Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Patterson
Published April 2018 Walker Books

In an engrossing historical novel, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bridge to Terebithia follows a young Cuban teenager as she travels into the impoverished Cuban countryside to teach others how to read.

When thirteen-year-old Lora tells her parents that she wants to join Premier Castro’s army of young literacy teachers, her mother screeches to high heaven, and her father roars like a lion. Lora has barely been outside of Havana – why would she throw away her life in a remote shack with no electricity, sleeping on a hammock in somebody’s kitchen? But Lora is stubborn: didn’t her parents teach her to share what she has with someone in need? Shining light on a little-known moment in history, Katherine Paterson traces a young teen’s coming-of-age journey from a sheltered life to a singular mission: teaching fellow Cubans of all ages to read and write. Inspired by true accounts, the novel includes an author’s note and a timeline of Cuban history.

This is the perfect example of a book that opened up a whole chapter of history that I never knew about...that I can't believe I didn't know about...that I think everyone should know about.

When you hear the name Fidel Castro, what does that make you think of?  For me, rightly or wrongly, I thought: Cuban, Communist, bad guy.  This book did however open my eyes to an amazing initiative he was behind, the Cuban Literacy Campaign. 

Between January 1 and December 22, 1961, Castro implemented this campaign to abolish literacy in Cuba. He was determined that everyone in Cuba would learn to read and write.  Many adults living in rural areas had very little schooling, as working was more important than education,this meant that people living in these areas could not read or write.So Castro asked for volunteers, Brigadistas, to spend a year in these communities, teaching them to read and write.  

This is a fictional story of that year, and follows 13 year old Lora, who volunteered,  on her Brigadista year.  She is not welcomed by everyone. There are plenty of older farmers who object to a 13 year old girl being able to teach them anything...but with time, and patience, Lora starts to see results, and more member of the community want to learn.

Before 1959 Cuba's literacy rate was between 60-76% at the end of 1961, 707, 212 adults were taught to read and write, raising Cuba's literacy rate to 96%. That is amazing to me...and to this day Cuba still has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, reported at being between 99.75% to 99.9%.

I loved this book, but it's one that might need to be introduced to readers.  A number of schools that I have visited, the librarians are unsure about it...based on the cover and topic...will kids really care about a Cuban Literacy Campaign in 1961?  On the other hand, when I do book talks, and talk about this book...all of the kids want to read it...

As for an age recommendation on this one, I would say 11+.  There is some violence in the book, as there were groups of counter revolutionaries that terrorised the teachers and students during this time to reduce the support of the campaign.  It's not too explicit or graphic, but it is part of the story.

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