publishers finding ways to bring their products to the Latino community, much like other industries, such as the phone industry, have.

But she noted that there is very little diversity in the very large publishing houses.

“I’m talking about the Latino perspective,” she said. “We are not there.”

Auerbach said, "I wish I could I say that it has been more successful in encouraging publications, books by Latino authors and illustrators. But the number of books by Latino authors and illustrators and about Latinos hovers somewhere (around) 3 percent of children’s books published each year. And this is a sadly small number. Latino young adults are now something like a quarter of our public school population. That number is growing. But the number of books that speak to their experience and that shed light on their experience for children outside of that experience does not seem to be growing."

In an article on the Children’s Book Council website, a conversation with Ruth Tobar, chair of the 2014 Pura Belpré award committee, Tobar said, “Publishers such as Arte Público, Cinco Puntos, and Lee & Low are consistent in their publishing of Latino works, but the bigger houses must have more of a presence. As we grow in population, the Latino community’s presence in publishing stays the same or even decreases.”

She suggested, “The publishing houses could also reach the Latino community by hiring Latinos in decision-making positions at all levels of their organizations. The talent pool within our community is filled with talented, professional, and very creative people and would happily work to publish, market, and sell high quality Latino literature for children.”

Despite some of the obstacles posed by the current publishing landscape, the Belpré award remains a bright spot and serves as a springboard to successful careers.

The award has brought to the spotlight such talents Yuyi Morales, winner of the 2014 Illustrator Award for Niño Wrestles the World, the story of a boy who battles icons from Mexican popular culture in the lucha libre ring.

Morales, an artist, author and puppet maker who was born in Xalapa, Mexico, and currently divides her time between California and Veracruz, Mexico, said in her acceptance speech, I come from a great magnetic place of poetic beans, automatic cactuses, astral farmers, supersonic fire-eaters, cybernetic cowboy charros, and neon-colored serapes. It is actually called Mexico; I live there now. It is my great joy to come to my beloved country of work, from my beloved country of birth, to join this celebration of niños, niñas, reading,and books—this freedom to cross from one land to the other, I treasure in the name of all of those who don’t have it. And, yes, I would fly or walk or swim or cross a bridge to wherever a Pura Belpré celebration is happening, because what better company to have than you to celebrate not only this year’s awards, but also the 10th anniversary, diez años, of having received my first Pura Belpré Medal?”

González herself is the author of The Bossy Gallito, which was a Pura Belpré honor book in 1996 and The Storyteller's Candle, a Belpré honor book in 2008.

She said that when she began working as a children’s librarian, she was inspired by a librarian who worked with Pura Belpré at the New York Public Library. That librarian was her trainer at the Miami-Dade Public Library.

“So my first exposure to children’s librarianship was with this wonderful storyteller who is also a librarian who brought to me the name of Pura Belpré,” she said.

From that point on, she said, storytelling became important to her. Her first job was as an outreach librarian, telling stories to schoolchildren and bringing them to the library through storytelling. She subsequently was approached by Scholastic, which was seeking Cuban folktales for an anthology. Two of those stories were published in the anthology, From Sea to Shining Sea.

She said she likes all the Belpré winners “because they are very unique. Each one represents a different part of the Latino world. I loved them all from the very first one to the last one.”

One of the strengths of the award, Auerbach said, is that it has not only highlighted fine books by Latino authors and illustrators, but it has also been given to books published by small presses.

At the ALA Annual Conference in 2016 in Orlando, Florida, a celebration will mark the 20th year the awards have been awarded.

Auerbach, who is co-chair of the committee organizing the celebration said the keynote speaker will be Carmen Agra Deedy, an honor winner for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale. There will also be dance and song.

The 20th anniversary task force is also working on producing a book that highlights the work of past winners.

González said, “I’m very optimistic about the future. I think the 20 years of the Belpré is just the beginning. We just need to continue working together and getting the word out, communicating with the publishers supporting our authors and illustrators to get their work visible. That’s the whole thing. They need to be visible.

“There is a whole body of work. As long as we are able to continue promoting that body of work and the medal continues to bring out those authors and illustrators every year by awarding them for the quality of the work they produce, I think there is nowhere else to go but continue growing. And publishers will come around. It is like a pendulum.”

See a list of 2014 winners of the Pura Belpré Award. Learn more about the ALA Youth Media Awards.

Image: Pura Belpré with puppets.