Children's books about immigration, identity and what it means to be a new American have become increasingly popular.
By 2018, there were more than 100 such books with themes including migrating through the eyes of a child, navigating a new language and culture, and a book about life when your father is being held in an immigrant detention center.
This past year, "Alma and How She Got Her Name" won a Randolph Caldecott Medal, which recognizes the preceding year's "most distinguished American picture book for children." The book explores themes of identity, heritage, and the meaning behind names.
Peruvian-American author and illustrator, Juana Martinez-Neal, spoke with our host, Marco Werman, about what the story means to her.
Juana Martinez-Neal: I would say its semi-autobiographical. It's started with the idea of my name and how I was named, and then slowly changed into the story of Alma. Even though the relatives [in the story] are my relatives in real life, it was easier for me to use the story of Alma. I was able to tell this story once I wasn't telling the story of my own name, and I got those little licenses, I added more names.
My name wasn't as long, although it was very Spanish and it was very old-fashioned, My name was Juana Carlotta Martinez Pissaro and in Peru you carry both your father's last name and your mother's last name. So Martinez is my dad's and Pissarro comes from my mom. And then Juana is my name. I was named after my father's mother, my grandmother, and then Carla was changed to Carlotta. My dad changed [it] at the last minute when he was writing my name in the birth certificate, but Carlotta translates to Charlotte and then both [names] together are so old-fashioned and everything was just so, so very Spanish. I did not like my name at all.
No, not really. I mean, I think I wanted to go even more into my roots and my own story of being an immigrant from Peru. It was very important to me to make it as authentic as I could, as Spanish as I could. It was so important for me to have names that not only were Spanish, but could have a translation like Esperanza, which means hope and Alma, which means soul. And Sofia, there is a softness to it that carries on to the character. The names that I picked for the story were very, very carefully chosen, [like] Candela, which means fire. It was just so important to pick the right names for each one of these characters and they need it to be Spanish. I'm an immigrant of the US, but I'm very proud of my background and where I came from.
I don't know if it's just any one thing. Maybe it's just that we are getting to more of a place where we get a chance to be published. That's a wonderful thing because being American means so many different things, right? And we're just telling one other story of how it is or what it means to be an American.
I did — the character of Candela, which is based on my mom's mom. She was such an important part of my life and really defined who I was. At the beginning, I kind of took an easy way out and told the story of my grandmother as an entrepreneur. But it's not until the results of the election of 2016 that I said, "Well, I really need to revise these and go back to the essence of who my grandma was," even though the wording [of the story] changed and it's the shorter one in the whole story because I thought illustrations would tell more than my actual words. It says, "Candela was your other grandmother, and she always stood up for what was right." And she's standing and walking with people. And then the following one is even shorter, it says, "I am Candela." So, yes, it did change. I thought it was very important for me to show her as more of a person in charge of her own destiny.
To me, it's important. If you know who you are, you can share it. You understand it by knowing who came before you, how you carry all the culture, traditions, who you are, your language, and even your accent. Once you understand who you are, you can share that with the world. So, identity is so important to me.
Well, when I was starting to think about doing children's illustration, there were two who I really loved. They were Rafael Lopez and Judy Morales. The main reason why I love their work is because their characters looked like what I looked like, and what I hope to do. They made me see that there was a place in children's books for the work I was hoping to do with people who look like me.
Oh, of course.
We have three children and each one has two names and one is a new name because we want them to make that name just like Alma and do whatever they want to do with their story. And then the second name, the middle name, is always carried from a great-grandfather or a grandfather.
I never thought of it. I'm used to two names. And this was before Alma was written. Maybe if I had one now I would, I don't know.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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