Hello, everyone—

I’m honored and humbled to tell you that, sometime last night, DE COLORES (decologresreviews.blogspot.com) reached 300,000 visits!

Beverly Slapin 
Founder and Editor 
2702 Mathews St.
Berkeley, CA 94702

Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme

author: Monica Brown
illustrator: Angela Dominguez 
Little, Brown, 2016 
grades 1-3 
Peruvian American

As we all know by now, our young protagonist is a super-smart, super-outspoken, and super-opinionated second-grade goalie who won’t back down, no matter what. And she speaks without filters, telling everyone within earshot what she’s thinking at the speed that she’s thinking it. Here, for instance, is Lola’s breathless first encounter with her new classmate, Isabella Benítez, who is decked out in pink, which, of course, Lola just cannot abide:

“I’m Lola…. Lola is short for Dolores. My mom is from Peru—is yours, too? Do you speak Spanish? I do. My dad is from here. He’s Jewish. My mom’s Catholic. I’m both. Do you play soccer? I do. Are those bedroom slippers on your sweatshirt? Do you always wear pink? Don’t you get tired of it? It isn’t a very interesting color, in my opinion—”

Isabella (or, as she prefers, “Bella”) is a student of ballet, a girl who is happiest dressed in pink all the time—this day she wears pink hair ribbons, a pink sweatshirt, a fluffy pink skirt, and even pink tennis shoes. And she’s not about to allow Lola’s attitude to go unchallenged: “Actually,” she says, “pink is a very interesting color. It’s the color of bubble gum and cotton candy and bunny eyes and—”

Lola argues that, in her opinion, pink is just pale red and Bella argues that, in her opinion, soccer is boring; and, except that they both speak Spanish, there are few things that the two have in common. Will they ever get along?

When an accident occurs—involving an explosion of black dye that ruins everyone’s clothing—the moms get involved and, with Principal Blot’s blessing, the two girls are forced to switch roles: while Bella engages in soccer drills (in which she excels), Lola puts on “weird clothes” and attends ballet practice (in which she is definitely “not horrible”).

And meanwhile, Lola’s kindergartner brother, Ben, starts to experiment with what he has been led to think is only a “girl” thing:

Bella and I take a look, and that’s when I see Ben. He’s leaping, spinning, and dancing around the lobby. He must have been watching the ballet class very closely through the window, because he seems almost good at it.

When the ballet coach remarks to mom about Ben’s natural talent, both plant the seed and give Ben space and time to think about becoming a ballet dancer. “OK,” he says.

Meanwhile, Lola’s Peruvian mom and Bella’s Mexican mom are becoming fast friends, as are Lola and Bella. And, when Lola discovers how her own quick thinking and a ballet move can destroy the opposing team’s attempt at a goal, well, that’s it. The moms’ ballet scheme has worked and the two girls find, as Lola muses, “just because we’re friends doesn’t mean we have to do everything the same, right?”

Dominguez’s grayscale interior illustrations, begun with loose pencil sketches and digitally finalized, beautifully maintain the ethnic similarities and differences within Lola’s own family and among her friends, teachers, and schoolmates.

But her cover art—just wow! Rendered in pencil with tissue paper on illustration board and finished with digital color, here are Lola and Bella, standing back-to-back, facing the reader and slightly turned toward each other, smiling widely. Bella is wearing a pink ballerina outfit and holding a soccer ball, while Lola is wearing a pink tutu over her soccer uniform. Here are two Latina children—one Peruvian and one Mexican. They have different skin tones and different facial features and are not, in any way, caricatured. How rare and real and beautiful and affirming is that?

Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme is an easy-to-read, smart, funny and affirming story that challenges socially established gender roles in an age-specific way that will especially resonate with young readers who feel—or actually are—marginalized by these norms. It’s not only a typically fast-paced “Lola” story but an important one as well. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/6/17)

Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean // Lola Levine and the Vacation Dream

Are you ready, world? Lola Levine is back! Lola Esther Levine, our energetic, super-smart, opinionated, eye-rolling, list-making, diario-keeping, not mean, Peruvian-Catholic-Jewish drama queen—is a second-grader who loves soccer, swimming, and climbing trees—and abhors the color pink. Oh, and she super-dislikes making sure that her kindergartner brother, Ben, doesn’t run off and create havoc the moment she turns her back. Which happens a lot.

author: Monica Brown 
illustrator: Angela Dominguez 
Little, Brown (2017)
grades 1-3 
Peruvian American

In Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean, Lola’s journalist-mom and artist-dad have agreed that now that school has let out for the summer, it might be a good time to welcome a new family member—and the long-awaited kitty-cat countdown begins! There’s so much to do, including a mom-guided library visit to find out everything there is to know about cats, and a dad-guided plan to develop and construct a cat play structure. Finally, the big day arrives and there’s no question about which kitty is coming home from the shelter: Jelly Levine.

