Children’s Book Explores How One’s Name Can Illuminate a Family’s Culture and History

For young children who are just beginning to process their surroundings, few tools are as effective for learning as picture books. The colorful illustrations and simple text help teach little ones about shapes, colors, numbers, and words in a way that is fun and easy to understand. Many of the best books for kids go a step further, using these books as a tool to instill important lessons that can shape children’s minds.

In recent years, publishers have realized the importance of fostering diversity from a young age, and in 2018 alone, over 100 children’s books were released with themes relating to immigration and cultural identity in an America that is rapidly changing. One such work that has been recognized by critics explores these complex themes with a simple concept: what’s in a name?

Juana Martinez-Neal is the author of “Alma and How She Got Her Name,” a children’s story about a little girl who learns about the history and origins of her family name from her father. The book was a recipient of last year’s Randolph Caldecott Medal, which recognizes distinguished American picture books for children. In a recent interview with PRI, Martinez-Neal, who is PeruvianAmerican, explained that the story is semi-autobiographical. “[The book] started with the idea of my name and how I was named, and then slowly changed into the story of Alma.” The titular character of Martinez-Neal’s story is at first frustrated with her long name – Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela. But as Alma’s father explains its history, she connects with the relatives who passed it on to her, including her grandmother Sofia, her great-grandmother Esperanza, and her grandfather Jose.

Martinez-Neal wrote the story to explore her own complicated relationship with her family lineage. “My name was Juana Carlotta Martinez Pissaro and in Peru you carry both your father’s last name and your mother’s last name. So Martinez is my dad’s and Pisarro comes from my mom. And then Juana is my name. I was named after my father’s mother, my grandmother, and then Carla was changed to Carlotta … I did not like my name at all.” As she grew older, however, Martinez-Neal became more curious about her cultural identity, and “… wanted to go even more into my roots and my own story of being an immigrant from Peru … I’m an immigrant of the U.S., but I’m very proud of my background and where I came from.”

Marinez-Neal’s struggles with her non-Anglo name are hardly unique among immigrants. Foreign nationals coming to the United States have had to contend with acronyms like FNU (first name unknown) or LNU (last name unknown) printed on official documents to signify a “missing” name on a birth certificate. Others have faced issues related to having a fist and/or last name with too many characters to fit in an official immigration document or driver’s license. But for many, a name carries with it a story, or even a family legacy.

While creating Alma and How She Got Her Name helped Martinez-Neal appreciate her own unique family history, she also hopes that its exploration of what goes into a name will help foster an appreciation of diversity in young readers, especially in an era in America when immigrants and their families are facing adversity. To her, a name is an integral part of an identity, and “if you know who you are, you can share it … once you understand who you are, you can share that with the world.” [See This Children’s Book Author Explores Themes of Immigration and Identity, PRI, 27.Dec.2019.]


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