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The true story of Tomás and The Library Lady celebrates the power of reading

Actors portray the title characters in Tomas and the Library Lady.

Childsplay production of Tomas and the Library Lady takes place at the Smith Opera House Dec. 10.

At the University of California at Riverside, the Tomás Rivera Library is named after the man who became the UC system’s first minority chancellor. The upcoming play at the Smith Opera House, “Tomas and the Library Lady,” dials back to a poignant time in the late chancellor’s boyhood when he realized that words and language and stories could change his life.

In addition to being a widely respected university administrator, Rivera was also an author, poet, educator and education activist whose humble beginnings as the son of Mexican migrant farm workers make his life story all the more inspiring.

Pat Mora’s beloved 1997 children’s book, Tomás and the Library Lady, reimagines a spring and summer in Rivera’s boyhood when his family left their home base of Texas to travel to Iowa for work. Award-winning playwright José Cruz González’s stage adaptation by the same title will be performed at the Smith Opera House on Monday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. as part of The Smith’s ArtSmart Educational Theatre series. The play is presented by Childsplay, a Tempe, Ariz.-based theater company where González is playwright-in-residence. It is designed for audiences age 5 and older.

Those hot months of 1944 were made magical for Tomás by his discovery of the town’s public library and its books, and the friendship he developed with one special librarian who was as eager to learn Spanish words from Tomás as he was to read about the outside world. The play is intermingled with Spanish, but is understandable by native speakers of both Spanish and English.

“I can relate to Tomás in many ways,” says González, who similarly grew up in the fields of California and Arizona while his Mexican-born parents worked the harvest. “Those fields were my daycare. My brain was always lost in another world, I was always sketching a story out in my head. In school I was always getting into trouble for daydreaming.”

Even as the next generation of kids are more likely to read their first words on an iPad than in a library, the lessons learned by Rivera’s story are timeless, González reflects.   

“Tomás teaches us to step out of our comfort zone, and he had to do that a lot. He had to do big grown up things to help out his family. It teaches young people that you need reading, writing and stories to learn about the world. That is what reading and writing does for us, it brings us empathy for others. We need that now more than ever.”

All ArtSmart performances at The Smith are sponsored by Lyons National Bank and the Nelson B. Delavan Foundation. General admission tickets are $6.50 and are available at the door, at the Smith Box Office as well as online.