Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre

1 Jul

Planting Seeds by author, Anika Aldamuy Denise, and illustrator, Paola Escobar, vividly brings to life the story of New York’s first Puerto Rican librarian, Pura Belpre. Pura earned a degree from the University of Puerto Rico, with the intention of becoming a school teacher. In 1921, Pura took a trip to New York for her sister’s wedding, not realizing at the time that this trip would alter the course of her career. It was during this visit, that she decided to stay in New York, perhaps inspired by all of the opportunities the city provided. It took some time for Pura to find her new career path but as fate would have it, the New York Public Library System was looking to hire a bilingual assistant. Pura, who spoke Spanish, English and French, was excited for this new opportunity. As she settled in her new job, she noticed the library did not have any books with stories like the ones she heard as a child from her Abuela (Grandmother). To quote the book, “How lucky for the library that Pura has story seeds, ready to plant and grow”. And that is exactly what she did. She started having story time in the Children’s room at the library, where she shared the folktales of her childhood. Wanting perhaps to create a more immersive experience for the children, she soon began to make her own puppets, which she would use while telling stories in both English and Spanish. Many families came to hear these beautiful stories. Through this love of storytelling, Pura became determined to have these stories published for all to experience. Eventually her book was published and Pura traveled to different library branches and schools planting the seeds of these stories along the way and bringing back memories for those who missed the Island and grew up hearing the same tales.   

Pura would continue to work in New York’s public library system for decades. Her outreach to libraries, schools and churches, helped to usher in Spanish speaking people to libraries in the boroughs of New York, who were hesitant before due to the fact that some of them did not speak English. In 1996, the Pura Belpre award was established and is awarded annually to writers and illustrators whose works best portray and celebrate the Latino cultural experience. This year, the author of this book was chosen as an honor recipient. 

As a child, I grew up hearing some of the folktales Pura read and had published. I still have memories of my Grandmother recalling the story of Juan Bobo and Perez and Martina. It is easy to see why the author, Anika Aldamuy Denise chose to write about Pura, who’s lyrical words along with Paola Escobar’s illustrations help tell the story of Pura’s life and many contributions. Pura’s determination to have the stories of her childhood published helped to ensure that they would continue to be told and enjoyed for generations to come. To paraphrase something she once said in an interview, “reading these stories has been the golden key to opening doors for me everywhere.” With her genuine love of storytelling, puppetry, years of library service and published works, I hope she knew how she helped to open doors for so many others. 

Children and teens can join us reading all summer long with our Summer Reading Program! We also have a Summer Reading Program just for Adults!

Written by:
Melissa Medina
Children’s Library Assistant

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