My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood by Rosemary Wells

076364305xmedLynn: Homesickness is a raw and powerful feeling that many children experience intensely whether related to that first trip to camp alone or a terrifying move to another country. Rosemary Wells heard an interview on the radio with Secundino Fernandez, a Cuban emigre and now architect who still longs for the Havana of his childhood, still knows the misery of homesickness. It was a story she wanted to tell and it took her four years to track Fernandez down. With his help and Peter Ferguson’s stunning full page illustrations, that story is now ours to share in My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood (Candlewick 2010). In 1954, in the first of several moves, Dino leaves his beloved Havana to move to Spain, then ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco. The family returns home only to be driven out in 1959 when Fidel Castro seizes power. New York is a horrible shock to Dino especially as the family arrives during a sleety winter day.

“When you fall and scrape your skin on the pavement, that is how New York feels against the eye.”

Dino hates the cold, the English language, his new school and city. He misses the color and the warmth of his beautiful Havana. As always, his art is a refuge for Dino. Now he builds a miniature Havana out of cardboard, designing the buildings and the city to scale, painting the town with its warm sunlit colors. In time Dino makes friends and becomes accustomed to his new land and the story ends with a lovely image of Dino and a friend soaring high over the beach on a Coney Island ride, acknowledging beauty in his new home for the first time even as he wishes wistfully for Cuba.

Wells and Fernandez write a story that is wonderfully appropriate for young readers perhaps coming to the history of this period for the first time. Basic historical background is provided within the story as well as explanations of such terms as dictator. The vignettes too are nicely chosen to be scenes that children will easily comprehend.

Peter Ferguson’s glorious oil and pencil illustrations really stand out for me. He uses warm colors that glow as if a tropical sun lights them from behind. He has captured a wonderful fifties feel too that adds to the nostalgic flavor of the book. At only 65 pages, I think this book would make an outstanding classroom read aloud, opening wide-ranging pathways for discussion.

Cindy: We recently blogged about Margarita Engle’s Cuban stories and now here’s another fine example that helps younger readers to learn about a country that is mostly shrouded in mystery. As Lynn points out, the artwork is as much a part of the story as the text. Seeing a young boy use art to soothe his soul is reaffirming, but to also know that he progressed from making cardboard reconstructions of beloved Havana buildings in his bedroom to become a successful architect as an adult is awesome. Wells, Fernandez and Ferguson provide another example of hope that through understanding we can make the world a little smaller.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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