But when Lola discovers that Ben is allergic to cats, both children find out that lying is never okay. Rather than return Jelly to the shelter, they sadly agree to search for a new home for her. The problem is resolved as Lola’s super best friend’s mother, aka Principal Blot, agrees to adopt Jelly as a second cat and Lola gets to visit whenever she wants to. And, as Lola begins to think that things couldn’t get better, dad and Ben have been visiting the shelter and come home with the family’s new puppy—whom they have named “Bean” (in honor of “Jelly.”)

Lola’s exuberant and imaginative narratives, which include information-rich diario entries, letters,  and conversations—as well as the questioning of everything—will totally engage young readers. Here, during swim lessons,

[W]e spend each lesson practicing different strokes—today we focus on the backstroke and the breaststroke. I like the breaststroke because I imagine I’m a frog swimming in a swamp looking for flies and insects to eat. I also dog-paddle in the water and ask the teacher why there isn’t a cat paddle or a cat-stroke. She doesn’t have an answer for me.

Dominguez’s appealing gray-scaled illustrations beautifully reflect the ethnic mix of the community’s children and adults, as well as Lola's and Ben's mixed parentage: While Lola’s straight dark hair and brownish complexion more resemble Mom’s, younger brother Ben’s light curly hair and fair complexion look more like Dad’s. I especially like the scenes where all are together.

author: Monica Brown 
illustrator: Angela Dominguez 
Little, Brown (2017)
grades 1-3 
Peruvian American

In Lola Levine and the Vacation Dream, dad has sold lots of his paintings at an art show so the Levine family gets to visit “fun and awesome” Tía Lola—Lola’s namesake and “favorite aunt in the whole wide world”—who lives in Lima, Peru. Lola’s teacher, Ms. García, assigns her to write a couple of short reports about Peru—which is great because writing is Lola’s thing. Plus, Lola will “get to speak Spanish all day!”

Here, young readers will find lots of well-placed information, seamlessly incorporated into the story. For instance, in one of Lola’s reports, young readers will encounter the great Quechua archeologist, Julio César Tello; and in others, she writes about fútbol, llamas, and Pachacamac (the Temple of the Sun).

While Lola questions, for instance, why students wear uniforms and why the school has a dirt field rather than a big playground with grass, the fact that she’s bilingual is a matter of her upbringing, so there are no inappropriate “fish-out-of-water” scenarios here. Rather, Brown presents the information in a way that works for young readers without disrupting the flow:

“Welcome to the class, Lola,” he says in Spanish. “I’m Mr. Sanchez.”

One of the students says, “Hola, Lola!” and then everyone starts saying it. I like the way it sounds.

“Where are you from”? a girl asks in Spanish. “The United States,” I reply.

However, the fact that the Spanish words and terms in Lola’s narrative are unnecessarily italicized breaks the rhythm. Note to publishers and editors:  Please italicize words and phrases—including foreign terms—only if they’re supposed to be emphasized. And  in the case of “Hola, Lola!” the greeting should have begun with an initially inverted exclamation mark so it would look like this: “¡Hola, Lola!”

As Lola and her family eat Peruvian mangoes, tour the Mercado Indio, pet llamas, climb the Temple of the Sun, and see other palaces and pyramids, young readers will also discover how many zeros are in ten million (the population of Lima), the national colors of Peru, the history of fútbol, and the local historic spaces.

Mom’s and Tía Lola’s discussion of the Temple of the Sun (with Lola and Ben) is, for the most part, excellent:

Mom: “There have been indigenous peoples living in Peru for over eleven thousand years. But around five hundred years ago, Europeans from Spain came and wanted to conquer the indigenous peoples and take their gold and use their land.”

Tía Lola: “But even though many died, and the Spanish destroyed this temple and stole the gold, indigenous people are strong, and we found ways to survive. We’re still here.”

Lola: “We’re smart and creative people,” I say, and I feel proud that I am Peruvian.

