Waiting for the Biblioburro (a book review)

12 Apr

Waiting for the Bibilioburro

by Monica Brown

illustrations by John Parra

Tricycle Press, 2011

Ana is a little girl who loves stories. She clings to the one book she owns, a gift from her teacher for working hard at school. The teacher has since left the village. With no teacher, Ana reads and rereads her book. She makes up stories of her own for her little brother. And, she wishes for new stories to read.

One morning, Ana wakes up to the sound of donkeys clip-clopping. She sees a man with a sign reading “Biblioburro.” Realizing that the man and his donkeys are loaded with “Libros! Books!”, she joins the village children in running to meet him. The man explains that his donkeys, Alfa and Beto, carry a mobile library.  He reads to the children and loans them each a book before he leaves. Ana is overcome as she discovers:

“So many cuentos! While Alfa and Beto chomp the sweet grass under the tree, Ana picks up book after book and finds pink dolphins and blue butterflies, castles and fairies, talking lions and magic carpets.”

Ana waits anxiously for the librarian’s return. She reads her book and writes one about him.  Finally, he returns, bringing with him more books and more possibilities.

Author Monica Brown and artist John Parra have turned the true story of Colombian librarian Luis Soriano Bohórquez into a tale about the power of reading. Seeing Soriano, who remains nameless in this tale, through the eyes of a child touched by his efforts, helps the reader imagine the anticipation and joy his visits bring to the children in a remote rural village. Brown captures eloquently the optimism of a young reader and the delight that the discovery of books brings to children. With a few Spanish terms peppered into Ana’s speech and thoughts, Brown easily places this story in Latin America, giving it a place while allowing it to retain its universality.

Parra’s illustrations convey a childlike sincerity and fancy. Using acrylics on board, he gives the reader a sense of the Colombian culture from which this story derives. Ana rides a butterfly as she “dreams she is flying over her country on a butterfly’s back.” We see the mountains, oceans, rivers, and jungles she envisions crossing and live with her the stories she dreams of collecting. Parra brings Ana’s imagination to life in a way that allows us to deeply understand how reading can change a child’s very dreams.

Brown and Parra were inspired by the true story of Luis Soriano Bohórquez. When he was a young child, Soriano’s parents sent him from his village of La Gloria, Colombia to live with his grandparents in Valledupar in order to protect him from paramilitary violence.  During the next ten years, he studied and completed his high school education.  Upon returning to La Gloria, Soriano began teaching reading to school-aged children.  He experienced through his students the transformative power of literacy: The violence around these children (which has since ebbed) was even more intense than what he had experienced as a child, yet through reading they were able to imagine a better world, and a better place for themselves in that world.

, traveling library in Colombia

, traveling library in Colombia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, he worried about the growing dearth of teachers in rural Colombia and the subsequent falling literacy rate.  When teachers moved away to escape the violence, they took the books with them, leaving the children empty-handed and teacherless. Determined to help those children, Soriano bought two burros, strapped books to their backs, and began to travel the countryside each weekend as a mobile lending library. He began in 2000 with 70 books. More than a decade later, he has amassed nearly 5,000 books and continues his important work. A lovely documentary by Carlos Rendón Zipaguata details not only the results of Soriano’s efforts, but the strain it sometimes puts on his family.

Brown has imagined a librarian who closely resembles Soriano. In her author’s note, she teaches us that Soriao is not unique: “[T]here are many librarians, and libraries, that travel long distances, just like the Biblioburro. In Kenya, camel caravans deliver books to nomads…Stockholm’s “floating library” delivers books to islanders…In Zimbabwe, there is a donkey-drawn mobile.” She honors the Biblioburro through Ana’s eyes. And, as importantly, she informs us that there are adults all over the world who go to extreme measures to get books into the hands of children. Her story is a must-read for all children, and the adults who love them. It will inspire conversation, and perhaps a little action to help get more books into the hands of more children.

A confession: In 2008, I clipped a story about the Biblioburro from the New York Times thinking it would make a lovely children’s book.  Several months later, I was honored to review Carlos Rendón Zipaguata’s documentary film about the Biblioburro for the Chicago Latino Film Festival.  Again, I thought, “What an excellent topic for a children’s book.” Monica Brown has written the book I wish I’d written!

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