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A Havana memoir for children

Years ago, author and illustrator Rosemary Wells, perhaps best known as the “mother” of Max and Ruby, heard a radio interview with a man who as a child had lived under three dictators – Francisco Franco in Spain, and Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro in Cuba, where his parents owned a restaurant in the 1950s. Shortly after Castro came to power, the family was forced to flee.

Arriving in New York in winter, the boy was intensely homesick for his island home, so he built a model of Havana, constructed to scale, in his bedroom – cardboard buildings, tinfoil sea, fluorescent paint.

Wells found this extraordinary.

“What he had done was so particular and human, so focused and believable,” she said, immediately thinking the man’s story would mean a lot to other displaced children. She set out to find him but he had been identified on the radio by his nickname, “Dino,” which Wells misheard as “Tino.”

It took her four years to locate Secundino Fernandez, who grew up to be – no surprise – an architect. He was still living in Manhattan, very close to where Wells lived. He instantly agreed to collaborate.

The result is a tender memoir, My Havana (Candlewick, $17.99, ages 7 to 10) illustrated by Peter Ferguson with double-page paintings that evoke the vibrant Havana of Fernandez’s boyhood.

It tells a unique story about a young boy whose quirky hobby involved filling sketchpads with intricate renderings of his favorite places. But it tells a more universal one, too, about the intense need to belong somewhere, and the shattering loss felt when that home is taken away, no matter how necessary it might be to move somewhere else.

Fernandez’s solution – a mock city on his bedroom floor – was how he coped with loss until he could work through his grief. The end of the story shows him atop the Ferris wheel at Coney Island, having made a friend, and understanding he has found a new home, this one also on an island.

“Dino’s story is about the resiliency of young people,” Wells said. “I want children to know you can overcome tremendous hardship.”