However, there was an opportunity lost here. The Inca, who built Pachacamac and other sacred structures, chose these sites for astrological reasons. It was the center of their world. Rather than referring to these sites, throughout the story, as “ruins”—which is colonialist language created to lessen their power—we should be teaching their existence as ongoing history. These amazing stone structures, like the people, are still here.

In this story, Lola could have referred to the Temple of the Sun as a “ruin”—because that’s how she may have heard it described—and Tía Lola could have explained that, although it looks like a “ruin,” it’s actually a temple, one of many holy places that have, despite the efforts of the Spanish conquistadores to destroy them, endured.

The morning after the family returns home, Lola finds a surprise. Not another trip to Peru, but a breakfast of bagels from Biff’s; and from the new grocery store, “a big bowl of delicious mangos that glow yellow, orange, and red. (Lola reads) the sticker on one of them and it says GROWN IN PERU.”

Except for the lost opportunity in describing Pachacamac, Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean and Lola Levine and the Vacation Dream are absolutely delightful and highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/2/17)

All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon

author: Tim Z. Hernández
University of Arizona Press (2017)
grades 9-up 

The crops are all in and the peaches are rottnin’ 
The oranges are piled in yer creosote dumps
Yer flyin’ em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be…deportee.

Ever since the Great Depression, the US has had a “revolving door” policy tied to its capitalist economy. When the economy starts to pick up, the door opens to immigration as a source of cheap labor; and when times get tough—immigrants (“illegals”) are the first to be blamed, rounded up and deported.[1]

In 1942, with increased demands for production, the US and Mexico initiated the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican “guest” workers to US agricultural fields in California and Texas. This program was immensely profitable for the large growers, who used it to thwart unionizing efforts and drive down wages of all agricultural workers.[2] By the autumn of 1947, soon after World War II ended, Mexican labor became dispensable, and more than 600,000 were rounded up and sent back to Mexico—even though many were US citizens.

On a cold winter morning on January 28, 1948, a plane crash at Los Gatos, California—what was then called “the worst airplane disaster in California’s history”—claimed the lives of 32 passengers, including 28 Mexican agricultural workers.[3] At the time of their deaths, these Mexican citizens were in the process of being deported by the US government.

Within a few days of the crash, the members of the flight crew had been identified and their remains collected and returned to their families and communities. But the Mexican citizens on board remained anonymous—and newspaper stories for that day referred to them only as “deportees.” When their charred remains were interred in an unmarked mass grave in the Central Valley, the records of Holy Cross Cemetery identified each person simply as a “Mexican National.”

Just a few days after the tragedy, on February 3, the great Woody Guthrie, protesting the anonymity of these farm workers and their tragic deaths, penned a poem entitled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” Guthrie’s poem later became a song and, through the years, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen have brought it to wide audiences.

Inspired by the song and motivated by his dying grandfather’s memories of life as a campesino—and with a combination of dogged journalistic spirit and empathy, heart and Chicanismo—Hernández set out to uncover the family stories of these passengers. The search, he writes, “required traveling six decades back in time, to numerous cities, ranchos, and barrios, in three countries, three languages, with limited resources, and only a single shred of old newspaper as the clue.” Hernández was eventually able to locate the families of seven of the “anonymous” agricultural workers who perished in the crash. Here, readers—told from the beginning when and how these campesinos would meet their tragic deaths—come to know them as real people with families, friends and communities; real people with impossibly difficult lives and also with loves and passions and dreams.

Major sections—“The Witnessing,” “The Stories” and “They’re Flyin’ ‘em Back,”—begin with a line from the song, and readers will find as well several aged, almost unrecognizable black-and-white family photos mixed in. Together, this approach effectively sets each telling into a time and place, and encourages readers to want to learn more.

These engaging, sometimes heartbreaking stories are circular and multilayered. Often beginning decades after the tragedy with a relative’s memory told contemporaneously, Hernández’s own recreations connect the tellings and take them back in time. Here, Ramón, as a young man about to head north, stops at the community’s ejido:

The whispers of birds in the nearby bushes could be heard. In the perfect silence of the evening, Ramón looked across the ejido and could almost envision the well. He could see the glistening rows of water and hear the infinite trickling of a stream. It was the sound of (the community’s) success. His own success. He could see the corn growing to unfathomable heights, garbanzos as large as fists. The fertile earth a shade of red, umber, its scent wafting like a sash across his chest. There was only one choice. As much as he hated to admit it, el Norte was the only solution.

