RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to hear now from a dramatist who's turned her attention to the basics: the ABC's. Quiara Alegria Hudes has written about the lingering wounds of war in her play "Elliott: A Soldier's Fugue." She also wrote the book for the hit Broadway musical "In the Heights." That's the tale of one block in New York peopled with immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and set to the rhythms and rhymes of Latin music and hip-hop.
Now, Quiara Hudes is out with her first tale for kids. It's called "Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC," located in the city of her childhood.
Ms. QUIARA ALEGRIA HUDES (Author, Playwright): I decided to set this book in north Philadelphia, where many of my family live, including my grandma and many young cousins. And the concept was that one girl - who's from north Philadelphia, where a lot of Latinos live - is giving a tour, a neighborhood tour to her best friend who's from Chinatown, and he's come to visit her for the day.
MONTAGNE: And it's from the point of view of that little girl who is, as you say, introducing her friend to her neighborhood. Let's just start with A.
Ms. HUDES: Okay. So, let's see. Here we start with A is for abuela and abandoned car.
MONTAGNE: An abuela is a grandmother.
Ms. HUDES: That's right. You know, I think one of the defining features for me growing up in my neighborhood was an older generation from Puerto Rico who had an open-door policy, in what many considered, from the outside, to be a dangerous neighborhood. But, in fact, this open-door policy is what kept people safe. It was how children were supervised playing outside. And it's how, you know, a hungry neighbor could be fed after work if they didn't have time to go home and cook, if they didn't have money to go and get something from, you know, the corner restaurant.
MONTAGNE: Now, right off in the A's, there's an abandoned car. It's not too tough, but that - real clearly, this is not an affluent neighborhood.
Ms. HUDES: That's right. My inspiration for writing this book wasn't to talk about how gritty and real the neighborhood was. It was more about the joy of observing, so that we're not just watching TV all the time. We're not just looking at our little, tiny screens all the time. But look and see what's around you, observe what's around you.
So in this case, that includes, you know, an abuela hugging the grandkids. And it does include an abandoned car, you know, and that has some downsides to it, no doubt. But there's interest and stories in all of those things.
MONTAGNE: Well, even though when you are illustrating with your words parts of the neighborhood that might not be considered beautiful, the language itself is spare and really quite lovely.
Read us the B's.
Ms. HUDES: (Reading) B is for the bottles that are smashed like falling stars, broken bottles of black cherry soda bought at Barrio Bodegas. C is for the Chino Latino corner store we call Ortega's.
MONTAGNE: That's a lovely way of seeing it, could very well be a child's way of seeing smashed bottles on the street.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: And the illustration there, multicolored.
Ms. HUDES: Yeah. Well, you know, I remember - I collect marbles. I've collected marbles since I was a kid, and I still collect them. And now my daughter loves them. And I've always just found, you know, different-colored glass to be kind of fanciful and playful. And so I remember one of the features of a lot of the sidewalks in Philadelphia is that the broken glass has actually become imprinted into the cement, so the sidewalk can actually take on a mosaic quality.
It's a totally chaotic mosaic, but, you know, these are the things I would notice when I was just kind of walking from abuela's house to the corner store to get her milk or something like that.
And I realize today, you know, this is a little nostalgic because everyone has plastic bottles today. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HUDES: ...the broken glass might not be as common now as it was when I was a kid.
MONTAGNE: Uh-huh. Why don't you read some more for us. Pick up anywhere you'd like.
Ms. HUDES: I'll start with the ice cream truck, because that is where any youthful story should actually start. But A is not for ice cream, so I'll pick up at the letter I.
(Reading) I is for the ice cream truck in infinite flavors so sweet. J is for los jibaros, jamming in the jungle of concrete. K is for the kitchen window where kidney beans boil and pork chops pop. L is for the living room ledges and little old ladies who guard the block. M is for los muralistas making murals of island vistas - waterfalls that hide brick walls, rain forests full of tropical trees. N is for the noisy neighbors who sit on the stoop and catch the breeze.
MONTAGNE: How did you settle on the words to represent the letters of the alphabet? Because some are English and some are Spanish - like Q, for instance.
Ms. HUDES: (Reading) Well, Q is for quemar, which is to burn - to burn a house to the ground beneath, making a block full of row homes look like a smile that's missing its two front teeth.
Q is like X. It's one of those letters that's, you know, notoriously difficult in alphabet books. And, you know, it ends up being queen - you know, there is a handful of three things that it'll end up being. But in Spanish, it's a much more frequently used letter. And it's one of the darker passages in the book.
But, you know, the thing about growing in north Philly and, you know, there, a house would burn down or a house would kind of fall apart and be dilapidated. And then I had an aunt who led a movement to turn abandoned lots into public gardens. And we got to that part later in the book, so even points that might be a little bit darker in the book end up having a flip side, like a growth, a life to them.
MONTAGNE: There are a couple of poignant passages here. R is very touching, especially from a child's-eye view.
Ms. HUDES: R is about growing up in a language and in a geography that's very different from the one where your parents grew up. You know, I grew up in cement and brick. And, you know, my parents grew up in the countryside in Puerto Rico, speaking Spanish. And that's all captured in R. And I'll read R right now.
(Reading) R for mommy's favorite word. She always says remember. Remember that, remember when, remember all the things now gone, remember red comb rooster singing kee-kee-ree-kee to the dawn. Remember Rincon Beach in Puerto Rico, how the sun would set.
MONTAGNE: And you would hear that from your own mother or your aunties, or something like that?
Ms. HUDES: They always said remember. And, in fact, before I made the decision to become a writer, my grandmother was getting along in years, and her health was suffering. And my mom said to me, you know, you're the one who's gone to college. You're the one who can write these stories down. So ask her the stories and write them down, or they'll be gone.
MONTAGNE: Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes has written a children's book, "Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC."
Thanks very much for joining us.
Ms. HUDES: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And you can see illustrations from the "Barrio ABC's," including the ice cream truck of I, at our Web site: npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.