Tyrants and Homesickness

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood
By Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
(Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2010, $17.99)

For many of us, our first dwelling remains our archetypal home, the one that appears in dreams and the one we recall most vividly. In 1959, when Secundino “Dino” Fernandez was eleven, his family emigrated from Havana to New York. His first few months in America were painful: New York was cold, he spoke very little English, and his classmates and teacher were hostile. Eventually, he learned English, made friends, and became a successful architect, but he never forgot the warm, graceful city of his childhood.

In My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood, Rosemary Wells tells Fernandez’s story.  Dino Fernandez’s early childhood was idyllic. He spent long afternoons exploring Havana and sketching its palaces and cafés. But politics disrupted the young artist’s life. In 1954, when Dino was six, the Fernandez family visited relatives in Spain. There, a nasty customs guard is Dino’s first introduction to Franco’s fascist regime. When they return to Cuba, the island nation is under the control of General Fulgencio Batista, a brutal dictator who collaborates with gangsters. He is ousted by another dictator, Fidel Castro, who confiscates small businesses. Terrified Castro will take their restaurant, the Fernandezes flee to New York. There, Dino keeps his memories of Havana alive by building a model of his city.

Peter Ferguson’s illustrations bring Fernandez’s Havana and his loss to life. In Havana, the colors are warmer; flowers, cats, and greenery lurk at the peripheries of the page. Readers see a tiny Fernandez family being terrorized by a giant customs guard in Spain; later, a dejected Dino walks alone down a crowded New York sidewalk in the snow.

With its spare first-person narrative, My Havana is a poignant novella, an attractive picture book, and an age-appropriate introduction to tyrants and their effect on ordinary lives. It should resonate with children who love their home, especially those who have had to leave it.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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