With the community depending on him, Ramón tells his wife: “Necesito ir pa’l Norte…. I have to, mi amor. It’s the only choice.”

Above all, the narratives—what the relatives wanted to tell—are stories of humanity and kindness. Here, Jaime tells of how he remembers his uncle, Guadalupe:

“My uncle was a very tall man, and oftentimes, when he would go, he would cross el Río Bravo, and he would help the women and children cross by carrying them on his back, or on his shoulders. Yes, my uncle did that, and people knew him for that. How he would help people cross.”

As they read the events on the day of the tragedy—interspersed with recollectionns from before—readers will have become familiar with, not only the campesinos themselves, but also their families and communities. Early that morning, for instance, Luis is looking at Casimira’s photograph and is excited about their upcoming wedding. It’s forty-one degrees in downtown San Francisco, and the passengers are boarding the bus that will take them across the Bay Bridge toward Oakland. When they arrive at the Oakland Municipal Airport, a member of the flight crew instructs them: “Formen una sola linea, por favor.”

A light gust of wind blew José Sánchez Valdivia’s baseball cap off his head, and he scooped it up before it had a chance to go skipping down the tarmac…. Everyone made small talk to pass the time…. The air was frigid still, and María huddled against her husband, Lupe. Ramón and Guadalupe spoke of plans for the ejido, and how it would be nice to return home again…

The family members’ tellings, in all their intimacy and love, are beautiful to read—all the more so because we know how these stories end. The events before, during and after the crash, in all their minute detail, are painful to read, but high school students will gain an empathetic perspective, the scope of which they may never have experienced before.

While these family tellings maintain the loving intimacy of relatives, friends and communities, Hernández’s journalistic perspective places readers into the picture that’s generally seen only in headlines or sanitized stories. With detail as important as the family stories, he writes, for instance, about the degradation of the fitness evaluations—which he calls the “bracero entrance exam”—that guaranteed that only those who were fit enough to be field laborers, yet “would not look to raise trouble” were deemed capable of enduring life as braceros in el Norte. 

It was not until 1989—more than 40 years after the tragedy—that Jaime Ramírez, carrying with him a newspaper clipping from 1974, which had a list of those who had been killed in the crash—was able to find the unmarked gravesite where his grandfather, Ramon Paredes and uncle, Guadalupe Ramírez Lara, were buried. He showed the list to Hernández in 2013, and gave him an audiotape of Woody Guthrie’s song. “Had it not been for the song,” Hernández writes, “I would’ve never known about the plane crash in the first place. The song, by all definitions, was the beacon.”

There is much more to All They Will Call You, including stories of the flight crew members; Hernández’s interview with Pete Seeger; the story of a troubled young man named Marty Hoffman, who wrote the music; an account of the day of the memorial headstone celebration; photographs of the author with some of the families; and a long, long list of acknowledgements.

Hernández’s Field Notes (2012-2015) begins with a section from “La Huesera” by Ire’ne Lara Silva:

…here, where the world is undone, and their bodies are remade, their spirits rise in star-flecked spirals. The pooling blood runs backwards, their splintered hearts come together. I know all their names. I will call them, and they will come…

In All They Will Call You, Hernández transforms his tape recorder into a tool for gathering stories. “While the telling itself is true,” he writes, “its loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory…. In this way, it’s inevitable that some rememberings will contradict other rememberings…. In this case, perception is truth.”

There is no pretense of objectivity here, nor should there be. Trusting in the multiple rememberings and perceptions of the tellers here—rather than attempting to sift out or retell one “truth” of a story—is the mark of a brilliant advocacy journalist.

Indeed, All They Will Call You is intense and compassionate, and places teen readers into the stories and struggles that have at least as much meaning today as they did almost seven decades ago. And together, they serve as a model for readers considering a career in the kind of journalism that speaks truths about power.

Especially now, in these dark and dangerous times, it’s important for readers to know the “deportees,” how hard they worked and shared with their communities. They were disrespected in life, and in death, they were just tossed away. All They Will Call You is a humbling book that honors and memorializes these “deportees” and all the humble people whose backbreaking work puts food on our tables. To say the least, it’s major Pulitzer Prize material.

