Module 5: Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba

I read Alma Flor Ada’s book, “Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba, winner of the Pura Belpre Award. This book gave a first hand, extremely authentic account of the author’s childhood in a town in Cuba. Ada obviously has many happy memories and tender feelings about her family, her culture and her upbringing. She writes about moments that may be distinctly ‘Cuban’: the type of clay used locally to make the water sippers, the multitude of bats that she and her grandmother attempt to count, the beautiful flowers that only bloom at night, giving us a glimpse into a life that most Americans don’t know about. Even while we are learning about this rather exotic upbringing, the author skillfully underscores that while this is her family, it is our story. She goes so far as to encourage us to read these stories in order to understand our own family stories and their own richness.

The stories, while unique to this family, this time and this culture, truly can be anyone’s stories. Ada’s family loves and supports one another. In the chapter, Explorers, the author and her cousins go into the countryside for a day of playing, which soon turns into cousins losing one another, becoming hopelessly lost, stumbling scratched and filthy into another neighborhood and being fortunate enough to have unknown adults take them safely home to their worried families. The heartbreaking Broken Wings introduces us to the author’s  dashing cousin Medardo, who is just not content with the simple life of their home town. Looking for more fun, more excitement, more adventure, he worries the women of his family. Eventually, this adventurer’s life is cut short, ending in the plane crash that everyone feared.  In Gilda, we learn about the author’s unwanted school change and the trouble she has fitting in and making new friends. The friendship she develops with her beautiful dance teacher is one that is meaningful and lifelong.

As a person who loves traveling and learning about different cultures, this book was an absolute treat to read. In California, we are very familiar with the Mexican culture and even some of the Central American countries. I do not, however, know anyone from Cuba, nor is that group a large presence in Los Angeles. My own family background is rather a hodge podge – half of my family are farmers in New Mexico who abstain from alcohol, attend church and are extremely polite and not self promoting in any way. The other half are European Jews who have scattered and lived rather cosmopolitan lives as academics and artists. This Cuban culture resonated with both of those sides of my family. Ada’s culture was partially agrarian, family oriented and incredibly decent, while also retaining some sophistication in the manner of dressing for dinner, loving literature and music and being ones own person, regardless of what others may say. I also have to say that in this day where many books are those of soul baring self revelation, terrible childhoods, drug abuse and self-hatred, it was refreshing to read the stories of a girl who grew up well and well loved and shared her special upbringing with us through these stories.

This book would be good for a book group of 12-14 year olds, and would be interesting to use in a multi-ethnic group as a way to share our own cultural stories with one another.

Alma Flor Ada

Ada, Alma Flor Under the royal palms, A childhood in Cuba (1998) New York, Simon and Schuster.

Review One

The slim, handsome book is divided into 10 chapters, each a self-contained story about Ada’s childhood half a century ago in Camaguey, a city in the province of the same name in the center of Cuba, known as the cradle of great poets and courageous freedom fighters. The stories and the endearing black-and-white photographs of her family are woven into a greater theme: everything Ada learned about life, she explains, she learned in her small town, surrounded by family and nature. Although this feels preachy at times, most parents would surely not mind the lessons. The success of ”Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba,” the companion volume to Alma Flor Ada’s ”Where the Flame Trees Bloom,” derives in no small part from its appeal to adults as well as children. The author, a professor of multicultural education at the University of San Francisco who has written a number of children’s books, understands that to get to a child’s bedroom shelves, often a book must first enchant choosy adults to buy it. And enchant this one does.

For instance, after telling how she spent childhood evenings trying to count bats with her loving grandmother, she draws an eminently sensible conclusion that could easily be applied to many an apparently vain effort: ”On the many occasions when I have later felt that I am once more trying to count bats, engaged in an impossible task, I have allowed myself to laugh, happy to remember that some of the best things in life are like counting bats: it was never the final count that mattered, but rather the joy of seeing them fly.”

Ojito, Mirta. New York Times Book Review [Review of the book Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/02/14/reviews/990214.14cbrv3.html

Review Two
Grade 4-7-This simple and graceful reminiscence of a childhood in Cuba in the 1940s is a companion to Where the Flame Trees Bloom (Atheneum, 1994). Although not wealthy, the author’s family lived comfortably with aunts, uncles, and cousins in a large, shared family home in the small town of Camaguey. Here any event beyond the ordinary became the focus of everyone’s attention and the fuel for many days of conversation. Each chapter includes an early memory or experience of Ada’s: nursing the baby bats that fell onto her porch, the production of simple and inexpensive plaster figures for nativity scenes, etc. The author writes about the contrast of wealth and poverty in her country at that time and of the people who made an impression on her, including a ballet teacher who befriended her during a lonely year in a new school, and an uncle and aunt who worked with lepers. Her observations of people lead to a series of revelations that shaped her life. Black-and-white photographs of the author and her family appear throughout.
Meisner, S. [Review of the book Under the Royal Palms]. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved http://www.amazon.com/Under-Royal-Palms-Childhood-Cuba/dp/0689806310
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