Category Archives: Caribbean

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Parrots Over Puerto RicoCo-authors Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, whose last project  à deux was the glorious The Mangrove Tree set in the tiny African country of Eritrea, travel south to the Caribbean to present another memorable story of preservation and conservation.

Welcome to Puerto Rico, home of the Puerto Rican parrot, also called iguacas in imitation of their cry: “They lived on this island for millions of years, and then they nearly vanished from the earth forever.” Roth and Trumbore tell their avian story, intermingled with the island’s past, from the first island settlers that included the Taínos who hunted the parrots as both nourishment and pets, to Christopher Columbus who claimed the island for Spain, to the Spanish settlers who followed, to the stolen Africans enslaved to tame the land. Spain ruled Puerto Rico for centuries until it was lost in war to the United States, which claimed the island a U.S. territory in 1917.

Through all those millenia, the parrots suffered – their tree homes were devastated, they were hunted, killed, trapped, and what was left of their nesting areas were invaded by other birds. “By 1954, there were only two hundred parrots left.” Fourteen years later – why did it take so long? – the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program was established to “save and protect the parrots.” And yet by 1975, a mere 13 parrots flew through the rain forest … how will the bright green flocks be saved?

Part history, part morality tale, part political treatise, part inspiring redemption, Roth and Trumbore’s collaboration is as much a lesson for us old folks as it is a story to share with our youngest. The “Afterword,” with its many photographs, is proof positive of a hopeful future. The timeline that follows of “Important Dates in the History of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Parrots” demands we learn from the past as we work to ensure that future in the present.

Roth’s richly detailed paper-and-fabric collages dazzle eyeballs of all ages, showcased in Christy Hale‘s brilliantly clever book design. By just (just!) turning the book’s orientation 90° − so that you flip the pages up rather than turn them from right to left – Hale adds soaring height that underscores the parrots’ flight (and plight); she literally sends the story aloft.

Final note: This Roth/Trumbore/Hale accomplishment is a memorable example of why e-readers are just not enough (Luddites unite!); the magic will disappear on the screen. So to fly with the iguaca, you’ll definitely need to choose the page.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific, Puerto Rican

Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

Serafina's PromiseSerafina, who lives in the outskirts of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, has never had the chance to go to school. With rarely enough to eat, her family has nothing left over to pay the school fees, much less buy the required uniform. While her father works at a city grocery store, her pregnant mother and widowed grandmother Gogo grow herbs they sell on a city street corner. Exhausted from carrying water, chopping wood, and more, Serafina dreams of getting an education and becoming a doctor: at 11, she is well aware, “Education is the road to freedom.

When the family’s hut is swept away by a sudden flood, her family manages to survive while many others do not. Serafina’s parents rebuild on higher ground, where they welcome baby Gregory. Having previously lost infant brother Pierre to malnutrition, the family is constantly concerned for Gregory’s fragile health.

Determined to start school in the new year, Serafina devises a plan to fill an empty jar with extra coins that will pay for her tuition. She has to double her walks to collect extra water for the plants Gogo will help her grow – and later sell – but she knows that all the hard work will take her to a promising new future.

Like her award-winning all the broken pieces, Ann E. Burg presents Serafina’s story as a lyrical novel in verse. Burg remarkably renders the difficulties, tragedies, and joys Serafina experiences into spare, essential phrases, creating a resonating example of less is more. To read both all the broken pieces and Serafina’s Promise is to appreciate their elliptical beauty, even as you’re both disturbed and inspired by the young protagonists’ tenacity and resilience. Don’t miss either.

Tidbit: In case you needed any more prodding to pick up Serafina, here are two more reasons: Haitian People’s Support Project and Pure Water for the World, where Burg is donating a portion of her royalties. Read well, do good.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific

The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Not to confuse anyone, but I have to start with p. 177 because that’s where you’ll find a reference to “that cool new show Sesame Street” (which debuted 1969), because first-time novelist Sonia Manzano has been playing Sesame Street‘s Maria for the last 30+ years! While the title says Evelyn Serrano, the book’s revolutionary events are directly inspired by Manzano’s own experiences, as well as real-life newspaper headlines. Manzano even borrowed her protagonist’s name from her own grandmother, Guadalupe Serrano Manzano, and her cousin Evelyn.

Just so we’re clear now: Sonia is not Maria, but she is Evelyn although not her cousin Evelyn. Got that?