Miguel Alvarez Negrete ¡Presente! Francisco Durán Llamas ¡Presente!
Santiago Elizondo García ¡Presente! Tomás Gracia de Aviña ¡Presente!
Salvador Hernández Sandoval ¡Presente! Severo Lara Medina ¡Presente!
Tomás Márquez Padilla ¡Presente! Luis Medina López ¡Presente!
Manuel Merino Calderón ¡Presente! Martín Navarri Razo ¡Presente!
Ramón Ochoa Ochoa ¡Presente! Ramón Paredes González ¡Presente!
Alberto Carlos Raygoza ¡Presente! Guadalupe Rodríguez Hernández ¡Presente!
María Rodríguez Santana ¡Presente! José Sánchez Valdivia ¡Presente!
Jesús Santos Meza ¡Presente!Baldomero Marcos Torres ¡Presente!
Bernabé García López ¡Presente! Rosalio Estrada Padilla ¡Presente!
Juan Ruiz Valenzuela ¡Presente! Elias Macías Trujillo ¡Presente!
José Macias Rodriguez ¡Presente! Wenceslao Ruiz Flores ¡Presente!
Ignacio Navarro Pérez ¡Presente! Luis Miranda Cuevas ¡Presente!
Apolonio Placencia Ramírez ¡Presente! Guadalupe Ramírez Lara ¡Presente!

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/26/17; revised last four paragraphs, 4/28/17)

[1] An excellent source of historical information is 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures by Elizabeth (“Betita”) Martinez, reviewed on this site.

[2] See also The Bracero Program: 1942-1964 by Sarah Hines, http:///www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/21/the-bracero-program-1942-1964/

[3] This is the number that was officially recorded; there may have been as many as 39 Mexican passengers on board.

Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer! / Esteban de Luna, ¡rescatador de bebés!

author: Larissa M. Mercado-López
illustrator: Alex Pardo DeLange
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press (2017) 
preschool-grade 3 

Esteban, an active little boy who appears to be about five, dreams about becoming a superhero. In fact, he wears his long, green cape “that ripples like a flag on windy afternoons” every day and everywhere: “He wears it to breakfast. He wears it to the park. He wears it to the doctor’s office. He even wears it to the supermarket.” Esteban’s problem, though, is that his cape is not magic and doesn’t do anything special. In fact, it doesn’t do anything at all. It’s just a cape. Well, this is not good, and youngest listeners and readers might expect that, somehow, Esteban’s cape will change in some way to infuse him with superpowers.

But it doesn’t. Totally bummed out, Esteban tries to sell it, but no one wants to buy an ordinary green cape that does nothing.  One day, while Esteban plays at the park with his mom and little sister Lola, he sees an abandoned baby doll, all alone on the swing. As a sudden storm causes them to run for shelter, Esteban looks back at the doll and decides he must rescue her. So he does. Tying her snugly in his cape, which now takes on an additional function, Esteban jumps puddles and walks under the bus stop shelter to keep his doll dry.

As he takes on the responsibility—a big deal for a five-year-old—of taking his doll everywhere and keeping her protected by his cape so that she stays clean, his parents look on approvingly but don’t say anything. Esteban has become “Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer!” And that’s the big deal about this story that places a little boy’s gentleness in the center of what’s often left out of a story about “heroism” and “superpowers.”

That this family is bilingual is subtly demonstrated. Here, for instance, just before a trip to the park:

“Let’s go to the park!” says their mom.
“¡Parque!" cheers Lola.

And the Spanish reads:

            —¡Vamos al parque!—dice su mamá.
            —¡Park!—celebra Lola.

DeLange’s expressive digitally enhanced mixed media illustrations on paper follow the action and capture the moods of a warm, loving Latinx family. Rendered in mostly watercolors and ink on a palette featuring bright yellows, greens and blues, the art centers on young Esteban’s dilemma and its resolution, and features toddler Lola’s nonstop activity, pregnant mom’s expert balancing act, and dad’s calm sharing of a story with the children. Young readers’ eyes will also locate Esteban’s cape, Chico the puppy, and later the doll, on almost every page, and adults may notice that dad suspiciously resembles Clark Kent.

The English text is simple and evocative, and the ever-talented Baeza Ventura never skips a beat in her rhythmic, storytelling Spanish interpretation. For instance, while Mercado-López’ story describes Esteban’s futile attempt to sell his cape this way:

Esteban makes a sign and sits in his front yard one morning.
“Cape for sale!" he shouts. He sits. And sits. And sits. No luck.

