PPBF – Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built

Today, I’m so happy to feature a newly-published, debut picture book, that I know you’re going to love. It’s truly a Perfect Picture Book!

Title: Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built

Written By: Angela Burke Kunkel

Illustrated By: Paola Escobar

Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: library, books, community problem solving, Columbia, Latinx, biography

Opening:

In the city of Bogotá, in the barrio of La Nueva Gloria, there live two Josés.

Brief Synopsis: Based on the true story of José Alberto Gutiérrez, a trash collector in Bogotá, Columbia, who collected books along his route and opened the first library in his impoverished neighborhood.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the many resources, including facts about Columbia, a Digging word search, suggestions for similar books, and more in the Educator’s Tool Kit;
  • Learn more about José Alberto Gutiérrez and the library he created in the Author’s Note;
  • What do you wish for? What does Paradise mean to you? Describe with words or draw a picture of something that means Paradise to you.

Why I Like this Book:

In Bogotá, Columbia, a boy named José grew up without education but loving to read with his Mamá every night. As an adult, he collects discarded books along his garbage route to read and to share with children in his barrio, an impoverished neighborhood.

One of those children, also named José, eagerly awaits the arrival of Saturday, the day when he and other children are welcome to visit Señor José’s house. There, stacks and stacks of books await. Paradise!  

Filled with city scenes and fantastical scenes of the pair’s literary journeys, Digging for Words celebrates books and the imaginative journeys they inspire. It also shows the power of persistence and how one determined man is able to share his love of books with the children who crave them in his poor neighborhood.

Filled with colorful and detailed illustrations by Columbian native Escobar, I think Digging for Words will be read, and reread, by children who love to journey through books. Although technically a work of fiction, the many facts about José Alberto Gutiérrez and the library he created make this a wonderful choice for schools and libraries, too.

A Note about Craft:

Often this is my favorite section to write when I review picture books. Today it is especially so! In this debut, Kunkel follows and breaks so many rules – I think I could do an entire post about craft using Digging for Words (and I think she could do some podcasts and workshops about it, too).

For starters, this is a parallel story with two main characters, two Josés: the real adult and the fictional child. As with many biographies, scenes from Gutiérrez’ childhood are included. But another child, the fictional José, is featured, too.

The book begins in present tense, but there’s a flashback to Señor José’s childhood (authors who are admonished to avoid flashbacks take note of how well this works here). Kunkel also includes several richly-illustrated scenes in which the characters imagine worlds based on the books they read. These books, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Little Prince, are even highlighted in the back matter.

I think most importantly, at least for me, is the realization that the addition of fictional elements is the best way to tell Gutiérrez’ true story. Only by doing so are we able to see the effect of his work on the children who benefit from it.

Finally, Kunkel sprinkles Spanish words throughout the text, which even this non-Spanish speaker was able to understand because of the context and illustrations. A Spanish-language version also has been published.

Digging for Words is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

4 responses to “PPBF – Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built

  1. What a gem! You really know how to find really wonderful stories. First time I’ve heard about a trash collector collecting books and setting up a library for the disadvantaged. Can’t wait to read it!

  2. Patricia, this sounds like an amazing historical fiction! I’m seeing more and more them being published, where being truly nonfiction isn’t an option or is too limiting. I look forward to looking at this one colser, Thanks for a great review.

  3. A book to make my multicultural librarian’s heart sing.

  4. This looks like a book I need to read – because of parallel stories. I love how this library comes into being.

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