Book Review: Alma and How She Got Her Name


As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:

This was a great idea for a book; even though most children don’t have names this long, every child’s name comes from somewhere.  

The chalk drawings in a limited color palette were lovely, and though it was nice to see such father-daughter bonding over family history, I wondered where Alma’s mother was, because surely, she had a contribution in naming her child.  I also found it interesting that none of Alma’s relatives were alive–at least any that she was named for.  

Showing how each of Alma’s ancestors not only had a story but how their stories tied in to who she was (like an commercial) kept Alma as the central character.  However, not every ancestor was given equal time–Pura was given a paragraph and Candela, a sentence. A goodreads reviewer pointed out that it wasn’t shown what Alma’s grandmother was protesting; the protest signs just said “Listen,” “Think,” and “Complain,” which was deliberately vague, I believe, in an effort to not offend.  When Alma’s father says Candela always stood up for what was right, I think that should’ve been amended to “what she believes in.” After all, how do we know if what Candela was fighting for was right?  

The vagueness of this book throughout (e.g. Sofia enjoying generic poetry, the unnamed city in which Esperanza lived, et cetera) made it less interesting than it could’ve been.  Specificity is what makes stories and characters come alive. I also think consistency in how the story was told (i.e. keeping it in scrapbook form) would’ve made it better. (Sofia and Esperanza are depicted in photographs, but Pura and Candela are not.)

But the perfect ending came when her father explained where Alma’s name came from–that she isn’t just a collage of the past but a blank canvas for the future which she will fill with her experiences–that someday, one of her descendants with her namesake will be telling her story.

This is one of the few kids’ books that could use a sequel, showing Alma growing up, “trying on” each of her names, and discovering that even though she is a little of Sofia, a little of Jose, et cetera, she is ultimately more herself than anyone else.  

Suggested activity:  As my daughter’s first and middle names were chosen simply because my husband and I liked them (and not based on any family history), we go through old scrapbooks and share memories–whether they are stories that have been passed down or memories that I remember. (And for heaven’s sakes, write them down!)

From a fan of “The Rugrats”

When I was a little girl, whenever my parents mentioned their ancestors (they were heavy into genealogy at the time), I thought they were saying “Anne Sisters”.  I also thought that the ATM was a never-ending supply of money.  I thought parents wanted to work because they wanted to, because it was part of being a grown-up, and all grown-up things were fun.

Now that I’m a grown-up, I see how true-to-life (well, besides the babies really talking) Nickelodeon’s “The Rugrats” were.  It’s been said that there’s no reality, only perception.  (I disagree, but one’s perception is their reality at the time.)  When you’re a kid, you think your parents make all the rules, but most simply just live by the rules.  Though it’s not always fun being a grown-up, I’d never go back to being a child (though it would be nice to visit and it was easier to go to sleep).  I love knowing what I know, being able to do what I do.  It’s really pretty great.

I wrote the following “nursery rhyme/children’s poem” with sort of these things in mind.

The Circus at First Baptist

Tucker Clancy got all fancy,
dandied up in a monkey suit,
with a banana in his pocket,
and a packet of peanuts in his boots.

“We’re going to a circus,” his dad said, slapping him on the back,
and Tucker ran to get the tickets,
all printed on white paper with silver letters,
Mom in a frazzle, saying they only had two minutes.

“Bring both rings,” she said,
and Tucker asked, “A two ring circus?”,
but Mom was buzzing around and pinning a flower to her lapel,
muttering something about wedding warning bells.

His dad picked his own pocket,
looking quite glad,
his mom looking quite mad,
and they were on their way to the great show,
ready to see the jugglers throw.

The show was not under a big top,
but in the church across the street,
and Mom said, “Look, there’s Aunt Elsie,”
and Dad said, “The elephant in the room has come, I see.”

Tucker looked, but only saw people all gussied up,
and long white tablecloths with food spread in rows,
not a funnel cake or a corndog to be seen,
or a clown with a rainbow Afro and a big red nose.

“There’s the groom, he’s such a clown,” he heard someone say,
and Tucker looked to see,
but all he saw was a woman in white,
and nearby, a lady commenting it was a tent too tight.

“There’s Mr. Lyon,” someone said,
and Tucker went to sit down with a frown,
having seen neither mane nor tail,
thinking his parents were seeing things,
and wondering where were the monkeys with their long tails.

“Just another dog and pony show,” his dad said,
and Tucker thought his parents had went to the wrong place,
but just as he turned to the tables,
he saw a man take the big cake,
and smash it in a lady’s face.

Query letter to “Missouri Life” magazine

Paul and Eleanor

(Above:  My grandparents, Paul and Eleanor Booker.)
(Below:  The query letter for the 5000+ word personal essay on the town of my birth.)

Dear Editors,

“Poplar Bluff” is a memoir of the fondest kinds of memories–those from childhood.  It is a juicy slice of small town American life, which includes a history of P.B., peppered with anecdotes and salted with sweet remembrances.

For several years, I spent all my summers with my grandparents in P.B., my aunt, uncle and cousins right next door.  I didn’t have that kind of luxury or history in Pensacola, Florida—the luxury of having family close by, and of a shared history in the place where I lived.

“Poplar Bluff” is also coming-of-age essay, where the memories are as golden as the tones in a vintage photograph, and the present is as stark as Technicolor.  It is also a love story of loss and moving on from loss.  Poplar Bluff, as I remember it, is representative of a simpler time, before Facebook and cell phones and other devices monopolized our hours, when kids played outside and entertained themselves.

It is a story of the wonders of summer through the eyes of a child.


My parents were into genealogy during those seasons of my life, and so I have them to thank for some of the more factual content, but the parts I believe that will resonate most is the story only I can tell.

I believe anyone who has ever called Missouri home, and those who have chosen it as their home, will find something worth remembering in what is simply titled, “Poplar Bluff:  A Memoir”.


A little about me:  I am married and the mother of a five-month old baby girl.  In addition to being a full-time, stay-at-home mom, I am the unofficial family storyteller.  I regularly blog on issues of freelance writing, marriage and motherhood.  My current project is a collection of children’s nursery rhymes, unofficially titled, “The Treasury of the Sara Madre.”  I am also a member of the local writer’s group, WriteOn! Pensacola.


Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Warmest regards,
Sarah Lea Richards

Grandma and Jacques

(Above:  My grandmother, as I remember her, and their dog, Jacques.)