An early crusader for diversity in children’s literature will come alive in a picture book biography, Pura Belpré, Planting Stories, which HarperCollins recently acquired after a six-house auction, and plans to publish in March 2019. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian to be hired by the New York City public library system. A celebrated storyteller and puppeteer, she is perhaps best known as the namesake of the Pura Belpré Award, a children’s book prize presented annually to a Latino or Latina writer and illustrator whose work best reflects the Latino cultural experience.
For Rhode Island–based Anika Denise, author of Monster Trucks (2016) and Starring Carmen, due out in September, the idea of telling Belpré’s story had long been in the back of her mind. “I knew the basics [of her story],” said Denise, who was born and raised in Queens. “My father’s side of the family is Puerto Rican, and for my great-aunt, my Titi, Pura was her favorite author.” In 2013, she visited the New York Public Library’s exhibit “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” and saw Belpré’s photo. “I felt this connection to her,” said Denise. “I just recognized my family.”
As she began researching the project to put together a proposal, Denise rediscovered Belpré as an author. Among Belpré’s most well-known works is Perez y Martina (Warne & Co., 1932), one of the first Spanish-language children’s books published in the U.S.
The proposal, represented by Emily van Beek at Folio Jr., incorporates a variation on the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Nancy Inteli, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said that when she read the proposal, she was struck by the voice. “Anika artfully carries through a metaphor of seeds for planting, growing, and creating change,” she said. “It’s a beautiful homage to the power of storytelling.”
The book will be illustrated by Colombian graphic designer Paola Escobar, whom Ineli and Chelsea Donaldson hired through the Women Who Draw directory. “The freshness and the exuberance of the palette felt like a great match for the strength of Pura’s personality and the lyricism of Anika’s text,” Inteli said. “Her work is elegant and yet accessible enough for young readers.
The plan is to release the book in conjunction with Women’s History Month, according to Inteli: “Pura was a pioneer herself—fighting for children who wanted to see mirrors of themselves in the stories they were reading.” Denise said of Belpré’s commitment to diversity. “[She] had this wonderful talent for organizing—going out and bringing people into the community. She and her colleagues were talking about [diversity in literature] a century ago.”
The book comes at a time that Inteli called a “renaissance” in children’s picture book biographies—especially those, she says, that focus on influential women. “Pura is a role model for young girls in so many ways,” she said. “She was fighting for diversity and smashing glass ceilings as early as the 1920s!”