by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Growing up, most dolls creeped me out. I did like Barbie and her entourage—Ken and Skipper—for a short while, but those other hard-plastic baby dolls whose eyes opened and closed with those painted-on eyelashes felt strange and scary to me.
My grandmother, Nana Min, was the mistress of the grand gesture. She liked to be the gift giver with the biggest, most sensational present.
(I inherited—or imitated—that impulse to show up at birthdays and holidays with some overblown present. It took me a long time and lots of payment plans for go-karts, snowmobiles, exercise equipment, and other outrageous and outsized gifts to realize that a thoughtful card really does the trick most times.)
On one young birthday of mine, Nana Min showed up with a “life size” baby doll. This was ill-conceived on so many levels. First of all, the doll was indeed as big as my sister and I were, but it was designed to be a baby. So it was a monster baby doll.
We tried to erase the doll’s image from our minds, but we would periodically lure our little brother, Mark, down to the Doll Closet and taunt him into going in to see if she had come alive.
Dare Wright’s Lonely Doll series—specifically Edith & Mr. Bear and Holiday for Edith and the Bears—fueled my dislike of dolls. I read and reread these two titles: one pink checked and one blue (over and over), but I hated them and was scared by the photos of Edith.
When the brilliant Pleasant Rowland launched American Girl dolls in 1986, I softened my feelings toward dolls. Pleasant is one of the celebrity entrepreneurs I would most like to meet—I remain so impressed by her vision for creating beautiful dolls, each tied to a period of history and anchored by their stories published in books.
My daughter, Rebecca, still talks fondly about how she and her American Girl doll, Felicity, had matching dresses. When Addy Walker was added to the lineup of dolls in 1993, she soon became Rebecca’s second American Girl doll (and Felicity’s new best friend).
In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s treasured and timeless novel Esperanza Rising, Esperanza gets a new doll each year from her father for her birthday.
Esperanza cherishes her latest porcelain doll, which becomes a symbol of her old life, home, and socio-economic status. When her father is killed by her uncle, Tio Luis, her family is forced to relocate to California, and she brings the doll with her—it’s one of her most prized possessions and the only thing she takes from her old home.
“Her style is engaging, her characters appealing, and her story is one that—though a deep-rooted part of the history of California, the Depression, and thus the nation—is little heard in children’s fiction. It bears telling to a wider audience.” —Kirkus Reviews
Later in the story, Esperanza helps her friend Isabel make a yarn doll for their friend Silva to extend kindness and comfort to her. As the story progresses, Esperanza gains new self-awareness and maturity, and she eventually comforts Isabel not by making her a yarn doll but by giving her the porcelain doll from her father.
Before, she would never let a “peasant” touch the doll, but now she offers her friend a piece of her old home.
My good friend and colleague Emma Dryden—former publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books (imprints of Simon & Schuster) and now founder of drydenbks—tells me that many great children’s books focus on the concept of “home”:
“Stories are often constructed around the idea of home-away-home, with characters leaving one place that isn’t necessarily their right and true place in order to find their true place, their true home. ‘Home’ in this context can be literally the place in which a character lives, but most often ‘home’ has a much deeper and more complex meaning than that—‘home’ can mean self-awareness, or embracing one’s identity, or safety, or emotional balance, or friendship, or confidence, or pride. ‘Home’ is whatever the character defines as home for herself. Since being published, Esperanza Rising has won more than a dozen awards from around the country—including, of course, the prestigious Pura Belpré Award.”
The Pura Belpré Award is named for the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library, and it’s meant to honor a Latinx author or illustrator whose “work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”
One of the 14 million-plus copies of Esperanza Rising in print ended up in the hands of Monica Ayhens, who, at the time, was a PhD candidate in British naval history at the University of Alabama. Monica wrote a touching “love letter” to Esperanza, in which she shares why this story is so meaningful to her and to our society at large:
“Esperanza Rising was my Nana’s story, her sisters’ and mother’s story. Perhaps if more people knew it, especially those who aren’t Esperanza’s granddaughters and grandsons, they would realize this story is an American one. And perhaps then they would look on the Esperanzas fleeing the violence of our own time with compassion. For a well-told and much needed story helps us all rise above ignorance and fear.”
I’d encourage you to read Monica’s full letter on the Latinx in Kid Lit website. It was incredibly moving and reminds me why getting books like Esperanza Rising into the hands of students everywhere is of upmost importance.
No matter your background, so many of us can relate to the immigrant experience through our own family history. My friend and colleague David Vozar was inspired to do some digging into his own ancestry:
“While reading Esperanza Rising, I was deeply moved by the family’s journey to the United States and the hardships they endured to build a new life. When I learned that the story of Esperanza was inspired by the author’s grandmother, it got me thinking about my own family history.
“I wished that my family had passed on such rich stories. I went searching through a pile of old photographs. I looked in the eyes of my grandfather and great-grandfather who immigrated from Hungary and Czechoslovakia and tried to imagine their dreams and trials as they left their countries to begin anew. I felt a whole new appreciation for my family’s journey and the feeling of hope they must have felt.”
We put together some fun and engaging resources to help you use Esperanza Rising in your classroom.
• The Book Boys hold a book talk to help inspire your students to open up about their own takeaways from the text.
• We analyze the symbolism in the chapter titles in Cooked Up from a Book.
• Scholastic Book Clubs teacher Wandiza Williams hosts a conversation about the story with a group of young readers that you can replicate in your own classroom in Book Talks.
• And Pam Muñoz Ryan reveals the inspiration behind Esperanza Rising in Behind the Scenes!
I hope you and your students enjoy Esperanza Rising and that it inspires lots of thought-provoking discussions in your classroom.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs