Under the Royal Palms by Alma Flor Ada
Themes: family, childhood, home, storytelling, grief
Audience: Grades 4-7
Review by Julia Stone (she/her)
MLIS Student, Kent State University iSchool
Under the Royal Palms is an award-winning collection of autobiographical stories by Alma Flor Ada. It received the Pura Belpré Award in 2000 and was named as one of the American Library Association’s Best Books of the Year in 2000. Although I haven’t read the companion memoir, Where the Flame Trees Bloom, I definitely want to read it now after how much I enjoyed Alma Flor’s childhood stories. Under the Royal Palms is also available in Spanish as Bajo las palmas reales.
Reading this book is like being transported to the small town of Camagüey, Cuba, with its winding, stone-paved streets, filled with marabú charcoal vendors and brickmakers hard at work in the sun. The rich, sensory descriptions of each memory made me feel like I was experiencing life alongside young Alma Flor—from her grandmother’s familiar scent of talcum, lavender, and sage, to the taste of fresh, cool water from a pórron, with its slight flavor of clay. Alma Flor seamlessly incorporates her mother tongue into the stories by including Spanish words in italics with enough context for the reader to understand, or a brief description of the word in English.
The motif of flight echoes throughout the collection. Alma Flor and her grandmother bond and laugh together while counting flying bats and Alma Flor’s uncle dreams of flying a plane like the free and magnificent auras (Cuban buzzards). Although counting all the flying bats is an impossible endeavor, Alma Flor learns a life lesson of enjoying the simple “joy of seeing them fly” rather than the final outcome. In “Broken Wings,” Alma Flor’s uncle unexpectedly dies in an airplane crash. Alma Flor is overwhelmed by guilt since she had encouraged his dream of flying (“How could I have wanted him to fly when it was going to cause such pain?”). I was moved by the poignant scene where young Alma Flor copes with this pain and grief by burying her beloved doll Heidi. This moment of farewell is heartbreaking, but I felt comforted by the thought that Alma Flor’s uncle lives on through her stories.
Alma Flor’s childhood home, known as La Quinta Simoni, is central to many of the stories in Under the Royal Palms. The house seemed like a character in these stories, providing a sense of familiarity, ritual, and comfort to Alma Flor throughout her childhood. When her family moves away, Alma Flor misses the house where she was born, the house where her grandfather told her stories. To Alma Flor, her grandfather, grandmother, and uncle were still alive through her memories with them in the large, bustling house. A space can hold so many memories and so much love, and so can stories.
In the introduction, Alma Flor says she aspires for readers to view her stories as an invitation to discover the stories in their own lives and what these stories mean to them. I believe this book has the potential to inspire children, teens, and adults to share their own stories and memories through the art of writing. “[As] we hear each other’s stories, we often begin to understand ourselves better and to feel less alone,” Alma Flor writes. Like Alma Flor, I think storytelling can foster a sense of internal peace, as well as a sense of community.
You can read more reviews of Under the Royal Palms on Alma Flor Ada’s website.