Art can provide hope, community and a sense of purpose.
As the son of migrant farmers, Juan Felipe Herrera leaned on that hope as his family struggled to make a living. Constantly chasing the seasons through the unforgiving desert, scalding sun, and suffocating heat, the Herrera family found themselves living in trailers and tents more times than not. This life taught Herrera the value of hard work, and now he’s made giving hope, community, and a sense of purpose through his words and his new job.
Herrera is a second-term U.S. poet laureate and the first Latino to ever receive the honor.
He has penned 30 books of poetry, novels, and collections. A small sampling of his highlights include “Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Latino Book Award. He’s been recognized by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the (still-alive) National Endowment for the Arts.
And he wants your help.
Currently, he is writing an illustrated book with the help of all second- and third-graders around the country in order to promote literacy, creativity, and diversity in our all-of-a-sudden tenuous educational system.
“The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon” is an illustrated book Herrera is writing and artist Juana Medina is illustrating.
In his words: “Hello! I’m Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate. Welcome to ‘The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon,’ a bilingual, illustrated poem created with the help of artist Juana Medina … and you. Teachers and librarians, get your second and third grade students ‘neonized’ and help us tell Catalina’s story to the world!”
What makes this such a special project is that direct input from grade-school children are shaping the story in real time. The first three chapters have come out, and the book has been crafted with help from kids from Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts.
What happens next? That’s up to you.
Each month, Herrera posts the book so far in visual and audio form and provides a prompt for the upcoming chapter. The February 2017 prompt reads, “Write an enchanted poem — with some Spanish words — that will change the fate of Catalina, her parents, and Tortilla.”
But why undertake a challenge like this? “It’s always been about reaching as many people as possible, and putting writing on the table of as many families and schools as possible,” Herrera told the Dallas Observer last year. “I write for different audiences which could be young adults, toddlers, adults, experimental poets or performance poets. I do all these things because I love writing and because I love people, and not just one group, but all groups.”
The timing for fighting for literacy, creativity, and diversity couldn’t be better.
With our educational system on an apparent collision course, people like Herrera are part of the solution and the optimism that we can rely on in these times. We don’t know how this current administration and its appointees’ stories will end, but we can dive into the fictional world of Catalina Neon and, with the help of our children, hopefully find a happy ending for her adventure.
If you’re a second- or third-grader: Thank you for reading Upworthy! If you or someone you know would like to contribute to the next installment, submit your ideas here.