picture book biography – jillicious reading

4 books that will transport you to cuba or give you a taste of the rich culture

epic fail

  1. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

Arturo is looking forward to the summer … playing basketball and working at Abuela’s restaurant.  But, things turn out differently than he expects when cute Carmen arrives and the future of the restaurant is threatened by a greedy land developer.  As the weeks pass and he spends more time with Abuela, Arturo learns a lot about his Cuban roots and discovers the power of poetry and protest.

From Arturo’s discovery of Jose Marti’s revolutionary poetry to the contagious passion of his civic minded cousin Vanessa, this novel is all about finding your voice and standing up for what you believe in – no matter your age!  I loved Arturo’s big noisy family, his funny friends, the times spent together around good food at Abuela’s restaurant, and the powerful message that everyone can make a difference.  The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora is an epic success!

brigadista year

  1. My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1960, he issued a bold literacy initiative – everyone in the country would learn to read and write in one year.  The government recruited more than 250,000 volunteers (most of them between the ages of 10 – 19!) to travel throughout the country and educate all.  This novel tells the story of Lora, a fictionalized character based on the true stories of many young Cubans who volunteered.  Like Arturo, Lora gleaned inspiration from the impassioned poems of Jose Marti’ and from her Abuela who supported her desire to make a change in the world.

This was a piece of history of which I was completely unaware … one of my favorite things to read!  The story is so powerful.  Lora, like many, traveled far from her home for the very first time, to live in a remote area with no modern conveniences.  I loved how the volunteers were trained to come with humility, ready to work alongside their students to gain their trust and respect.  And, what a joy to read of the farmer who had no education and could only sign his name with an’ X’, but worked so hard to learn to read and write so he could soon proudly sign his full name!  Castro was a ruthless dictator, yet his literacy imitative greatly impacted the Cuban country which still has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  This is an unforgettable story of the power of education, courage, and service.

lucky broken girl

  1. Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

After Fidel Castro took over, many Cubans fleed their homeland.  Young Ruthie Mizrahi went with her family to start a new life in New York City.  She struggled to learn English, was placed in remedial classes due to her lack of mastery of the language, and was very homesick for lush, warm Cuba.  Just as she started to gain confidence, she was in a horrible car accident that left her in a full body cast and in bed for months.  She and her family were forced to make major adjustments, but they also grew in unanticipated ways through Ruthie’s long bittersweet road to recovery.

This novel is based on the author’s true experience as a young girl in NYC who suffered a devastating accident.  Ruthie’s experience allows the reader to feel the struggle of moving to another nation on top of dealing with a traumatic, life-changing accident.  The novel explores her worries, her fears, her frustrations as well as her discoveries about herself and the world.  The reactions of the children and her family around her are honest and thought-provoking.  The characters throughout the novel – many who are immigrants from a variety of countries – are interesting and give the reader a view into the immigrant experience that is rich and authentic.   I cheered for Ruthie as she worked so hard to recover and was proud of the stronger girl who emerged on the other side.


  1. All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato

For a vivid visual journey, travel All the Way to Havana with this young boy and his family.  They are on the way to celebrate his new baby cousin’s zero year birthday.  The family – and a lot of neighbors needing a ride – travel to the bustling city.  After a fun celebration that goes into the night, the family returns home in their trusty car that will one day be his.

Mike Curato’s illustrations bring the Cuban streets to life.  The perfectly rendered, colorful old cars zoom off the page, complete with the clucks, putts, and honks of Margarita Engle’s perfect, poetic word choice.  As author and illustrator mention in their notes, the book is a tribute to the ingenuity of the Cuban people in their care of their cars and also celebrates “classic beauty, perseverance, and family loyalty.”


Possible Pairing: 

Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

This recently released bilingual picture book biography looks to be a good partner for these titles to learn more about the poet activist ” who dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, the abolishment of slavery, political independence for Cuba, and intellectual freedom.”  (-from description on Amazon).  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list!

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