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The Stories That Shape Us: Teaching Ideas for Alma and How She Got Her Name

AlmaAlma and How She Got Her Name

Written and Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Published in 2018 by Candlewick Press

ISBN 978-0-7636-9355-8

A Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction 2019 Recommended Book

Grades PK – 3


Book Review

“Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela had a long name – too long, if you asked her.” Alma complains of it to her father, saying “it never fits,” showing him the paper she has had to tape an extension onto in order to write out her full name. Her father proceeds to tell her stories of the five relatives after whom she is named, instructing her: “Then you decide if it fits.” Alma and her Daddy sit in an armchair, looking at family photographs – as each relative is described, images related to the relative’s story appear in the illustrations, connecting the family members across time. Throughout the book, graphite and colored pencil images create soft portraits, while accents of red and blue highlight Alma and key family artifacts. The book concludes with Daddy’s discussion of her first name: “You are the first and the only Alma. You will make your own story.” Pura Belpre illustrator award winner Juana Martinez-Neal offers a sweet picture book reflection on family bonds, affinities, and remembrances. Published simultaneously with a Spanish edition, this book is a wonderful resource for classroom discussion of identity, connections, and individuality.


Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Grades PreK – 3

Author/Illustrator Study. Juana Martinez-Neal’s own name story served as inspiration for Alma’s story. Explore Juana Martinez-Neal’s website to learn more about her life experiences, her cultural background, and her artistic style and influences. She has been recognized with the Pura Belpre illustrator award for La Princesa and the Pea. Watch a Candlewick Press interview in which Juana describes the story of Alma. In an interview with Alex Dorros, Juana discusses the need for diverse voices in children’s literature (this video may appeal more to teachers than students).  Examine the illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, La Madre Goose, and Alma and How She Got Her Name – invite students to describe what they notice about line, shape, color, space, and medium. Collaborate with your art teacher to offer students the opportunity to create handmade paper (a hallmark of Juana’s style).

Family Stories: A Text Set. Family stories play an important role in the primary grade curriculum. Read How Alma Got Her Name as part of a text set that features diverse family structures. Consider beginning with the book Who’s in My Family?: All About Our Families (see our Classroom Bookshelf entry on this text for many teaching invitations related to an exploration of families). Work with your school or local public librarian to be sure that your read an array of titles that reflect diverse family circumstances. Consult booklists such as Social Justice Books: Learning About Family Structures and the CCBC’s Recommended Picture Books Featuring Multiracial Families. Some important titles to include: A Most Unusual Day by Sydra Mallery (adoption), Still a Family (homelessness) by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, Shelly Rotner’s photo essay Families (diverse family structures), Karen Hesse’s Night Job (working nights), and Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (immigration) .  

The People Who Inspire Us: Collecting Oral Histories. Alma can readily relate to the family members and their interests as described by her father. Ask your students to think of a person who inspires them, someone they look up to, someone they seek out for counsel and companionship (this may be a family member, a friend, a teacher, a neighbor, etc.). Students can develop interview questions to learn more about their mentor. Questions can focus on their childhood, key moments in their life, their interests and aspirations, as well as other questions identified by the students. Students in grades one through three can take notes during their interviews and then can write up a biographical sketch, including a portrait either drawn or photographed. PreK and K students can be supported to record their recollections of the interview in drawings and phonetic spellings. If you have technology available to you, it is a good idea to have students record their interviews so that they can re-listen to the interview.

What Do You Want to Be Known For? Invite your students to consider how they might be introduced to someone through a story similar to the ones told by Alma’s daddy. Ask them to think about the interests, talents, and accomplishments that they want to be known for. Drawing inspiration from Juana Martinez-Neal’s illustrations, students can draw a picture of themselves surrounded by artifacts that represent them – extend the activity by having students compose the story of who they are and who they want to be. Display these portraits in your classroom.

