Nonfiction Monday: Tomas and the Library Lady

Myra here.

I meant to share this book during our previous bimonthly theme on the Immigrant Experience. Upon further reflection though, I figured that it would fit way better in our current theme as we give love to our Library Loot and our Dusty Bookshelves. Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by Perogies and Gyoza.Meet the Young Tomas Rivera. This story is merely an inspiring snapshot in the life of Tomas Rivera, born in Crystal City, Texas, in 1935. The book begins with Tomas traveling with his family at midnight in a tired, old car during the summer. His parents were farm workers who picked fruit and vegetables for Texas farmers in the winter and for Iowa farmers in the summer. It was our first time to spend summer in Nevada and I could attest how brutal and unrelenting the heat could be – as seen in Tomas’ whispering to his mother in their car:

“…if I had a glass of cold water, I would drink it in large gulps. I would suck the ice. I would pour the last drops of water on my face.”

As their parents worked long and hard under what-I-would-assume-to-be intensely-painful summer heat, brothers Tomas and Enrique would bring them water to hydrate them as they play with a hand-made ball that their mother had sewn for them.

The Library as a Kind of Paradise or the Other Way Around. Apart from playing in the fields, brothers Tomas and Enrique would also amuse themselves by hearing the stories that their Papá Grande would tell them as they sat under a tree: oral storytelling indeed, at its finest. Tomas’ life changed, however, when his grandfather recommended that he visit the library since Tomas already knows all of his stories by heart:

“Tomas, you know all my stories,” he said. “There are many more in the library. You are big enough to go by yourself. Then you can teach us new stories.”

Little did Tomas know that this singular act of going to the library would change his life forever. I thought that the Jorge Luis Borges quote was particularly apt as Tomas found paradise in this place that served as a home to him during those sweltering summer months. He was also fortunate enough to have met this special Library Lady who nourished his parched throat, tired body, and hungry mind with a cool glass of water, a table for him to read, and more books than he could possibly imagine.

I’ve always thought that the best librarians are those who are able to sense which books would be perfect for each child at certain points in their life – the words that they need to help them grow and realize their dreams, nudging them closer to the beings that they were meant to become. It goes beyond a calculated, mechanical appraisal of noting the age-appropriate books, leveled reading, or what is suitable given a child’s developmental milestones and such. I’ve always been wary of reading and literacy being reduced to what is perceived by adults to be ‘age-appropriate’ given their ‘level’. I’m not saying that information like that does not help. I am saying that it is not enough. It is the librarian’s intuitive eye of knowing each individual child who comes to their place for comfort, embracing that child, and sensing that these words written by that author would speak to the child in a way that no other book can. That is a gift – an art.

A Bonafide Book Hunter and Scholar. The books that the Library Lady loaned to Tomas did not quench his hunger for stories – it made him even more famished for the written word. I love how Tomas was depicted to be a book hunter in this quote:

Some days Tomas went with his parents to the town dump. They looked for pieces of iron to sell. Enrique looked for toys. Tomas looked for books. He would put the books in the sun to bake away the smell.

It is not surprising then that this young boy eventually became a national leader. As could be found in the Note at the end of the book:

A migrant worker who valued education, Tomas Rivera became a writer, a professor, a university administrator, and a national education leader. When Dr. Rivera died in 1984, he was the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. The campus library now bears the name of the boy who was encouraged to read by a librarian in Iowa.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Tomás and the Library Lady by Pat Mora and Illustrated by Raul Colon. Dragonfly Books, New York, 1997. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos were taken by me.

Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 68 (35)

Picture Book Challenge Update: 72 of 120

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge Update: 24 (12)

Immigrant Stories Challenge Update: 15 (6)

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 27 (25)

  1. How amazing that stories can be so life-changing?

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  2. I will have to read this, but there is a peril– when I read Down Cut Shin Creek, I wanted to be a pack horse librarian! I’d better stick with doing what I do where I am as long as they will have me!

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  3. Any book with the word “library” in the title pulls me in. And what an inspiring story! Thanks so much for sharing this terrific book.

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  4. An inspiring story…and it looks beautifully written and illustrated, too. Every child kshould meet a librarian like the one Tomas knew – what a gift she was able to bestow!

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  5. I love that the library is a paradise. The pictures and story sound beautiful. I look forward to reading this one.

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  6. […] love the collaboration between Pat Mora and Raul Colon – Tomas and the Library Lady is one of my favourite picture book biographies. In Doña Flor, they come together once more to […]

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