Rosa María Evelyn del Carmen Serrano announces on her 14th birthday she’s dropping ‘Rosa’ for ‘Evelyn’ – “the least Puerto Rican-sounding name I could have” – because “El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, U.S.A., did not need another Rosa, María, or Carmen.” Summer 1969 is hot, and Evelyn has been released from working in her parents’ stifling bodega to get her first job at the Third Avenue five-and-dime.

She comes home one day to find she’s been displaced from her bedroom by a flamboyant grandmother she’s never met before, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Abuela, Evelyn quickly realizes, is nothing like her subservient, long-suffering Mami. At first, the three generations of women hardly get along: Mami still resents Abuela for neglecting her most of her life, Abuela can’t understand why Mami doesn’t have a political bone in her body, and Evelyn just wants their bickering to stop.

Then the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, takes over the neighborhood streets with brooms, piling up the garbage that the city sanitation department seems to have forgotten and eventually setting it ablaze. They move from the streets to a local church, demanding to set up a free food program, offer clothing, and even health services for their struggling immigrant community. Abuela eagerly joins the protesters. Evelyn gets swept up in their change-making energy, gaining new pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. Even Mami gets distantly involved, at first only to ensure Evelyn’s safety … but stays long enough to realize she can make her own contributions.

The tumultuous Puerto Rican history – on both islands, in the Caribbean and on Manhattan – certainly makes for an exciting read; as a novel, however, that excitement glosses over occasional narrative gaps, especially the lack of any mention of the new school year, since the story unfolds between summer to the following winter. As for characters, stepfather Pops’ backstory seems necessary to balance knowing that Evelyn’s birthfather died while Mami was still pregnant, and smooth-talking Wilfredo’s sudden redemption feels rather forced.

What Revolution might lack in continuity and literary finesse most likely won’t keep readers turning the pages. While Evelyn’s name graces the cover, Abuela’s larger-than-life presence, her buried memories, her emotionally complicated struggles, are what spark and inspire the evolution that becomes Evelyn’s revolution.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Puerto Rican

Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti by Frances Temple

If Youme’s Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope is a picture book for the youngest readers, then Taste of Salt is surely its companion title for older children and parents alike. The real-life Lanfami Sélavi – Jean-Bertrand Aristide‘s refuge for homeless children founded in 1986 – is prominently featured in Salt, as is Aristide’s struggles to establish a democratic Haiti, free from the brutality of the two-generation Duvalier dynasty and the terrorizing military regime that followed. The late Frances Temple manages to adapt the patois of the young people’s Kreyòl into English, writing in a fractured, elliptical style that emphasizes the day-to-day urgency of what’s happening in the hospital room and the sweeping transformations developing outside.

The year is 1991, and Titid, as he’s called, wants to make sure the children’s stories are preserved. “He knows how to use stories to make things happen, to make the way of the world change.” That change is long overdue in Haiti, where the violent macoutes – a vicious military force originally created by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier – continue their terrorizing spree, including the firebombing of Titid’s Lanfami Sélavi.

Seventeen-year-old Djo and his cousin called Lanfami Sélavi home. But now cousin Lally is dead and Djo lies in a hospital bed, bludgeoned and burned, floating between life and death. Into his room arrives young Jeremie at Titid’s behest, tape recorder in hand. Little by little, day after day, Jeremie encourages Djo to share his experiences, from a time when he danced on his father’s shoulders, was rocked in his mother’s arms, learned numbers and letters from his older sister … to when he was kidnapped and enslaved for years on a Dominican sugar plantation but learned kindness and dignity from a dying old man … to his return to be one of “Titid’s boys.”

When Djo falls into a coma, Jeremie shares her own secrets with him, hoping and praying her voice will bring Djo back. She speaks of her life with her mother and aunt and their hope that a convent education will raise her out the slums, as well as the too-many horrors she has already witnessed in her young life.

Djo and Jeremie’s young stories intertwine, and they dare dream of a brave new Haiti that Titid is beginning to lead. As long as they can survive – with determined hope and tenacious dedication – they will continue to share the dangerous journey toward freedom …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 1992

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Caribbean

Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope by Youme, with an essay by Edwidge Danticat

The first thing you need to know is that this story is real. And although it was first published eight years ago – and six years before the tragic January 12, 2010 Haitian earthquake – Sélavi is an even more urgent call for help for Haiti’s children.