How Are We Alike? How Are We Unique? Alma’s Daddy prompts her to identify connections she has with her relatives and also to consider herself as unique, with her own story to tell. Pair your students either with each other, with an older classmate, or with a community member. Use a series of questions to help structure the conversation – these questions should prompt consideration of commonalities and differences. Invite participants to record their findings on a graphic organizer. Share the book Looking Like Me, by Walter Dean Myers, in which the author and his son (who is the illustrator of the book) outline the ways that they are the same and ways in which they are individuals. Our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt describes another title well suited to this activity.

Names: A Text Set. Read How Alma Got Her Name as part of a text set that focuses on names. Include titles such as Kevin Henkes’s classic Chrysanthemum, Helen Recovits My Name is Yoon, Karen Lynn Williams’ My Name is Sangoel, and Leslea Newman’s My Name is Aviva. As you read across titles like these, discuss which aspect of names is addressed in the story (for example: naming practices, character’s feelings about their names, family connections). Being mindful of the varied background of students in your class, particularly of students who belong to foster and adoptive families, open a discussion of names and identity. Allow space for students to explore all aspects of names, including circumstances in which people might choose to use nicknames or change their names in order to affirm aspects of their identity (such as gender).

Visual Literacy: Reading Photographs and Portraits. Alma gets to know the relatives that her Daddy describes through his words and through photographs. Provide your students with an opportunity to practice visual literacy skills, by examining and discussing a range of photographic portraits and art portraits. Students can examine posture, facial expression, clothing, and accompanying setting and artifacts, describing what they observe and what they think they can infer about the subject of the portrait. As an extension, invite students to create self portraits or portraits of a special person in their life (using digital photography or other mediums); they should consider how the person will be posed and what will be included in the background. Display their work in the school or in a community setting.

Duet Model Reading: The Stories That Shape Us. Pair a reading of Alma and How She Got Her Name and The Matchbox Diary, by Paul Fleischman, in a duet model reading (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry). Compare the ways that these authors use text and image to relay family stories. Extend your look at storytelling more broadly, by reading additional texts such as Dad’s Camera, in which photographs are the storytelling device, or Islandborn, in which different community members tell their stories about the same place. Invite your students to consider how, where, and when they tell stories and to reflect on what stories mean in their lives. For further inspiration, see Katie’s professional book: Story, Still the Heart of Literacy Learning.


Further Explorations


Online Resources

Author/Illustrator Website: Juana Martinez-Neal

Candlewick Press Interview with Juana Martinez-Neal

Alex Dorros: Interview with Juana Martinez-Neal

Social Justice Books: Learning About Family Structures.

CCBC’s Recommended Picture Books Featuring Multiracial Families

Social Justice Books: Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books

National Gallery of Art: Examining Portraits


Britt, P. (2017). Why am I me? Ill. by S. Qualls and S. Alko. New York: Scholastic.

Diaz, J. (2018). Islandborn. Ill. by L. Espinosa. New York: Dial Books.

Fleischmann, P. (2013). The matchbox diary. Ill. by B. Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Harris, R. (2012). Who’s in my family?: All about our families. Ill. by N. Bernard Wescott. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Henkes, K. (1991). Chrysanthemum. New York: Greenwillow.

Hesse, K. (2018). Night job. Ill. by G.B. Karas. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Kuklin, S. (2006). Families. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

Mallery, S. (2018). A most unusual day. Ill. by E.B. Goodale. New York: HarperCollins.

Middleton Elya,S. (2017). La Princesa and the pea. Ill. by J. Martinez-Neal. New York: G.P. Putnams Sons.

Myers, W.D. (2009). Looking like me. Ill. by C. Myers. New York: Egmont.

Newman, L. (2015). My name is Aviva. Ill. by A.Jatkowska. Minneapolis, MN: Kar-Ben Publishing.

Phi, B. (2017). A different pond. Ill. by T. Bui. Edina, MN: Capstone Books for Young Readers.

Recorvits, H. (2003). My name is Yoon. Ill. by G. Swiatkowska. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.