Nilda, a classic of Hispanic-American lit: How an artist can make you see with words

When I was a kid, most of my books came from the public library. I don’t think I went to a bookstore until I was seven or eight years old, and then the children’s book section was small, unlike the entire room devoted to children at the central library.

One of the library books I read over and over was Nilda. In fact, many years later I ran across a discarded copy from this library; it might be the same copy I first read.

I had no clue what this book was about when I was first reading it. While the chapters clearly mark the years in which the book is supposed to be set, I have no memory of that; I probably didn’t connect that 1941 was the beginning of World War 2.

What I do remember is how I got pulled into the world of the main character, Nilda right away; as reader, I can see, hear and even taste and smell what Nilda does. Reading the book now, I have a bit of a context for the book: I’ve been to New York, and I have some idea of what Puerto Rican culture is like. But as a child? Nothing. I’m sure I didn’t even know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.

But Mohr’s ability to draw me in to the scenes she describes pulled me in, then and now. Perhaps it’s her background as an artist.

I don’t know much about art, but Mohr’s illustrations, which remind me of graffiti, certainly add to my understanding, but they are more about the feelings of the characters than a literal representation of anything in the book.

When I was a child, we didn’t know anything about what we were reading except what we see in front of us. Now a quick check of the Internet tells me that this is a prize-winning book that is considered a classic. Mohr kind of stumbled into writing and as a means to support her artwork. You can definitely tell! Also when I read her biography, I am struck by how many opportunities she had because she lived in New York City. We think of the “barrio”, or ghetto, as a bad place, but I’m also struck by the inexpensive training she had right at her back door.

This amazing book was first published in 1973, not too many years after The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, who is seen by many as the first modern adolescent novel. Nilda has stood the test of time just as well as The Outsiders; in some ways, even more because Nilda is definitively set during the war years. The Outsiders was written as contemporary realistic fiction when it was published in the sixties, so modern readers are likely to be a bit confused if they aren’t astute enough to check the date of publication. Like The Outsiders, it is clearly set in a place and a culture, not the generic “white middle American” culture of so many books for children and young adults.

Between its setting in the Spanish Barrio in New York City and Mohr’s illustrations, which serve the text in a manner that evokes the graphic novel, and the plot, which follows Nilda’s growth through the war years and ends with her mother’s death and the breaking up of the family as a unit, Nilda deserves the same level of attention that The Outsiders receives.

Nilda. One I never forgot.

The book that I purchased from a library sale from the 1970’s

The book that I purchased from a library sale from the 1970’s


By Nicholasa Mohr

The current version available on Amazon. Now there is a preface and other front matter to inform me that the book is important. Back in the ‘70’s, I just enjoyed reading it.

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