Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?
Author Diana López posed this question on a sunny May Saturday to a group of kids sitting on Mexican blankets to hear her read from her picture book biography, Sing With Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla. On López’s website, one of the activity sheets asks the same question. One boy with a giant smile listened with a stuffed animal snake wrapped across his shoulders. Who will he grow up to be?
Selena Quintanilla knew what she wanted to be when she grew up—a singer. And she became that—the Queen of Tejano music, the Queen of Cumbia. Billboard named her the number 3 Latinx artist of all time and the top Latina artist. She also became a fashion icon, known for stage outfits she designed and sewed herself. But she also became something she never expected: a dream personified. For every kid who has wanted to be a star.
When H-E-B grocery stores introduced a commemorative Selena shopping bag in 2018, it sold out almost immediately—within minutes. The bag cost $2. I’ve found it for sale online for anywhere between $50 and $200. A few months later, the store released another Selena bag, with the word SIEMPRE. Always there will be Selena, a little girl whose dream inspires more dreamers.
The first picture in López’s book is a girl who is singing into a rolled-up tortilla, as if it’s a microphone. Illustrator Teresa Martinez shows the girl Selena facing right. The final picture shows the 23-year-old Selena facing left, singing into a microphone. The story moves from her looking forward to looking back.
Magic never just happens. It comes with a lot of hard work, not only by Selena but also by her family. especially her family. There’s no “My Way” in this story; it’s all “Sing With Me.” But for that to happen, she had an obstacle to overcome: She had to learn Spanish.
At the book reading, López said she doesn’t know exactly why Selena was not raised with Spanish, but she does know that after many Mexican immigrants were reprimanded for speaking their native language, they didn’t teach it to their children. Often the second generation speaks less of the mother tongue than the first did, and the third speaks even less. That’s true whether the family is coming from Mexico or Macedonia or Ukraine. Sing With Me is also available in Spanish, as Canta Conmigo.
Selena not only learned Spanish but also broke into and reigned over a genre that didn’t welcome women, Tejano music.
Tejano is many things because the land is a blend of nationalities—from conjunto, incorporating the German influence of the button accordion, to cumbia, dance music originally from Colombia. Add in a little Western swing, a touch of blues, maybe a dash of straight-up pop. It’s music you can dance to and sing along with.
The picture book biography can cover all kinds of historical figures, from President George Washington to Mary Kingsley, an obscure but significant adventurer. The biography tells a succinct story in a way that appeals to a young reader, usually with further notes at the end. The pictures provide context and literal color. Martinez’s pictures emphasize that Selena is rarely alone. She’s surrounded by family, who are part of her band, and she’s accompanied by music, as notes float around her. She begins as a girl with a dream and ends as an icon. Her dreams comes true in community.
López has written numerous books — picture books, middle-grade novels, and YA — along with short stories for older audiences. She’s also the author of the book adaptation of the Disney film Coco, titled Coco: A Story about Music, Shoes, and Family. When she was in Los Angeles for the premiere of Coco, Selena was getting her Hollywood star. As a Corpus Christi native, López wanted to tell the story of the singer who called the same city home.
Sing With Me does not end with Selena’s tragic death, but at her last concert at the Astrodome, where she recorded a live album in front of more than 66,000 people. On stage, living her dream in a regal purple jumpsuit, she looks encantada, delighted.
Selena’s story reminds me to seize joy now. And López’s book makes me want to reach out and hug this little girl with such big dreams. So instead, I hug another dreamer, a boy eager to show me his stuffed snake.
Next Month’s Selection
Break out your summer survival gear! On Friday, July 8, we’ll read Gary Paulsen’s classic, Hatchet.
Browse more Children’s Book Club
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist