Picture book of the day: a genius illustrator celebrates family history in Alma and How She Got Her Name

Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693558.

Spanish edition: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693589.

Full disclosure: I can totally relate to this book about a girl with a long name (Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela) because I have three middle names. My first middle name was in honor of my mother’s father, the second the saint my mother prayed to while pregnant (Gerard–the patron saint of motherhood), and the third is my confirmation name. I knew I was in real trouble (very rarely–I was hardly a rebel as a youth) when my mother would call me to her side by saying all five my names (Brian Emmet Gerard Christopher Wilson get in this room now!) in a quiet but firm voice. Gulp. (Trivia about me: I wasn’t named Brian after the Beach Boy, but after me pop).

In Juana Martinez-Neal’s beautiful and playful Alma and How She Got Her Name (also available in Spanish: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre), the young heroine first gripes about her long name. It’s so long it never fits on a single piece of paper (I love the drawing of the said paper that needs to have another quarter sheet haphazardly attached to contain all the words). After hearing her complaint, Alma’s bespectacled Daddy tells her the story of how she received her full name. A loving family tale emerges on the ensuing pages as the father starts with the first middle name (Sofia) and describes the significance of each one in order. Alma discovers that she shares traits with each elder. Her grandmother Sofia loved books and flowers. So does Alma. Great-grandmother Esperanza dreamed to see the world. So does Alma. And so on. Alma emerges as a multifaceted child with big dreams and many talents, an artist who will fight for social justice and what’s right.

Martinez-Neal’s art excels in these passages. Using graphite, colored pencils, and print transfers on handmade textured paper, the artist gives us spare bursts of colors (muted pinks and blues popping in mostly grayish-white spreads) that jump off the page. She renders Alma and her father and some of the relatives in an impish cartoonish style. Her figures are often round and warm with expressive faces. It’s interesting to compare this to her Pura Belpré winning work for the terrific La Princesa and the Pea (written by Susan Middleton Elya) in which her broadly comical figures bordered on the grotesque. Martinez-Neal adds so many wondrous details here: the hand lettering of the names, the surprise cover under the jacket, and the lovely peppermint stripes on the endpapers that match Alma’s outfit. She packs each drawing of the elders with eye-pleasing details (I love the one of Alma and her father sitting on the left hand side of the book under a flowering jasmine tree looking at a photograph of Sofia; on the right we see a beautiful replica of the photograph, Sofia also under a jasmine tree).

We learn in an author’s note how personal this book is. That Martinez-Neal too has a long name. And this adds power to this work. Quite simply, she takes the whole idea of learning about one’s name and family history and makes it accessible for a young audience. I could see this being used in both preschools and K-2nd classes (the spare, concise language has a real beauty to it), but also I could see it being used in upper elementary classes as well. Alma and How She Got Her Name can easily be added to the growing list of the best of 2018.

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