A young boy arrives in “the capital city of his country” with nothing, not even a name: “Not long ago and not far away, people with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world.” He’s somehow managed to survive, but the small child is “too tired to keep going.” He’s befriended by a young boy his own age, TiFrè, who encourages the child to name himself; he becomes “Sélavi,” Kreyòl (Haiti’s primary language) for ‘that’s life.’

Sélavi follows his new friend to a large banyan tree that is home to many children who gather every evening to share what they have managed to earn, scavenge, or beg. “‘We each bring back what we get during the day, and we all end up with more,’” TiFrè explains. Sélavi soon feels like he’s found a family: Jenti, whose whole family drowned on an old ferry boat, Touissant whose house was just too full of hungry people, Espri and Yvette whose family disappeared, and TiFrè who lost his mother and brother to illness.

The children live together, surviving day-to-day, until soldiers brutally drive them away from their banyan home. Sélavi finds shelter inside a church, where the congregation commits to build a home for the street children. “‘Alone … we may be a single drop of water, but together we can be a mighty river. We must help each other to become strong,’” the church leader encourages. The home becomes a reality – named the Lafanmi Sélavi – but the children’s sanctuary does not last long, as the military burns down Sélavi’s new home. In spite of the shocking tragedy, Lafanmi Sélavi is quickly rebuilt, and the children’s voices grow ever stronger, thanks to a new radio station built just for the children!

In a resonating essay at book’s end by mega-award-winning author Edwidge Danticat whose name is virtually synonymous with Haiti, Danticat explains her birthcountry’s troubled history, its long connections with the U.S., as well as the story of Lafanmi Sélavi, an orphanage opened in 1986 by Jean-Bertrand Aristide (!) who was then a Catholic priest, who would later become Haiti’s first democratically-elected president. Regardless of what readers may think of his controversial political career, Aristide is deservedly credited with not only building (and rebuilding) Lafanmi Sélavi, but founding the radio station Radyo Timoun for Lafanmi Sélavi’s many children.

Those children’s youthful resilience, the hopeful inspiration captured here by artist/writer Youme is based on her own travels to Haiti, interviewing and recording the lives of the real-life Sélavi, TiFrè, and their many Lanfanmi-siblings. “‘Tell them we are here, that we are no less than wealthy children, and that there should be a place for everyone at the table,’” the children ask Youme to share with her readers.

Post-earthquake, these children’s words are louder than ever … stop, listen, and join the river of change.

Readers: Children

Published: 2004


Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Caribbean

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

Neither Julia Alvarez nor her husband Bill can remember exactly when she fell in love with a Haitian boy named Piti. But both distinctly recall the first meeting, which happened in 2001 on one of their many trips to Alvarez’s native Dominican Republic. “[S]hort and slender with the round face of a boy,” Piti – whose Kreyòl name means “little one,” was 17, 19, possibly even 20. “Somewhere in Haiti,” Alvarez realizes, “a mother had sent her young son to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family.” Never having experienced childbirth herself, something about Piti nonetheless releases “unaccountably maternal” feelings in Alvarez: “Who knows why we fall in love with people who are nothing to us?” she muses.

Piti becomes ingrained in the hearts and lives of both Alvarez and Bill as they travel frequently from their Vermont home to their organic coffee farm in the Dominican mountains, where eventually Piti comes to work. One night, Alvarez promises she will be at his wedding, “[o]ne of those big-hearted promises … you never think you’ll be called on to deliver someday.” Eight years later, ‘someday’ arrives … and so begins Alvarez’s latest – her 22nd! – title, A Wedding in Haiti.

A week before the Aug. 20, 2009, nuptials, Piti announces his intention to marry Eseline, the mother of his infant daughter, and wants to know: Are Julia and Bill coming?

After arguing with her conscience (she was supposed to attend a conference at the same time), Alvarez and hubby arrive in Santiago, DR, two days before the wedding. They assemble their motley crew of attendees, pack the truck, and head toward Haiti, which Alvarez describes “like a sister I’ve never gotten to know.” In spite of the shared border, Alvarez has been next-door only once before, a quarter century ago. Piti’s family’s remote home doesn’t have an actual address or even appear on any map, but the adventure – long, uncertain, occasionally illegal – will end just in time for Alvarez and Bill to preside as the revered godparents as Piti and Eseline exchange vows.

