By Amaris Castillo
The Secret of the Plátano opens up with a dark blue sky twinkling with stars, a full moon, and banana leaves.
“Under the full moon, we will dance,” I read to my 3-year-old son on a recent Tuesday night.
We were on his Captain America bed and I was excited to include Luz Maria Mack’s new picture book as part of our nightly storytime.
“Where are the bananas?” my son asked, lifting his head from his pillow to peer curiously at the page.
“Right here,” I told him, pointing at the big leafy plants bearing fruit. “They’re the banana leaves. Plátano leaves.”
The Secret of the Plátano (out today by Soaring Kite Books) is about a grandmother who helps lead her grandson through an enchanted dance in the campo. During the dance, she helps her grandson listen for the great secret of the plátanos. The book features beautiful prose by Mack, who is originally from Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, and luscious illustrations by Dominican illustrator Stephany Mesa.
As I read the story to my son, the secret kept us intrigued. We couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
The Secret of the Plátano was inspired by a dream the author had of her late maternal grandmother, Luz Maria Morel, who died when Mack was 16 years old. In March of 2020, Mack remembered feeling many emotions as the COVID pandemic upended the lives of many. Her father, who has contracted coronavirus, had to be hospitalized. During this time, Mack said she continued working on what she loves: writing.
One night, she had a dream with her late abuela.
“It felt very beautiful. I felt the warmth of the wind and everything,” Mack told me over the phone recently. “But it felt strange to me because I wasn't myself. I was a young boy, and I was seeing myself from the outside and looking at my grandmother dancing around. It was just beautiful.”
When Mack awoke the next day, she wrote about it.
“There were no words exchanged throughout the entire dream, just us dancing,” she said. “I remember feeling not only my smallness, but also feeling eternal. And I think that’s the word I want to focus on. Because even though she wasn’t there, there was something very eternal about that moment. It lives and replays in my head.”
Mesa’s illustrations in The Secret of the Plátano beautifully capture a finca with plátano trees. The bespectacled grandmother was also drawn with great care, in a striped dress as she twirls with her grandson. In Mesa’s note at the end of the book, the illustrator said she channeled her childhood while working on this book – “running between plátanos in Bonao.”
Mack told me she hopes readers think about the richness of Dominican culture after reading her book. She added that there’s always talk about the Dominican Republic’s beaches and food. But Mack was more interested in the richness of the land.
“I wanted to show un campo… you don’t see a toy, you don’t see an iPhone, you don’t see computer desks anywhere near,” she said. “That magic of just our earth, of just having each other and enjoying our resources.”
Mack said she also hopes her book brings young readers a feeling of magical enchantment with their caretaker – and how they could have a beautiful bond with their elders, especially grandparents.
“I know that’s a very simplistic thing to say for young readers, but in many homes, many children don’t have a relationship with their grandparents,” she said. “And I hope that it motivates them to think about the older individuals at home.”
The Secret of the Platano Tree is also available in Spanish. You may purchase here or at a book retailer of your preference.
About the Author: Luz Maria Mack was born in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, and immigrated to the United States as a young child with her family. She comes from a loving and big family that is a recipe for laughter and lots of beautiful memories. Luz earned a Masters degree in Public Administration from Metropolitan College of New York and works as a healthcare professional in New York City.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.