Baeza Ventura’s interpretation holds the same emotion in a slightly different conversational tone that centers hablantes without confusing English readers who want to learn Spanish:

Una mañana, Esteban hace un letrero y se sienta en el jardín de enfrente.
—¡Se vende una capa!—grita. Espera. Y espera. Y espera. Nada.

The unstated message in this lovely little picture book—for the youngest hablantes as well as those who are bilingual or English-only speakers—might be that the concept of “boys will be boys” (whatever that meant, once upon a time) is finally being changed, and that kindness, caring, love and compassion are not gender-specific. Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer! / Esteban de Luna, ¡rescatador de bebés! is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/20/17)

Little Doctor / El doctorcito

author: Juan J. Guerra
illustrator: Victoria Castillo 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press (2017)
kindergarten-grade 3 
Salvadoran American

Guerra, who is an ob-gyn physician in Oakland and co-founder of Salud en Español, a clinic for the Spanish-speaking community, conceived of and wrote this quasi-autobiographical story to encourage children who are bilingual to think about entering the medical profession. Unfortunately, The Little Doctor / El doctorcito is fractured and contrived, and does little to communicate this valuable message to young readers.

Ten-year-old Salvador has just earned an A+ on his fourth-grade science test, and rushes home to celebrate with his abuelita, who greets him with a request that he accompany her to the community clinic in order to help her “speak English” (translate for her). The child enthusiastically welcomes the chance to help his abuelita, telling her on the way that he wants to become a doctor.

At the community clinic, which has an inexplicably long line of people who are “coughing, moaning, and fussing,” several are crying and a woman is angrily shushing her screaming daughter. Salvador comforts a woman who is crying, and, when it’s finally their turn, he tells the health care worker at the desk that his grandmother is here for a checkup and asks for a doctor who speaks Spanish. There is none, and he realizes that “everything (is) now up to him.”

In the examining room, Abuelita is frightened (“Salvador, don’t leave me!”), insisting that her young grandson remain with her while she changes into a robe. And, as the door bangs open, in rushes a white, gray-haired, crazed-looking doctor, who not only appears rude, he’s downright mean. With papers flying all around, he barks at Salvador:

“Tell your grandmother her blood pressure is high. She needs to stop eating so much Mexican food and eat more fruits and vegetables. And she needs to take medicine.”

Then he storms out the door, slamming it behind him.

First, no responsible physician would instruct a young child to translate and explain a serious medical condition such as “high blood pressure” to a parent or grandparent; this is something the child might not understand and would probably not have the vocabulary to translate, not to mention explain. And second, this racist, reality-challenged doctor—who assumes that all Spanish-speaking people are Mexican, grandma doesn’t eat any fruits or vegetables but she eats too much Mexican food (all of which is unhealthful), nor does she take medicine—loudly instructs this child to disrespect his own grandmother.

Moreover, in Abuelita’s case, a doctor or nurse would be likely to find out why she has high blood pressure: Do other family members have high blood pressure? What’s her diet like? Is she taking other medications? Does she exercise? But the over-the-top behavior of this doctor is beyond the pale and confusing to young readers, especially to young Latinx readers.

While Salvador responds to the doctor’s assumption that the family is Mexican, he doesn’t question any of the other assumptions. Of course, as a young child, he wouldn’t; but again, the child reader will be confused. This failure, along with many others, is built into the story.

Depending on necessity and circumstance, people in El Salvador often see both physicians and curanderas. But readers at first learn that, whenever Abuela felt ill in El Salvador, she saw a curandera or drank herbal tea. And later, an upset Abuelita remembers, “Salvadoran doctors listen. They want to know about you and how your family is. In El Salvador, the doctors really care for their patients!” This “either-or” rather than “both” paradigm is confusing as well.

Salvador’s experience in this overcrowded clinic in which there are no Spanish-speakers is now convinced that he has found his life’s path. Abuelita’s young translator now assures her that he will never take her to see another abusive doctor like the one they’ve just encountered “ever again.” And his parents remind him that he’ll have to “work very hard” to bring his dream to reality.

And, that night, as he goes to sleep:

[He] imagined the amazing journey of becoming a doctor, wondering about mysterious and marvelous places like college and medical school.

He envisioned a world with doctors who looked like him and spoke English and Spanish.

Knowing that his magical adventure would begin the very next day, Salvador drifted off to asleep [sic].

