The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos

By Grace Cornell Gonzales

Every October, I take my kindergarten class on a field trip to the public library in our neighborhood. I make a big deal out of it because I want them to understand just how wonderful it is that there is a place where books – fascinating, beautiful, information-packed books – are freely available to be borrowed and shared. I also want them to know that Spanish, the language we speak in our bilingual classroom and the language that many of my students speak at home, is honored and respected in the library. We browse through Spanish-language books in the children’s section, and I ask the librarian to do our story time in Spanish.

When I came across The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, I realized that I had found the perfect book to read before that field trip, both to introduce my students to the magic of the public library and to open up discussion about how the library is there for the whole community, including their families.

The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos is told through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl who moves to New York during the Great Depression. Hildamar and her cousin Santiago are not used to the freezing New York winters; they wonder what Christmas will be like in the United States. They are also curious about the big library building they walk by on their way to school, but their aunt says, “We don’t speak English, and the people in there don’t speak Spanish.”

One day a librarian comes to the children’s school and issues an invitation (in Spanish and in English) to come visit the library during winter vacation. This is Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian to be hired, in 1929, by the New York City Public Library system. Belpré instituted bilingual story hours, purchased Spanish-language books, and implemented cultural programs. She was an advocate who helped shape the public library into a community space that valued the Spanish language.

Hildamar and Santiago excitedly inform their family and neighbors: “They speak Spanish in the library!” The neighborhood kids go to story hour and are enchanted by Belpré’s puppets, traditional Puerto Rican stories, and her storyteller’s candle that you can blow out to make a wish. They volunteer for a play for D’a de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day). Their families help with the costumes, the stage, and the celebration, and discover that the library has Spanish-language books for adults, too.

The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos is a bilingual book in which the Spanish version is fluid and natural, which is rare. On the downside, the English version does not flow quite so well.

This book tackles an important issue, little addressed in children’s books. Because of language and cultural barriers, people who immigrate to the United States often experience public institutions, including the library, as unwelcoming and inaccessible. This wonderful book shows how a community, with the help of a strong advocate, created a space for their language and their cultures in the heart of one of these seemingly forbidding institutions. Author Lucia González is at times a bit heavy-handed delivering her message that “the public library is for everyone,” but it is a very important message indeed.  

Grace Cornell Gonzales is a bilingual educator in San Francisco and an editorial associate at Rethinking Schools. A version of this review appeared in De Colores Blog.