I first met the writer Jorge Argueta in 2002. His book, A Movie in My Pillow, had won the Americas Prize, and as I was going to be in San Francisco, I asked Harriet Rohmer—then publisher of Children’s Book Press—to introduce us. We are both Central American immigrants—Jorge is from El Salvador and I’m from Guatemala—but also very different, in many ways. He is indigenous, I’m not; he had to flee El Salvador and had a very difficult time establishing himself in the U.S., whereas I went to Stanford and later moved to Canada. Nonetheless, we hit it off immediately. Jorge is a charismatic guy, and we hold similar ideas about social justice.
When we first met, I was the publisher of Groundwood Books, based in Toronto, and he was a writer. He was, of course, looking for a publisher, and I was very interested in expanding Groundwood’s list of Latino books. And we both cared deeply about children from Central America. We believed that the thousands upon thousands of children from Hispanic families—whether newly arrived or 400-year-long residents of the U.S.—needed books about their lives, their culture, and in their own language. Since Groundwood publishes for the U.S. and Canadian markets, we believed this was a good approach to reach a wide audience.
Looking back over the past 16 years of our publishing relationship, I have to say it was a marriage made in heaven. In 2003 we published Trees Are Hanging from the Sky/Los arboles están colgando del cielo—illus. by Rafael Yockteng (now a famous creator in his own right) and El Zipitio, illus. by Gloria Calderón. The latter is an original book based on a Salvadoreño indigenous legend.
Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra—powerful poems celebrating indigenous heritage while decrying racism against indigenous peoples—and Alfredito Flies Home/Alfredito regresa a casa followed in 2006–2007. Alfredito Flies Home tells about a Salvadoreño child returning home for the first time after being taken by his parents to the U.S. Jorge and I then embarked on a lovely series, the Cooking Poems, celebrating traditional Latino dishes, each book having a noted illustrator from the Americas.
After leaving Groundwood in 2012, I continued to be Jorge’s editor there. Tragically, the world of Central Americans began to darken once again. As a result, in 2014 the first “surge” of unaccompanied minors from Central America began to arrive at the U.S. border. Members of the wonderful REFORMA librarians group began to work with these kids in 2014 and were joined by the International Board on Books for Young People, or IBBY, in 2015 on an expedition to the border to see what was happening. By 2016 Jorge had written a beautiful and terrible book about these children—Somos Como las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds, illustrated beautifully by Alfonso Ruano, who donated the art to raise funds for the IBBY REFORMA project, which brings books and reading events to the children detained along the border.
By 2016, Jorge had built the first of three libraries that he has created in El Salvador, where he now spends most of his time. The Library of Dreams is in his own backyard in San Salvador. Children from the local public school come to his home library on Thursdays. On Saturdays he runs a library in the market of San Jacinto—in a very difficult area of the country—and this summer he refurbished a building in his home-town of Santo Domingo, three and a half hours away from San Salvador, and trained young people as reading promoters. That library is now open every Sunday. Apart from some grants from IBBY and personal donations from librarians and others, Jorge has financed most of this work from his income as a poet. (Donations can be made to usbby.org/donate.html).
In January of this year, Jorge told me that he had found time to write a novel in verse about children coming in caravans to the U.S. today. It was in Spanish. The two of us convinced Semareh Al Hillal of Groundwood to publish it in nine months in both Spanish and in English translation. The translation by poet Elizabeth Bell is excellent. Manuel Monroy—a longtime Groundwood illustrator—did the line drawings. Groundwood is publishing Caravana al norte—la larga caminata de Misael/Caravan to the North—Misael’s Long Walk in two editions this fall.
Patricia Aldana is the president of IBBY Trust and publisher of Aldana Libros, an imprint of Greystone Kids.