In new picture book, Lesléa Newman helps readers process devastation of Hurricane Maria
At the kitchen table five years ago, inspiration struck Holyoke, Massachusetts, children's book author Lesléa Newman. Her partner, Mary, had tears in her eyes after reading about the devastation Hurricane Maria caused for Puerto Ricans and the native animals there.
This led Newman to write “Alicia and the Hurricane: A Story of Puerto Rico/Alicia y el huracán: Un cuento de Puerto Rico."
Newman recalled her partner's fear that a beloved tree frog indigenous to the island was getting displaced by the hurricane.
Lesléa Newman, author: She said, "What about the coquíes?" If you go to Puerto Rico, you will hear them sing every night. My spouse is from Puerto Rico and when we go there and she hears the coquíes singing, she just knows that she's home.
Nirvani Williams, NEPM: Why are the coquíes special to Alicia and her family?
Every night, Alicia's parents say, "Hop into bed like a little frog." When she visits her grandparents, they say, 'Hop into bed like a little frog." So she feels a special place in her heart for these frogs.
In the book, the frog songs are given words:
Ko-kee, ko-kee. We love our beautiful island.
Ko-kee. We love the mountains.
Ko-kee. We love the cities.
Ko-kee, ko-kee. We love the beautiful niñas y niños the very best of all.
So she hears in her mind the coquíes singing their love for Puerto Rico and that is mirroring her love and her family's love for Puerto Rico.
What was your process like in figuring out how to write about loss and a natural disaster in your children's book?
Children respect honesty and I think I would be doing a disservice if I didn't portray honestly what happened there. The pages in the book — many of them have a lot of text, but then when we get to the part where Alicia and her family, who have taken refuge in a shelter, leave and make their way home, there's a little short sentence of five words: “Alicia's neighborhood was in ruins.”
And that is a place where Alicia and the reader, who is identifying with Alicia, has to pause and just take that in. And the illustrations do a lot of that legwork because the illustration shows what has happened.
What was it like to sort of tease out all of this grief and loss for children? Was it really difficult or did you have an idea of how you wanted to lay that out in the pages of the story?
One thing that was really important is that, throughout the story, I wanted Alicia to feel reassured. So, when they are packing up to leave, and her father tells her that a "terrible hurricane is coming" and "we have to leave as fast as we can," she hears the fear in her father's voice, but she also hears that he's trying to be brave.
And then later on in the book, when they see what has happened to their home, her mother says, “We're safe and we're together. That's what's important." And her father adds onto that in a reassuring way, saying, "All that can be fixed. We'll make our home as good as new — even better than before."
That was important to me, that there's this thread all the way through that things can be replaced, but the most important thing is our family and each other.
The book is bilingual and I thought that that was a really beautiful aspect to the story because it's set in Puerto Rico. Everybody in the book is Puerto Rican. What do you think the impact will be for kids who are reading this book?
I am absolutely thrilled at the bilingual aspect of the book. The translator, her name is Georgina Lázaro, and she is also a children's book writer and I think she did a magnificent job.
In the book, on every page, the Spanish is first. I think that's really important because the book — even though I wrote it in English — it's about Spanish-speaking people. And here in America, many of us are so Anglo-centric or English-speaking-centric. I think it will be exciting for Spanish-speaking kids to have a book in their own language that talks about their experience or — if they were not directly impacted by Hurricane Maria— the experience of people that they know.
One little girl who has this book in her classroom, she just hugged it to her chest and carries it around and won't put it down. It's like a security blanket for her. And that was so meaningful for me to hear that from her teacher.