If you ask the average American what they know about Cuba, the first thing they will probably say is, "It's communist!" They will also know that Cuba is an island south of Florida and may have heard about the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. But what do they know of Cuba's people, the Cuban culture or its history?
These children's books featuring Cuba, the Cuban people and Cuban-Americans reveal the vibrant culture and rich traditions and history of our neighboring island. Book topics include Cuban folktales, the Pedro Pan operation, life after immigration and what it's like to grow up away from your parent's homeland. Plus, there is even a classic automobile or two!
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Read aloud these wonderful children's picture books featuring Cuban life and heritage!
ALL THE WAY TO HAVANA by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato
I loved the rhythm of this book! A boy and his family drive to Havana in their car, Cara-Cara. Along the way, the boy takes in all the sights and sounds of the drive, especially the sounds made by his beloved car. The illustrations are wonderfully vibrant. This is a great read aloud choice.
The Cuban-American author and poet Margarita Engle has a treasure trove of picture books. Here are a few more to check out:
- Dream Drum Girl
- Tropical secrets : Holocaust refugees in Cuba
- A Song of Frutas
MARTINA THE BEAUTIFUL COCKROACH: A CUBAN FOLKTALE by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Michael Austin
Martina, having reached the ripe old age of 21 days is ready to get married. As her suitors line up, her grandmother gives her a bit of advice: spill coffee on their shoes because the only way to discern their true characters is to see them when they are angry (good advice for humans, too). One by one, each suitor fails the test, until no one but a sweet little mouse is left.
You must also read Deedy's folktale, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet.
ABUELITA'S SECRET by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Jacobo Muñiz
In anticipation of a sharing day at school, a young boy worries he won't have anything interesting to tell his classmates. He doesn't think his classmates will be interested in hearing about his trips to visit family in Cuba. His abuelita tells him she has a secret and sends him to school with items wrapped in her purple shawl. Inside the shawl is a map of Cuba, some photographs and other souvenirs. Instead of being bored, his classmates are fascinated and what to hear all the stories behind the treasures.
Also read Alma Flor Ada's Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba
MY NAME IS CELIA/ME LLAMO CELIA by Monica Brown, illustrated by Rafael López
This lively, vibrant bilingual biography tells the story of Cuban-born Celia Cruz, an important salsa singer and performer. The narrative traces Celia's journey, starting with her love of music and through her experience as a refugee escaping the communist regime in Cuba. She brought her musical art to Miami and New York, fighting racial stereotypes and never giving up. The text evokes the rhythm of salsa music and is great fun to read.
THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO by D. H. Figueredo, illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla Puebla
This story is based on a real life incident that happened to the author in his childhood. During the Christmas holiday a family in makes its annual trip into the city to visit relatives. But this year, because the Cuban government is fighting the rebels, the trains are not running. The narration focuses on the son, Alfredito, as he describes the various methods they use to get to the city. When they finally arrive, the family is waiting and the celebration begins.
Also read Figueredo'a book, When This World Was New.
ISLA TO ISLAND by Alexis Castellanos
This mostly wordless graphic novel tells the story of Marisol, one of the "Pedro Pan" children who was sent to Florida from Cuba during the Cuban Revolution. After Castro comes to power, Marisol's life is upended when her parents put her on an airplane to a foreign country. Marisol lives with a white couple in Florida who don't speak Spanish. Slowly, Marisol and the couple start to bond. The wordless format underscores Marisol's feeling of being isolated from her former life.
Middle Grade Books
COMING UP CUBAN: RISING PAST CASTRO'S SHADOW by Sonia Manzano
Manzano's extraordinary novel is divided into four stories that share the diverse experiences of four young Cubans whose lives overlap in various ways. In 1959, Ana's father returns home with Fidel Castro's revolutionaries. But when Castro's crackdowns on freedoms begin he is disillusioned and Ana's family plans their escape. Miguel is sent to America as part of the Pedro Pan operation; he waits for his parents in an orphanage. Zulema wants to learn how to read and grabs at the chance when the government's literacy program sends brigadistas to her rural community. Finally, Juan who lives in Havana, finds himself questioning the militaristic pioneros. A splendid book which gives a well-rounded view of Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
THE BLUEST SKY by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
I must confess, I was teary eyed at the end of this book, which rarely happens to me, hardened soul that I am. I had become so invested in Héctor's experience that when (spoiler alert!) his family was finally reunited at the end of the story I was so relieved! In 1980s Cuba, Héctor, his mother and elder brother live in Havana. Héctor dreams of participating in the Math Olympiad and is distressed to learn Mamá is planning their escape from Cuba to reunite with Papá in Miami. The road to Miami is full of challenges, including securing exit visas, being labeled guasanos by their neighbors, and enduring the wrath of Héctor's grandmother, who is part of the Cuban government. The actual journey across the water takes place at the end of the book, but you will feel as if you have been on a crowed boat sailing rough seas the entire time, and will probably cry tears of relief as I did. Excellent.
Also read The Red Umbrella.
CUBA IN MY POCKET by Adrianna Cuevas
Cuevas's story, inspired by her father's experience, begins after the Bay of Pigs invasion. 12-year-old Cumba has been marked for military recruitment in Fidel Castro's oppressive regime and so his parents decide to send him to safety in the United States. When he arrives in Florida, he is overwhelmed by the strangeness of life, language and culture. Gradually he begins to acclimate but still longs to be reunited with his family.
Also read Cueva's The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez
LETTERS FROM CUBA by Ruth Behar
I could not stop turning the pages of this excellent epistolary novel. In 1938, Esther leaves her mother and brother in Poland and joins her father in Cuba. Esther tells her story in a series of letters to her sister. Making the journey by herself, as a Jewish refugee, Esther looks forward to her new home. Once in Cuba, she falls in love with the island and her neighbors. Her father has been working as a peddler, but Esther is a talented seamstress and finds success selling sought after dresses so that she and her father are finally able to send for the rest of the family. Behar based the book on the story of her grandmother and introduces readers to an incredibly diverse population.
Also read Behar's Lucky Broken Girl, and Tía Fortuna’s New Home (picture book).
ENCHANTED AIR: TWO CULTURES, TWO WINGS: A MEMOIR by Margarita Engle
This is a novel written in verse. Margarita was born in the USA but her mother came from Cuba. The author grew up in mid-20th century Los Angeles and feels her loyalty being tested by the two countries. She spends holidays in Cuba but that all begins to change as the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorates. Stories of immigrants are so important right now (well, anytime, really) and this is a gorgeous one about a girl who also learns to love reading and poetry along the way.
Engle has authored seems like a limitless collection of books with a Cuban bent. It's worth reading all of them. Here are three more of her middle grade works:
- Singing with Elephants
- Forest World
- The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano
EACH TINY SPARK by Pablo Cartaya
Cuban-American sixth grader Emilia has ADHD and has a lot of difficulty staying focused at school. After her father returns home from deployment, Emilia notices that he seems a bit different, moody and more distant. And the difficulties keep coming when a school assignment which illuminates social and racial injustice threatens her oldest friendships.
Also read Cartaya's The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora.