By Summer Edward
The beginning of a new year is a time to make changes, reassess things that aren’t working, and regularize new routines and behavior. One of the things I’d like to see is a sharper focus on children’s books by Caribbean American authors. If we’re making inclusion and belonging the warp and weft of the children’s publishing industry — which, of course, we should — then the Caribbean American/Caribbean experience counts. The shelf life of Caribbean children’s literature extends infinitely beyond the pen-and-paper exercises of National Caribbean American Heritage Month in June. Let’s regularize sustained, year-long interest in Caribbean American children’s authors as a community whose rich contributions should be assumed universal and deserve more than the small satisfaction of an occasional book list.
Every January, it always heartens me to survey the year’s forthcoming crop of picture books representing Caribbean and Caribbean American lives. I’ve read advanced reader copies of the following titles and can vouch for their contents and unique qualities. Below are new releases you can look forward to in 2023. (Note: This article contains some spoilers.)
Also, keep an eye out for three picture books I wasn’t able to read since they’re presently under development. Abuela’s Wishing Tree by Mitzi Fernandez Spitzer, illustrated by Julia Sarapata de Carvalho (Con Todo Press, TBA) pays tribute to the Cuban immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of a Cuban American girl who is about to celebrate her Quinceañera. Two picture books highlight an important Puerto Rican holiday: La Noche Before Three Kings Day by Sheila Colón-Bagley, illustrated by Alejandro Mesa (September 2023; HarperCollins) and Dreams of Green: A Three Kings’ Day Story by Mariel Jungkunz, illustrated by Mónica Paola Rodriguez (October 2023; Astra Young Readers).
Plátanos Go with Everything
By Lissette Norman, Illustrated by Sara Palacios
January 2023; Harpercollins
Yesenia, a young Afro-Dominican American girl, loves plátanos (plantains) and describes the many ways in which they infuse her extended family’s daily life and traditions with culture, shared memories of their island, comfort, and love. This upbeat, emblematic story gives readers a glimpse at the versatile ways in which Dominicans cook plátanos and highlights the central role that foodways play in helping immigrant communities form and maintain their identities. Palacios’ bright digital illustrations, which evoke a mid-century modern aesthetic, are a savory treat.
Bilingual (Spanish/English) edition available: Plátanos Go with Everything/Los plátanos van con todo
Big Tune: Rise of the Dancehall Prince
By Alliah L. Agostini, Illustrated by Shamar Knight-Justice
March 2023; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The sights, sounds, tastes, rhythms, and dance moves of a Caribbean dancehall bashment (party) come to life in this rhyming story featuring Shane, an Afro-Caribbean American boy who overcomes his fear of dancing and singing in front of his kinfolk and family friends. Shane’s determination and perseverance as he secretly perfects his performance and collects empty cans to cash in for money to buy a pair of new kicks, and his act of selflessness that saves the day for his community, are valuable object lessons for young readers. Shamar Knight-Justice’s stylized paint and cut-paper collage illustrations perfectly complement the spirited narration.
Plátanos Are Love
By Alyssa Reynoso-Morris, Illustrated by Mariyah Rahman
April 2023; Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Two children’s books about plátanos publishing in the same year is a promising sign since it’s perfectly acceptable, nay essential, for Caribbean writers to harness the power of a familiar story told in countless ways and forms. In Alyssa Reynoso-Morris’ picture book debut, a young girl named Esme, cued as Afro-Dominican American, and her abuela purchase plátanos at the market and use them to cook various cultural dishes at home. As they do so, Abuela tells stories about the role plátanos have played in their family history, helping Esme to understand that plátanos “feed us in more ways than one.” Mariyah Rahman’s digitally rendered illustrations radiate the warmth of Caribbean kitchens.
Our Roof Is Blue
By Sara E. Echenique, Illustrated by Ashley Vargas
April 2023; Charlesbridge
An unnamed white Puerto Rican girl narrates her family’s experience of preparing for, enduring, and recovering from a destructive hurricane that blows the roof off their home in Puerto Rico. In the storm’s aftermath, community members eventually come together to help the family install a new roof; in the meantime, a stand-in roof of blue tarp provides a stimulus for the siblings’ imaginations as the girl patiently helps her brother, Antonio, work through post-traumatic mutism. In her picture book debut, with digital illustrations by kid lit newcomer Ashley Vargas, Sara E. Echenique sensitively explores the effects of a natural disaster on children and affirms the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people.
Spanish edition available: Nuestro techo es azul
Malaika, Carnival Queen
By Nadia L. Hohn, Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
May 2023; Groundwood Books
In this fourth installment in the Malaika series, readers finally learn about the Jamaican Canadian eponymous protagonist’s deceased father, a migrant farmworker who died when she was a baby. As in the previous books, young Carnival-loving Malaika narrates in her Jamaican English tongue sprinkled with French words and phrases. When a nighttime dream prompts her desire to know more about her dad, the adults are reluctant to speak of him at first; but then Malaika’s mother and grandmother yield and their blended family takes a trip to the farm where he worked. His old friends regale Malaika with stories about him, and present her with an opportunity she can’t refuse: to realize her father’s unfulfilled dream of celebrating Carnival on the farm. Irene Luxbacher’s distinctive mixed media illustrations showcase interesting facets of Malaika’s community as life in her new homeland continues to unfold.
