To say that Nashville Public Library’s choice for the 2020 Nashville Reads program — Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers, simultaneously released in Spanish as Soñadores — is a beloved picture book would be a grand understatement. Named a Best Book of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, NPR, and Kirkus Reviews, it was also a New York Times bestseller and a 2019 Pure Belpré Illustrator Award winner.
Eloquent and (to quote the book itself) “resplendent,” Dreamers is a story not only about finding one’s voice, but also about creativity itself. In this picture-book memoir, Morales tells her own story of migrating from Mexico to the United States with her baby son in her arms — “migrantes, you and I.” The duo forms an indelible image, with the mother in a skirt composed of what appear to be flower petals oriented vertically, as if she herself is in bloom, and her son diaper clad. In a country new to her, the mother finds both refuge and her voice in the library. It is there, after struggling elsewhere in the city, that she finally feels welcome, having found a place “where we didn’t need to speak, we only needed to trust.” It is there that her journey to learn to read and speak English begins. It is there that she finds her life’s passion — writing and illustrating picture books.
It is a powerful tale that particularly endears itself to immigrants with a keen understanding of the power of libraries, but it also speaks to librarians and bookworms everywhere. Indeed, Dreamers is a tribute to the picture book form itself. As the young immigrant mother and her son enter the library, the concise, evocative text reads, “Suspicious. Improbable. Unbelievable. Surprising. Unimaginable.” The mother’s face is filled with wonder as she realizes the books here are free for the taking.
It is also a timely book, one that asks us to consider what it is like for a family to acclimate to a world foreign to them, with all the anxiety, fears, hopes, and dreams inherent in that experience. At the same time, it’s a book for the ages. As the Nashville Public Library writes, “It’s a story to remind us that we are all dreamers, bringing our own gifts wherever we roam.” Rare is the book that can pull off timeliness and agelessness in one fell swoop, as well as so successfully make a story both personal and universal.
Morales tells this unforgettable story with vibrant acrylic illustrations into which she incorporates scanned photographs of things that have held deep meaning to her throughout her life: hand-painted pants she once made for her son; a brick from her house; her son’s childhood drawings, as well as drawings from her own childhood; leaves from her garden; the floor of her studio; her first handmade book; and more. These, she writes in a closing note in the book, are “to give the book life.” The striking vistas in the story are dreamlike — buildings that look like they’re undulating in fog when mother and son first arrive, mushrooms the size of buildings, houses that stand askew. This is the stuff of memories, ones imbued with both the fear and wonder she felt at the time.
Also incorporated into the illustrations, drawn with a nib pen that once belonged to legendary author-illustrator Maurice Sendak (Morales was one of three recipients of the 2016 Sendak Fellowship), are traditional Mexican fabrics and the occasional appearance of embroidered text. There is compelling symbolism in the creatures of flight Morales paints, all of which migrate from Mexico to the U.S. to find places to feed their young: monarch butterflies, barn swallows, free-tailed bats. There are also repeated Mexican motifs and symbols of Mexican mythology in the form of items that sit in the mother’s backpack — a playful skull, perhaps representing Día de Muertos, and a Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog). The backpack also contains a pencil and what looks like a sacred heart of Mexican folk art with an eye on it. All these things, Morales masterfully communicates, are her gifts to this new country — her passions, her talents, and her unique vision.
At the end of the author’s note, Morales writes: “Now I have told you my story. What’s yours?” It’s the perfect invitation for readers of all ages ready to dive into this engaging choice for Nashville Reads.
Julie Danielson, co-author of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and The Horn Book. She lives in Murfreesboro and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.