Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Pura Belpré Award: An Interview with F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada

This post shares an extended interview related to Kayla Hlad and Julia Stone’s recent guest post on the ALSC blog: The Legacy of the Pura Belpré Award: Insights from Alma Flor Ada.

Interview by Kayla Hlad and Julia Stone

This summer, ALSC, YALSA, and REFORMA celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Pura Belpré award at the ALA annual conference. To get a better perspective about the award’s significance, we asked Latina authors F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada to share their thoughts about the award, the current state of Latine1 literature in the world of children’s publishing, and the culture of support in the Latine literary community.

F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada have been significant supporters of Latine children’s literature at the Reinberger Children’s Literature Center (RCLC). Together, they have donated over 1400 items including memoirs, articles, audiobooks, ephemera, plays, poetry, educational material, and more to RCLC. The Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy Collection of Multicultural Literature reflects their lifetime of work as mentors and advocates for cultural awareness and Latine children’s books. Some ephemera in the private collection can be viewed in the Alma Flor Ada Virtual Exhibit. This exhibit showcases student letters and artwork given to Alma Flor after her school visits.

Can you describe the importance of the Pura Belpré Award to you and to the Latine community?

F. Isabel Campoy:

Professionals in the field of literature know well the importance of awards. They are the platform to launch new creativity to the world, to recognize literary value, to give voice to silence. The Latine literary community had mostly academic recognition at the level of Hispanists who taught the language and classical literature at university level. However, our children were mostly left to the possible knowledge about our culture from their teachers and librarians. I compare the importance of the Pura Belpré to the right to vote of any group that was silenced by centuries.

You are very aware, I am sure, of the information offered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (see below). Although the Pura Belpré award was established in 1996 it took almost 20 years to have some 2.4% of books representing Latines. Fortunately, only three years later that number had doubled and although it is not enough, there are some signs of hope. The Pura Belpré award was instrumental in setting the pace.

Graphic illustrating the lack of diversity in children's books in 2015Graphic illustrating the lack of diversity in children's books in 2018

Alma Flor Ada:

The Pura Belpré Award has been unquestionably the strongest support for literature written by Latine authors. Our community will always be grateful to the three extraordinary REFORMA librarians who initiated the long process to create this award, and to those who embraced and supported the idea.

Perhaps one of its multiple valuable effects was to contribute to bring together communities that 25 years ago were sometimes more aware of their differences than their similarities. Some Puerto Ricans and Chicanos in the Midwest worked to establish chicano-boricua academic programs to begin to bridge the distances, but they were mostly isolated efforts.

While the majority of efforts in support of our population were done in the name of Puerto Ricans, puertorriqueños, Neoricas, Hispanics, Hispanos, Cuban-Americans, Mexicanos, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, a national award, supported by a prestigious national organization, that would examine, recognize and promote books from authors belonging to this wide spectrum was an inspiring force to strengthen our sense of a national community, with our peculiarities, but with a common goal of providing our youth with quality literature representing all of us.

Personally, as an author, it was a most welcomed validation. To be published by a major publisher in the United States had not been easy for me, it actually took me twenty years to have The Gold Coin published by Atheneum. The fact that it won the Christopher Award, opened the road to continue publishing in Atheneum.

Where the Flame Trees Bloom, a collection of childhood memories, did not receive much recognition. Yet, when Under the Royal Palms was awarded the Pura Belpré Medal and the committee made reference to both books of childhood memories, the recognition rescued a book that otherwise might have gone out of print. 

Can you talk about the culture of support among Latine authors and illustrators?

F. Isabel Campoy:

Having witnessed the growth, in numbers of books published, and the emergence of new Latine authors that has occurred in the last four decades, I can say that finally we are seeing signs of prosperity, recognition and advancement. I would mention at least six groups that reflect that interest in their goals:

Latinxs in Kid Lit promotes Latine culture and literacy in the community.

Las comadres (which is an important role to play in a family, something like a godmother). Its goal is to coordinate and connect Latina writers around the world.