The truck must depart immediately after the ceremony, this time with the newly-wedded threesome, as Piti doesn’t want to subject his new family to public transportation. That neither wife nor baby has any immigration documentation is an obstacle they must face at the border. In spite of her fear and frustration with the situation, Alvarez “will not abandon them.… There is a bottom line below which you cannot go and still call yourself a human being.” Over just three days, Alvarez’s familial constellation changes remarkably.

Five months later, the horrific 2010 earthquake hits Haiti: its government reports “316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed.” Piti and Eseline finally learn their immediate families have survived, but Eseline is not well; a trip home is deemed necessary. In July, Alvarez and Bill, Piti, Eseline, baby Ludy, and three more extended near-family, overload the truck and head over the border into devastated Haiti, bearing witness to indescribable tragedies.

“The one thing we cannot do is turn away,” Alvarez insists. “When we have seen a thing, we have an obligation. To see and to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we have seen.” Her bond with Piti allows Alvarez to experience Haiti through Piti’s shocked eyes, and witness his transformation “[f]rom laborer to capataz [supervisor] to president of CJM [Young People of Moustique Cooperative],” as he “work[s] toward the future of Haiti.”

Alvarez, internationally renowned for her novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, says of her latest book (in an essay included with the advance copy), “[r]ather than a ‘me-moir,’ I prefer to call this book an ‘us-moir.’” While Piti’s story takes center page, Alvarez also weaves in her own marriage to her beloved Bill, her parents’ decades-long love story still unbroken in spite of the mutual dementia that has stolen most of their memories, as well as the complicated relationship of two less-than-sisterly nations.

Although Wedding occasionally reads too much like an unedited personal journal – especially the first half (which, Alvarez reveals, is how the book began) – Alvarez’s devotion, her admiration and hope, and most clearly, the love for her extended family, is palpable throughout. The small black-and-white-pictures scattered on the pages help emphasize the individual humanity throughout. Indeed, as Alvarez explains, Wedding proves to be “a love story that is many love stories; a story of how history can be reimagined when people from two countries, traditional enemies and strangers, become friends.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Latino/a

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

Read this, just as soon as possible. You may not immediately recognize Dr. Paul Edward Farmer’s name, but you will recognize his miraculous story. Pulitzer-winning Tracy Kidder enters the good doctor’s expansive orbit long enough to produce a resonating portrait of a phenomenal human being whose life purpose is to care for and save lives: “Farmer wasn’t put on earth to make anyone feel comfortable, except for those lucky enough to be his patients.”

While shadowing Farmer to some of the more demanding destinations in the world (Haiti, Russia, Cuba), Kidder weaves in the surreal trajectory of Farmer’s life: his unconventional growing up from house to trailer with the occasional (sinking) domestic nautical foray, to his Lacoste-wearing “preppy” period at Duke University, to his “gift for academic pursuits” that earned him both a PhD in anthropology and an MD from Harvard, to his unprecedented career as a “big-shot Boston doctor” as Harvard medical professor and attending specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital especially notable for his non-presence.

That Boston absence is more than excusable: Together with Ophelia Dahl (yes, that Dahl of Roald and Patricia Neal, whom Farmer first met as a teenage volunteer in Haiti) and fellow anthropology/MD Harvardite Jim Kim (who also comes with a fascinatingly unorthodox background, who is now the president of Dartmouth College), the trio founded Partners in Health (PIH). What began officially in 1987 as a revolutionary organization that originated in Farmer’s obsessive dedication to providing healthcare to Haiti’s poorest is today an internationally prominent leader in disaster medical relief.

With admiration, poignancy, and even humor, Kidder intricately traces the rebel origins and renegade success of PIH – fueled by a wealthy Boston developer committed to giving away his millions before he dies, padded with the entire bulk of Farmer’s MacArthur “Genius” grant, encouraged by Jim Kim’s ability to make impossible statements come true (securing an unheard-of 97% reduction in a tuberculosis-fighting antibiotic), all sustained by an unwavering determination to nurture and heal.

The near impossible adventure proves legendary. While you can’t turn away from the wrenching suffering, the breathtaking odds, by book’s end, you’ll close the final cover (or turn off your audible contraption) convinced that sheer will can make miracles happen.

Tidbit: March 23, 2012 … Dr. Jim Kim as the next President of the World Bank? WOW. Who knew the good doc can sing AND dance, too? Click here to check out this fabulous, funny, historical video with his Dartmouth peeps. Bet they all had the time of their lives … TRULY.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific