- Puerto Rican Children’s Literature and the Need for Afro-Puerto Rican Stories
Puerto Rican children’s literature is rich with the legacy of the legends of the Taínos. The Taínos, the indigenous people who inhabited the island, have been the inspiration for many of the stories published for Puerto Rican youngsters. The picture book Atariba and Niguayona: A Story from the Taíno People of Puerto Rico is a good example. This book was written by Harriet Rohmer based on stories from the Taíno oral tradition. Other stories inspired by the Taíno culture are Corasi, written by Walter Murray Chiesa and The Golden Flower: A Taíno Myth from Puerto Rico, written by Nina Jaffe.
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Other books deal with characters that have become iconic on this island, such as Juan Bobo, whose antics and different way of thinking have captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. In 1995, Carmen Bernier-Grand published an English version of the adventures of this simpleton character in her book Juan Bobo: Four Folktales from Puerto Rico, part of the I Can Read Books series. [End Page 81] The Juan Bobo character, who understands things differently from other people, appears not only in Bernier-Grand’s book, but also in the picture book Juan Bobo Goes to Work: A Puerto Rican Folktale, written by Marisa Montes. Another Juan Bobo book by this same author is Juan Bobo Goes Up and Down the Hill: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale. Ari Acevedo additionally presents a re-telling of one of Juan Bobo’s most memorable misadventures in the book Juan Bobo Sends the Pig to Mass.
The coquí, the little brown amphibian that has become the symbol of Puerto Rico, is also celebrated in many of the stories that are published for children. One of the classic novels that is mostly remembered in its Spanish translation is The Green Song by Doris Troutman Plenn. This 1950s book, through the character of Pepe Coquí, became a symbol of the Puerto Rican migration to New York as well as a representation of Puerto Rican identity. More recent books that include the coquí are Marisa De Jesús Paolicelli’s award-winning book There’s a Coquí in my Shoe published in 2007 and Ed Rodríguez’s Kiki Koki: The Enchanted Legend of the Coquí Frog, published in 2010. De Jesús Paolicelli’s book won the International Latino Book Awards Winner in the category of Best Educational Children’s Book in English as well as an honorable mention (second prize) for the Best Children’s Picture Book in English. Another book starring the coquí is the bilingual Spanish-English book Everywhere Coquis/ En Dondequiera Coquies, by Nancy Hooper. Lulu Delacre, illustrator of many children’s book such as The Storyteller’s Candle/ La Velita de los Cuentos, also wrote a series of stories with the coquí as the main character. One of the chapter books in Scholastic’s I Can Read series is titled Rafi and Rosi. These two coquí siblings are also featured in Rafi and Rosi: Carnival of this same series.
Writers of Puerto Rican children’s books have usually taken a folkloric perspective in their writing that echoes the focus of Pura Belpré, the renowned children’s book writer, storyteller, and first Latino librarian in the New York City library system. This approach differs greatly from Nicholasa Mohr’s more realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by Puerto Ricans in the United States in many of her works intended for tweeners and young adults. However, the folkloric representations of Puerto Rican culture lack a balanced representation of the full extent of Puerto Rican cultural diversity.
As an educator for over 20 years and as a graduate student of Caribbean linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, I have been struck by the absence of Afro-Puerto Rican characters in children’s literature. This situation has been documented in Dulce M. Perez’s dissertation titled “African Heritage in [End...