The inspiring story of a man who believes in the power of books and the importance of community.
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
An inviting and generous story that will be a pleasure to read aloud.
—School Library Journal, Starred Review
This amiable picture book offers children glimpses of Colombia as well as a role model who values books and enjoys sharing them with others…. Simultaneously published in a Spanish edition, Rescatando Palabras.
Please tell us about your book.
Sure! Digging for Words is based on the true story of José Alberto Gutiérrez, a Colombian garbage collector who started a library for the children of his neighborhood, completely from books found in the trash. Since then, he’s gone on to provide reading material to schools and organizations all across Colombia.
What inspired you to write this story?
Strangely enough, I saw a viral video of José’s library on Facebook of all places! In my work as a school librarian, one of the most important parts of my job is ensuring that all students have access to books regardless of a family’s socioeconomic status or other factors. José’s project is really about book access for all. Although Bogotá is a city of ten million people, there are only 19 public libraries— and there were none in José’s neighborhood until he opened his home and shared his collection of discarded books.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
After watching and re-watching (and re-watching!) that first video, it was important for me to go beyond social media and gather as much information about José and his library. In addition to coverage in English-language sources like the Associated Press and the BBC, it was important to use Google’s search feature in Spanish rather than English. This enabled me to find local Colombian news coverage from much earlier on, as well as a wider variety of interviews where José tells his story in his own words. I also researched life in Colombia, and re-read some novels that José says are foundational to him, including Gabriel García Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Little Prince (you’ll see nods to these in Paola Escobar’s beautiful illustrations). Lastly, I was able to contact José with the help of a friend who lives part-time in Colombia. Once he read a Spanish translation of the manuscript and gave it his blessing, I felt like I could move ahead with querying the story.
What are some special challenges associated with fictionalizing a true story?
Well, after compiling so much research and during the revision process, I kept returning to that original video to remind myself what the heart of the story was. As much as it’s about José, it’s really about the positive impact that his library has on children. I wanted to show this impact— as well as the importance of reading during José’s own childhood, and all without being didactic— and so it was important to have an invented second character, the little boy in the book who also happens to be named José. It was really important to see that wonder of opening a book, that turning of the page, through a child’s eyes rather than an adult’s.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
I think students should know that access to books isn’t a given in every country, or even within every school or home in the U.S.! In addition to a read-aloud that emphasizes the importance and magic of reading, I also think that Digging for Words is about community activism— José saw a problem in his neighborhood and solved it. How could this empower students? What problems do they see in their own communities, and what ideas and solutions can they come up with?
Lastly, I want to make sure teachers know that there is an Educator’s Toolkit on my website, which includes the original video that inspired the story, a Spanish-language read aloud, activities, and several other picture book read-alikes that fit the themes mentioned above.
Thank you so much for having me, and happy reading! I hope teachers and students alike enjoy Digging for Words and getting to know both Josés.