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Versos Sencillos: Emma Otheguy ’09

In her beautiful bilingual debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom (Lee & Low Books), Emma Otheguy ’09 (pronounced “Oh-teggy”) tells the tale of the famous author, intellectual, and activist’s unwavering dedication to securing the liberation of Cuba from Spain—an especially inspiring story for younger readers.

Marti’s Song for Freedom is about José Martí’s mission to help fight for Cuba’s freedom from Spain. Do you also feel compelled to educate others about the importance of standing up for one’s culture?

When I visit schools to talk to kids about this book, I emphasize that José Martí was fighting for democratic values that are shared across the cultures of the Americas. Our current president has made me realize the degree to which democracy has to be taught in order to be preserved. Children need to learn, intentionally, that democracy rests upon the right to protest peacefully, a free and independent press, and the cooperation of diverse peoples. When kids read about José Martí protesting injustice by writing and publishing, they learn about the importance of a free and independent press. The nations of the Americas, whether in the United States or Latin America, share a history of tremendous struggle against slavery and colonialism, and I hope that reading about this struggle in Latin America will give kids more context to understand why democracy is so very precious for all of us.

Why was it important to you to have both English and Spanish language side by side in your book?

Being raised in a bilingual family, I know bilingual texts can open doors. Bilingual books allow families and classrooms to move fluidly between English and Spanish, and to share content across generations and linguistic diversity. José Martí was someone who valued solidarity across age and distance, and between social classes and races. Bilingual books help foster that type of connection.

José Martí was a teenager when he started his fight for Cuba’s freedom. It ended with him being exiled at age 17 to New York yet returning with a louder, stronger voice. Do you hope this book resonates with young readers that have the same spirit and grit?

Absolutely! One of the challenges of writing biographies for children is that very often they center around the actions of adults, which can make it difficult for children to identify with the character. José Martí’s story started so young: What he did as a teenager was not simply reflective of a precocious adolescent, but actual work toward the cause to which he devoted his life. It’s an incredible example from history of how children can be agents for change.

When you studied children’s literature at Swarthmore, what was your most significant learning experience?

My senior year, I took a seminar with Donna Jo Napoli. It was a holistic approach to children’s literature, and Donna Jo encouraged me to read voraciously while teaching me to observe children as a scholar, a writer, and a person. It taught me to pay attention at the bus stop and at the park, to savor the amazing (and not-so-amazing) things that kids do and say in their everyday lives.

Then, of course, there was the writing: The seminar included a critique every Friday, and I lived for Fridays that semester. I benefited from Donna Jo’s honest critiques—but most of all, I benefited from the time to write and to have someone behind me who believed in my voice. It was an incredible semester, and I am very grateful.

What is the message you want your readers to take away from this book?

I’d like readers to understand that Latinos have deep roots in the United States and that our history and the history of Latin America are intertwined. I’d like them to know that it is possible, as Martí said, to belong to more than one place—to be from every place and on the road to everywhere.

How can readers help children—or anyone—with multiple homelands, cultures, and languages honor them all?

Reading picture books gives children a chance to learn, share, and celebrate. Even the physical shape of a bilingual picture book inspires the bridging of two languages and sharing across generations and cultures: The horizontal layout lets the eye travel from English to Spanish to illustration, to stretch across two laps or be held up high for a classroom of kids to see.

What specifically inspires you about the cultures from which you come?

I’m inspired by the diversity of Cuba and its people, as well as the diversity of the Latinx community in the United States, culturally as well as linguistically.

What would your parents want to share about their beloved Cuba?

I’ll have to ask them! But if I had to guess, I think they would say how important it is to understand that the Cubans in the United States and those in Cuba are not so different: In many cases we’re family, and we share many values—including a love for the poetry of José Martí.

You are a very busy speaker at many schools, libraries, and book fairs. What is the most important message you deliver? What’s the most important one you’ve received?

I’m really enjoying visiting schools and talking to young readers. I learn more about José Martí every time I talk to kids about him, because they’re always noticing things that escaped me. Recently, I did a reading for very young kids—some of them preschoolers. I didn’t expect the smaller kids to understand much, but they surprised me.

One of the questions that came up was why José Martí was sent to jail. So, searching for words that would make sense to a 4-year-old, I explained that there was a king who didn’t like what Martí was saying. And the child asking the question replied, in an exasperated tone, “Yeah, but the king was being bad so José had to tell him!”

I told the kid I agreed with him, and how grateful I am to live in a country like ours where you can tell the president if he is being bad.