“Tomás and the Library Lady” celebrates the power of imagination

Tomás, born to a family of migrant workers, loves the stories Papa Grande tells him nightly. Before long, he knows them all by heart. What to do?

Fate intervenes when he meets the Library Lady, who opens up a whole new world for him. Reading book after book, he discovers tigers, dinosaurs, explorers and much more than he ever could have imagined.

Childsplay brings “Tomás and the Library Lady” back to the stage Oct. 21-Nov. 12 at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The play tells the true story of Tomás Rivera, an author, poet and educator. It was adapted by José Cruz González from a book written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raul Colón. González also wrote the music and lyrics, and music is arranged and performed by Adam Jacobson.

Rivera, a child of migrant workers, went on to become the first minority chancellor in the University of California system — a testament to what libraries and education can make possible.

“I believe that ‘Tomás and the Library Lady’ is an empowering story for young people, because it speaks about following your dreams, about using your imagination, the power of reading books and making new friends,” González says. While creating the play, González researched Rivera’s life, contacting Rivera’s widow and brother. He also visited the Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California at Riverside.

“As I dug into the story of the real Tomás Rivera,” he says, “I found so much to add into the adaptation.”

Playing Tomás in Childsplay’s current production is Enrique Guevara, while Elizabeth Polen is the Library Lady. As the only two cast members, they also take on additional characters. David Saar is the director.

Guevara has no trouble identifying with Tomás, noting that they have a couple of things in common. Guevara is also a first-generation Mexican-American, and his first language is also Spanish. “I still think in two languages,” he says, “and I still find challenges between them in school and with family.”

Polen also identifies with her main character. “When she sees all the potential Tomás has to offer, she desires to help him discover his imagination and intelligence,” Polen says. “I often work as a teacher and can very much relate to that feeling.”

“This is a beautiful story for many reasons,” Guevara adds. “It tells the story of a boy who learns how to read, be studious and unwrap his imagination. But it also tells the true story of Tomás Rivera, a Chicano boy who grew up and became a famous writer and chancellor of the University of California Riverside, despite being a first-generation American and learning English as a second language. His story is like that of many other first-generation Americans, which is why everyone deserves to know it. This story is not only a symbol of Chicano pride; it is a symbol of American pride.”

Since premiering in 2006, “Tomás and the Library Lady” has embarked on numerous tours, four statewide and two national. It will see a third national tour in the 2018-2019 season. The production is recommended for ages 5 and up.

For all ages, the play has something to say to us.

“One of the messages of the story is that despite our struggles and fears, sometimes all we need is a little encouragement from someone,” Polen says. “And then there is no end to what we can accomplish.”

If you go: Childsplay’s “Tomás and the Library Lady” is onstage weekends Oct. 21-Nov. 12; 1 and 4 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. Sundays. Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. $12-$30. $12 Storybook Preview at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21. 480-350-2822 or childsplayaz.org.