The History of the Pura Belpré Award
In the 1920s, the New York Public Library hired Pura Belpré as Hispanic Assistant. Now she’s known as the first Puerto Rican librarian in the system, but her legacy in children’s librarianship and literature cannot be captured by that title alone.
Belpré was a master storyteller, puppeteer, author, and librarian, and an advocate for Puerto Rican stories and communities. Her bilingual storytimes connected Latine1 children from all over New York City with stories of their language and culture. But it was her outreach and publications retelling Puerto Rican folktales that brought her message to librarians, authors, publishers, and children across the nation.
In 1996, ALSC and REFORMA partnered to establish a literary award named in Belpré’s honor. In 2021, a partnership with YALSA expanded the scope with a new Young Adult Author category. The award not only recognizes her legacy, but lives by it, supporting the efforts of Latine writers and illustrators who celebrate the Spanish language and the diverse experiences of Spanish-speaking communities in children’s books.
The 25th Anniversary of the Award
The Reinberger Children’s Library Center (RCLC) at Kent State University strives to share Latine stories with our young patrons, MLIS students, and librarians. This May, MLIS students have been reviewing past Pura Belpré Award recipients on the RCLC’s blog in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the award.
Alma Flor Ada, Professor Emerita at the University of San Francisco and Pura Belpré Award recipient, helped build a permanent collection of multicultural literature at the RCLC. The Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy Collection of Multicultural Literature represents a lifetime of work dedicated to promoting peace, cultural awareness, and support. As an author and educator, Alma Flor has embodied the spirit of the Pura Belpré Award by promoting bilingual education and social justice throughout her career. Her insights on the award’s legacy are featured below.
A Personal Connection
As Alma Flor reflected upon the importance of the award, she fondly recalled a personal experience she shared with Pura Belpré earlier in her career.
In the late 1970s, Alma Flor met with a small group to discuss the challenge of finding high quality books published for children in Spanish. This group later became known as la Asociación Internacional de Literatura Infantil en español (the International Association of Children’s Literature in Spanish). They organized a conference and developed an award to honor an author who greatly contributed to enriching the lives of Spanish-speaking children in the United States.
As president of the association, I had the opportunity to create and present an award to Pura, before an award with her name would come to be the most significant award for Latine authors in the United States,” Alma Flor says. “It is one moment I will always remember with great joy.”
Uniting Latine Communities
The establishment of the Pura Belpré Award shed a light on the Latine community’s common goal of providing their youth with quality literature representing and celebrating their rich cultures. In doing so, it helped bring together diverse Hispanic communities that, as Alma Flor pointed out, were often more focused on their differences than their similarities just 25 years ago.
“Because we have known the isolation and difficulties to find publishers interested in our heritage and our current realities, and because we know the experiences of the hardship of our families, it is natural that there would be solidarity among us,” Alma Flor said. “Each new book published by any Latine author or illustrator is an achievement of the community.”
Sparking Publisher Interest
Like many Latine authors, Alma Flor struggled to get published with a major publisher in the United States. It took her 20 years to publish The Gold Coin with Atheneum. “Books require the participation of publishers and distributors if they are to reach large populations,” Alma Flor said. “Awards contribute to awaken the interest of publishers, as the Pura Belpré Award has done.”
Not only has the award helped to awaken interest in publishers, but it also has helped promote Alma Flor’s body of work. When Under the Royal Palms received the Pura Belpré Award in 2000, the committee also referenced Alma Flor’s other collection of childhood memories, Where the Flame Trees Bloom, which had not received much recognition in the past. “[The Pura Belpré Award] rescued a book that otherwise might have gone out of print,” Alma Flor said.
A Final Message
The Pura Belpré award is an important reminder of Belpré’s message–a message that all librarians must continue to share:
Every young person deserves to hear their language, their experience and their story.
- F. Isabel Campoy, a renowned Latina author in children’s literature recently explained the issues of using Latinx. We share her insights below and choose to use the preferred Latine.
“While -x as an ending may not be strange to English speakers, it is foreign to the Spanish language, and therefore another instance of English linguistic imperialism. For more on the topic of English Linguistic Imperialism around the World read the work of Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, who coined the terminology and have thoroughly studied the issue.
There was a sense of satisfaction among Latinos and Latinas, living in the United States, that the word they chose to identify themselves had been incorporated into the English language in its dual form Latino/Latina. It is unfortunate that the desire for inclusivity took a form foreign to the Spanish language. It became gender identification inclusive at the expense of losing the cultural presence of the language.
The Spanish language already has a marker for inclusivity, the ending -e. There is a movement within Spanish speaking countries, particularly in Argentina, Chile and Spain, to utilize the inclusive -e.”
Personal email received from F. Isabel Campoy on April 22, 2021 from unpublished material.
Today’s guest bloggers are Kayla Hlad and Julia Stone.
Kayla Hlad is currently a M.L.I.S. student at Kent State University and has a B.A. from the University of Michigan. Among other professional adventures, Kayla has enjoyed helping second and third graders become more confident readers through service in Americorps, being a professional nanny, and working in a public library’s homework help center. As a student employee at Kent State, she enjoys writing book reviews, articles, and social media content for the Reinberger Children’s Library Center and Kent State’s School of Information. Her academic and professional interests revolve around youth engagement and the use of children’s and young adult literature in intentional, youth-led, and equitable programming and outreach.
Julia Stone is pursuing her M.L.I.S. with a focus on reference and instruction. She is a student employee at Kent State University. Julia received her B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University. She is excited to be working at the Reinberger Children’s Library Center again after having served as a Graduate Assistant in 2019. While working at the RCLC, she enjoyed creating children’s book reviews and book displays. In addition, she previously worked at Chicago Public Libraries and Stark County Law Library. After her recent move to Portland, Oregon, she is now working in access services at Oregon Health and Science University Library. Julia is interested in advancing diversity and inclusion efforts in libraries and hopes to work in an academic library in the future.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.