Mother of Sharks
By Melissa Cristina Márquez, Illustrated by Devin Elle Kurtz
May 2023; Penguin Workshop
In this moving, fantastical tale, Melissa Cristina Márquez, named a Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree for her work on shark conservation, fictionalizes her journey from a childhood spent exploring the beaches of Puerto Rico to becoming an internationally recognized marine biologist and science communicator. Young Melissa is busy exploring tide pools when she meets a talking crab who whisks her away on a magical journey where she experiences the wonder of life below the ocean’s surface, discovers the threats facing our marine environments, and meets her future, grown-up self. Devin Elle Kurtz’s vivid, immersive digital illustrations will draw readers into this topical and educational — without being overbearingly didactic — story with a special message of empowerment for Latina girls.
Spanish edition available: Madre de los tiburones
Martina Has Too Many Tías
By Emma Otheguy, Illustrated by Sara Palacios
June 2023; Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Emma Otheguy’s lyrical and inventive retelling of the classic Latinx Caribbean folktale “La Cucaracha Martina” sees an imaginative, introverted Latinx American girl longing for respite from her colorful, extroverted, noisy aunts. She falls into a pot of boiling guava pulp and ends up on a peaceful tropical island that’s a magical version of her homeland, presumably Cuba. There she attempts to befriend various animals who are too loud for her liking, until she meets a quiet mouse — the perfect companion for her — whose company she enjoys. But she soon discovers that something is missing and learns that it takes all kinds to make a world, or rather a home. Sara Palacios’ illustrations beautifully vivify this fantastical tale that challenges generalizations of Latinx girls as rambunctious and fiery.
Spanish edition available: Martina tiene muchas tías
By Margarita Engle, Illustrated by Olivia Sua
August 2023; Atheneum Books for Young Readers
In this slice-of-life look at Cuba’s water supply challenges, an unnamed young girl and her sister; their mom, dad, bisabuelita; and their entire village gratefully welcome the arrival of the water man — a community hero — who visits once a week to deliver potable water. In broad but precise strokes, NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature winner Margarita Engle captures the effects of climate change, groundwater pollution, and ageing infrastructure on the island’s water resources and the critical importance of water to all aspects of society and the environment. Olivia Sua’s painted cut-paper illustrations satisfy with their folk-art sensibility and paint an authentic view of small-town Cuba.
Julie and the Mango Tree
By Sadé Smith, Illustrated by Sayada Ramdial
August 2023; Feiwel & Friends
In this story set in the island of Jamaica, a young Afro-Jamaican girl loves the mangoes her father picks for her from the tree in their yard. One day, when Papa is not home, she faces a dilemma: she’s craving her favorite fruit but the mango tree is too tall for her to climb. She does everything she can to persuade the tree to drop some fruit until she reaches an impasse. When nature comes to her aid, she suddenly has more mangoes than she could possibly eat. What will she do with her bountiful harvest? This palatable, amusing tale by Canadian Jamaican children’s author Sadé Smith’s offers a message about generosity and goes down smoothly with Sayada Ramdial’s bright, winsome illustrations.
Empanadas for Everyone
By Jackie Azúa Kramer, Illustrated by Lenny Wen
August 2023; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Jackie Azúa Kramer draws from memories of her Puerto Rican grandmother in this heartwarming story about a young girl, Carina, who enjoys cooking empanadas with her Tía Mimi every Saturday. When Tía Mimi‘s responsibilities at the local Community Meal Center interrupt their weekend ritual, Carina laments that she can’t make empanadas by herself. Luckily, a multicultural cast of neighbors is ready to furnish her with ingredients, teach her about favorite dishes from their own cultures, and help her carry food for hungry Tía Mimi and the other Meal Center volunteers. Using cuisine as a focal point, the story upholds community service and demonstrates how diverse community members are “same but different.” Lenny Wen’s digital illustrations look like crayon, pencil, and watercolor and use a warm, earth-toned palette.
By Carmen Agra Deedy, Illustrated by Henry Cole
September 2023; Scholastic
Veteran storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy retells a humorous Cuban folktale. Set in Havana, Cuba, the story follows Carina, a brash, unfeeling cat with blue fur, as she swallows everyone in her path, animals and humans alike. She even devours Pepe, the parrot who is completely smitten with her. Just when it looks like there’s no stopping her, two unlikely heroes intervene. The cumulative narrative, dotted with Spanish words, is perfect for read-alouds. Henry Cole, best known for his work on the popular Katy Duck beginner reader series, achieves the perfect blend of hilarity and tension with his trademark vivid, cartoon-like illustrations.