This bilingual biography of José Julián Martí Pérez tells the story in freestyle verse of a Cuban national hero and writer.
The author reports that Martí “fell in love with his home island” of Cuba when he was a young boy. But he hated the slavery he saw and wished he could help end it. Cuba was ruled by Spain at that time, but in 1868, the Cuban people began a war to gain independence.
Martí wrote political tracts and handed them out everywhere. He was jailed and sent to a quarry to do forced labor. The Spanish agreed to release him, but only if he left Cuba, so the 17-year-old went to New York. There, he continued to write against injustice in Cuba, and he gave speeches to inspire the fight for equality and liberty.
Martí missed the natural beauty of Cuba, however, and would retreat to the Catskill Mountains for solace. But the mountains also made him so homesick, he decided to return to Cuba and serve as a soldier in the war for independence. He died in the Battle of Two Rivers. As the author observes:
“He didn’t live to see his dreams come true,
But José’s friends carried his words in their hearts
And finished the fight.”
“José Martí helped free Cuba,
And to all of us he left these simple verses
That keep the rhythm of the palmas reales,
And that sing forever of freedom.”
At the end of the book, there are excerpts from some of Martí’s verses and a select bibliography.
Colorful gouache illustrations by Beatriz Vidal are done in a folk-art style that pays tribute to Latin American culture.
Discussion: The narrative in this book did not give me a solid understanding of why Martí was such a hero and an important figure in Latin American history. Nor is there an Author’s Note filling in the blanks. In digging on my own, I discovered that in fact, as Wikipedia reports, Martí not only raised awareness and support for the cause of Cuban independence:
“His unification of the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. He was a key figure in the planning and execution of this war, as well as the designer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its ideology.”
In addition, he was revered in literary circles:
“Martí is considered one of the great turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals. His written works include a series of poems, essays, letters, lectures, novel, and a children’s magazine. He wrote for numerous Latin American and American newspapers; he also founded a number of newspapers. His newspaper Patria was an important instrument in his campaign for Cuban independence. After his death, one of his poems from the book, “Versos Sencillos” (Simple Verses) was adapted to the song ‘Guantanamera,’ which has become the definitive patriotic song of Cuba.”
The author does include some excerpts from “Versos Sencillos,” but does not inform readers of their significance.
Nevertheless, the story and lovely artwork could inspire children to find out more about this poet, writer, and nationalist leader, who only lived to the age of 42.
Published by Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, 2017