Planet Picture Book


Cuba has a youth and adult literacy rate of 100% (or near enough), according to figures from UNICEF. Who knew? Not me! This exceptional score is the result of a nationwide campaign that started back in 1961. The National Literacy Campaign mobilised more than 1 million teachers and students; in its first year, 707,000 Cubans learnt how to read and write. The documentary Maestra (2011) directed by Catherine Murphy tells the story of some of the amazing Cuban women who headed into the countryside to teach during the campaign. You can watch a short clip here.

Books are big in Cuba. Around half a million visitors were expected to attend Havana’s International Book Fair this year (2017). For a city of around 2 million, that’s pretty impressive! The fair is held in the magnificent San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, which dates from the 18th century and, along with Old Havana, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What about picture books, then? Well, I have uncovered some truly wonderful titles for this leg of our journey. All are by award-winning Cuban-American authors based in the United States. The titles are a fabulous mix of culture, language, history, humour and art (I’ll be going into more detail in the individual write-ups, don’t you worry). Without further ado, then, here is the line-up:

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Scholastic Press, 2017)

Mango, Abuela and Me by Meg Medina, illustrated by Angela Dominguez (Candlewick Press, 2015)

One additional name, in particular, kept cropping up in my research: Alma Flor Ada. Born in Cuba, she is a prolific writer of books for both adults and children and Professor Emerita at the University of San Francisco.

As for picture books actually written in Cuba, I struggled to find any information in English, although this blog post by US author-illustrator Joyce Audy Zarins pointed me in the direction of one title: La Sombrilla Amarilla (The Yellow Umbrella) by Ivette Vian Altarriba. Written in Spanish with illustrations by Arístides Hernández (Ares), this picture book features a screenplay for the popular TV series of the same name, also created by Vian Altarriba. Cuban publishing house Editorial Gente Nueva features a tantalising range of children’s books in Spanish on its site.

If you have enjoyed any picture books from Cuba, please let me know. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the three titles I have selected as much as I do.

[Image: San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress by Dan Lundberg, made available under a creative commons licence; Source:]

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