No matter where you stand on the notion of white authors and illustrators writing books about people of other races, there’s no denying that the notion of #ownvoices (named as such in 2015 by author Corinne Duyvis) in children’s literature—that is, children’s books about diverse characters that are written by authors from that same group—has ushered in a whole host of talented authors and illustrators of color. It’s about time. Since publishing is paying more attention to the so-called movement (though I certainly hope it isn’t a trend that will fade in a few years), they have made more room for more book creators who are not white. We’ve a long way to go, but I see progress.
Across the Bay, coming to shelves in September, is a poignant and big-hearted #ownvoices story. Author-illustrator Carlos Aponte (who — fun fact — comes from the world of fashion illustration) spent his childhood in Cataño, Puerto Rico, where this tale is set.
It’s the story of Carlitos. Aponte establishes on the book’s first spread that Cataño, Carlitos’s home, is right across the bay from San Juan, the largest city on the island. This vividly colored spread puts readers on a shore, standing amongst mango, avocado, and banana trees, watching a plane fly over the city’s capital across the water. Given the book’s title, we know that an adventure in that direction is very likely in store for our young protagonist.
The boy’s life bursts with color — and love. He lives with his mother, his abuela, and Coco the cat in a bright yellow house, filled with azucenas, his grandmother’s favorite flower. Throughout the book, Aponte leaves some of his drawings in outline only. On this spread, we see that no colors fill in the neighboring families we see on Carlitos’s own street; his family, after all, “didn’t look like the others.” As the focus of this spread, his house and family stand out with bright, expressive hues.
It’s not just on his own neighborhood streets that he notices the differences. When his mother takes him to the barbershop, she’s the only female dropping off her child. The rest of the place is filled with father-and-son pairs. When, after his haircut, Carlitos asks where his Papi is, his mother responds, “Carlitos, your father is across the bay. Sometimes things don’t work out.” She adds that she and his abuela love him very much and asks if he is happy. Though he nods in response, he thinks about the fact that he regularly wonders about his father. So, later that day, he sneaks out, hops on a ferry, and heads to the “ancient city of Old San Juan” with a photo of his father tucked into his pocket.
The adventure that follows (“The trip was short, but it felt like a long voyage”) is one of discovery (in many ways) for Carlitos. As he stops to ask people if they’ve seen his father, he takes in the sights and sounds of San Juan — the bustling streets, the parks and cathedrals, the plazas, a festival on San Sebastian Street, and more. “San Juan might seem small,” a woman tells him, “but it’s a big place. You might have to travel the whole city.” Here, Aponte writes: “And so he did.” Carlitos is determined to find his father, and along the way, we as readers get to take in the big, beautiful city. Aponte’s relaxed-line illustrations with their animated colors are striking. He outlines his characters here in a thick, bold line, and he captures both the cities of Cataño and San Juan with an electric energy.
It is a rainy visit to the castle El Morro that shifts Carlitos’s perspective. Realizing the photo of his father has fallen out of his pocket, he cries. A ranger at El Morro asks him what is wrong and comforts him: “When sad things happen,” he tells the boy, “I think of them like dark clouds. No matter the storm, the sun always returns.” As Carlitos (once the sun comes back out) stares across the water at the town of Cataño, bringing this story full-circle, he wonders about the family he left behind. One gets the sense that it’s nothing short of an epiphany that the boy undergoes as he watches the water and wonders.
“They were the pride of the people,” Aponte writes on the book’s first spread about the mango, avocado, and banana trees that grow in every yard in Cataño. It’s fitting that we read about pride on the book’s first page. This is an affectionate and compelling story of not only pride in one’s home, but also in family—even when it takes some effort to accept your family just the way they are.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.