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The Promise in Books

By Lilliam Rivera
 | May 15, 2019
lt366_ld_riveraThere’s a vivid memory I have from when I was 6 or 7 years old. My mother, Ana Maria Rivera, holds my hand while pushing a stroller with my baby brother tucked inside. My other hand holds tight to my other brother while my older sister holds on to the other side of the stroller. Four of us children in total, all under the age of 8. A tiny caravan walking the wide Bronx, NY, streets.

I remember passing the fire engine house, waving to the firemen as they cleaned their trucks, and I remember my mother pressing tight to my hand as we crossed the busy streets. Our destination was the public library, roughly 15 blocks away from the housing projects where I spent my childhood. I couldn’t wait. 

The wooden steps that led up to the library were long, or perhaps they seemed that way back then. How my mother managed to climb the stairs of the library with the stroller and all of us beside her I can’t even fathom, but she did it without much of a hitch. As we entered the library, everything smelled old and musty and it was so very quiet.

I entered the silence with excitement and wonder. 

Inside, the librarians prepared to read a story aloud. There was barely anyone there, so we took up most of the front row. My legs dangled from the wooden chair as I sat there enraptured, completely in awe of what the librarians read.

Afterward, Mami allowed us to check out one book each. I browsed the shelves wondering which book to choose, the gift that will take me to a new world, my ticket to enter another wondrous place. I grew more and more anxious trying to decide.

“You can’t make a mistake here,” Mami said. “We’ll be back and you’ll be able to pick another book. I promise.”

At home, we sat in the living room as my mother prepared dinner for everyone. When she was done, Mami pulled out her word puzzles as we read. And although her English wasn’t up to par, in that she couldn’t figure out what the words meant on the pages of my book, it was enough to be seated next to her on that small couch, reading together.

My mother grew up in Corozal, Puerto Rico, a small town located in the mountainous area of the island. She was one of 12 children. There are few pictures of her childhood, even fewer of her as a teenager. My mother could attend school only until the third grade. She had to help take care of her younger brothers, and that is where she would spend most of her working life—being a caregiver to young kids. Her loving ways with young people eventually led her to leave Puerto Rico and move to New York.

My mother’s story may not seem remarkable or unusual, but I find empowerment in the subtleness of her migration story. How she left her family to start anew in a sometimes cold and hard city without understanding the language. My mother is not a very verbal woman. She’s quiet and strong. It’s in her quietness that I find strength in my own writing. 

My latest young adult novel, Dealing in Dreams (Simon & Schuster), is set in the near future where girl gangs rule the streets. Sixteen-year-old Nalah and her crew, Las Mal Criadas, use violence to gain status. Access to literature and information is controlled by only a select few. Books are such a rarity in this world that they are found only in the markets and nightclubs. There is a scene in my novel where Nalah ventures outside of her city and reads a poem that transports her back to a time when she was certain her father must have read those same words to her. The words she reads are like ghosts, nudging her back to family and hope.

The past few years have been an exciting time for children’s books. So many diverse books have been published, garnering awards and hitting The New York Times best-selling list. The conversations have shifted to spotlight different voices, but has it been enough?

According to The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 215 kids’ books published in 2017 featured “significant Latinx characters and/or content,” with only 73 books written by Latinx authors. Most can agree how vital it is for young people to see themselves reflected back, but these numbers beg the question: Who gets to tell our stories? I can’t help but wonder how transformative the trips to the library may have been if the books I picked featured a Puerto Rican girl like me.

My mother is 82 years old now and she still lives in the Bronx where I grew up. Now that I live in Los Angeles, I try to visit her as much as I can. When I do, she usually has a book or two of mine to sign for her various doctors or neighbors. She hasn’t read my latest book, Dealing in Dreams, or my debut YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez (Simon & Schuster). The books haven’t been translated to Spanish— not yet, anyway.

When she can, Mami attends my events, always sitting in the front row. It’s such an honor for me to continue this oral tradition she presented to me so many years ago in that library, where she kept her promise to me to return for more literary magic, as we did again and again.

Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and young adult author of The Education of Margot Sanchez and Dealing in Dreams (Simon & Schuster). She will be a keynote speaker at ILA Intensive: Nevada, a two-day event focusing on equity and access to literacy taking place June 21–22, 2019, in Las Vegas, NV.

This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
 

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