Latinx in Publishing was created by publishing professionals to help support and increase the number of Latines in the publishing industry, as well as promoting literature by, for, and about Latine people.

We Need Diverse Books. Although it is not an exclusive Latine organization, it includes Latines in all its initiatives.

Las musas provides mentorship for female and non-binary authors interested in middle grade picture books and YA literature.

Hispanic Heritage Literature Foundation is an international initiative founded to build a legacy for younger generations.

Alma Flor Ada:

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 but natural that there would be solidarity among us. 

Personally, I feel an immense joy—and I believe many have the same feeling—on knowing how far we have come, from the times in which books for children and youth that authentically reflected our history, communities, culture, art and achievements were practically non-existent. 

Each new book published by any of us is an achievement of the community. We come from a culture that has given ample richness to the world both in the plastic art and in literature, so it is but natural that we would be creators of valuable text and visuals, yet  books require the participation of publishers and distributors if it is to reach large populations. And awards contribute to awaken the interest of publishers, as the Pura Belpré award has done.

What are some important mentor/mentee relationships that you’ve had during your life and career?

F. Isabel Campoy:

My email is an open door to the development of personal relationships with those who “find me.” It varies by month or year but MANY could be a word that would describe with accuracy the one-to-one relationships created as a mentor with young writers.

But perhaps the most successful program created with that objective in mind was our “Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Program” that for 25 years and throughout the world Alma Flor and I have offered to help writers be brave enough to say what nobody else could say for them. It has been a profound experience, from Micronesia to the Czech Republic, Oaxaca to Madrid, probably 40 states in the US, Canada, The Netherlands…and the outcome was always an incredible experience both for us the mentors and them the mentees, because simple truths were the rule and beautiful language the means to tell it.

Alma Flor Ada:

My list of gratitude to those who have supported me is substantial. I will mention here only a few names. I have mentioned others also in my memoirs.

My sixth grade teacher, Dra. Rosa María Peyrellade, realized that while I was a constant reader, who enjoyed reading aloud enthusiastically, and that my facility for math, cultivated by my father through practical math problems, had allowed me to get to her classroom, my dyslexia made my writing a true challenge to decode. She not only made me aware of a problem no one had recognized, but put time and effort to help me master it using the tool I would easily gravitate to: poetry. I would have never made it through High School and beyond without her mentoring.

At the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Dra. Elena Catena decided to challenge my idea of becoming a journalist by emphasizing that I would be a better writer if I studied literature rigorously. She set me on the path of a doctorate in literature. I was further encouraged along this path by other mentors.

Augusto Salazar Bondy, Peruvian philosopher, guided me in the writing of my dissertation and took me to his publisher and convinced him to publish the classroom materials I had created for my high school students. Dr. Raimundo Lida, at Harvard, in the process of reviewing the work I was doing to expand my dissertation for publication, not only gave me valuable input, but also demonstrated the true spirit of mentorship, something that later benefited all the doctoral students whose dissertations I guided.

Bernice Randall, editor extraordinary, taught me a great deal about turning ideas into books, and has continued to be the good voice in my ear for many years after not being with us. To all of them my immense gratitude.

 

The RCLC would like to thank Alma Flor and F. Isabel for sharing their insights on the impact of this award and the culture of support in the Latine literary community. Their dedication to advocacy, bilingual education, and mentorship has inspired many to create accolades and programs in their honor. 

The American Academy of the Spanish Language in collaboration with the University of Texas in San Antonio is presenting its third annual Campoy Ada Children’s Literature Award. Supporters of bilingual education have created a school in Minnesota, the Alma Flor Ada Spanish Immersion Early Learning Academy. And, this year, San Diego State University created the Alma Flor Ada Literary Award for a book written by a Latine author that has received recognition for several years and is now considered a “classic” in the field. 


Footnote

1. F. Isabel Campoy explained the issues of using Latinx via email in the summer of 2021. We share her insights below and chose to use the preferred Latine in this article.

“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.”

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