Doctors practice all over the world, and in many places, people see both traditional healers and physicians. While years ago, medical translators were nonexistent or rare, most clinics now employ both medical professionals and translators who speak the languages of the communities. But there are some cases in which a translator may be unavailable, and this story could have been about not having enough Spanish-speaking doctors, but that’s way different than Salvador’s situation.

It's clear that Castillo is a talented illustrator and comic artist. In a different story, her vibrant, cartoonish art, in pen and ink and digital watercolor on a bright palette of mostly reds and oranges, would shine through and easily capture a young child's imagination. But here, they are discomfiting exaggerations of what might have been tender scenarios in which young Salvador is translating and being generally helpful. For instance, in a scene where he is helping a nurse who is assisting a patient in a wheelchair, the nurse is smiling at Salvador rather than looking where she is going, shielding her patient from the rain by holding an open umbrella under her left arm and struggling to steer the wheelchair with her left hand while also struggling to keep a heavy door open with her right hand. Salvador is opening the other heavy door for her. This kind of problem may have been typical more than 20 years ago, but today, most hospitals and clinics are equipped with wheelchair ramps and automatic doors.

There are many stories that could have been—and should be—written about real situations involving children’s translating or interpreting for family members. And there are many positive potential scenarios about children’s desires to become community physicians and how these desires might be encouraged. This could have been a story about something positive happening that convinces a child to want to become a doctor.

Finally, “doctorcito” is a Spanglish word, an endearing term for a child who may have demonstrated his skills of doctoring, such as taking care of a sick puppy or changing the dressing on a kitten’s paw, or even reminding his grandma to take her medicine on time. But here, our young protagonist is a translator, a helper—but not a “doctorcito.” 

Baeza Ventura’s excellent Spanish translation, in many cases, reads better than the English text. For instance, an English passage reads: “Salvador knew that everything was now up to him,” and Baeza Ventura’s translation reads: “Salvador sabía que todo estaba en sus manos.” But it’s not enough to save this story. Rather, The Little Doctor / El doctorcito is a stereotypic mishmash with lots of contradictions and distractions and little to recommend.

—María Cárdenas
(published 4/6/17; revised 4/10/17)

Education of Margot Sanchez

author: Lilliam Rivera 
Simon & Schuster (2017)
grades 7-up 
Puerto Rican

In the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, Margot had been looking forward to carefree days in the Hamptons with her new private-school friends, Serena and Camille. But their pressure for her to look the upper class part leads her to charge $600 on her father’s credit card and now she’s been forced to spend her summer vacation working in one of the family’s “two sad-looking supermarkets in the Bronx” to pay back the debt. “Papi is delusional,” Margot says, “if he thinks I’ll stay locked up in this depressing grocery world.” 

Margot’s parents, coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico and now living in the upper middle class enclave of Riverdale (“Rich Adjacent,” as Margo calls it), want her to appreciate how hard they’ve worked. But Margot resents their strict rules about whom she can and cannot befriend, as well as the sexism that allows her older brother to get away with so much more while still inheriting the family business.

Margot’s summer of quiet rebellion leads her into the arms of Moises, a former drug user turned community organizer, of whom she naïvely muses: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and sign his petition when social justice and a side of seduction are being served?” But she cannot show her true self to him, any more than she can show it to Serena, Camille, and blond heartthrob Nick, whom she dreams of seeing at the end of the summer—if her parents let her off for good behavior. Under the surface, though, the entire Sanchez façade is beginning to crack, as a cashier training Margot turns up pregnant, Junior loses weight and has mood swings, and Mom cleans house through it all.

Margot, whose self-centered behavior has landed her the summer at the grocery store, struggles to see the world through others’ eyes. She blames her former best friend Elizabeth for dumping her, but Elizabeth, who now attends a public high school for the arts, turns out to be there for Margot—with a dose of tough love—when Serena and Camille vanish. Elizabeth, Moises, and cashierista Jasmine ultimately are the ones who educate Margot in the complexities of race, gender, and class that she has blithely ignored in her pursuit of social status. Her questioning herself is a painful process; for instance, she compares herself to Moises:

How does he do it? He’s had a rough childhood, from what Jasmine told me, yet that doesn’t stop him from always lending a hand. How does a person go from dealing drugs to pulling weeds? Maybe some people are born good no matter their circumstances. What if I was born to be selfish?

Lilliam Rivera’s debut novel is funny and wise. It places the reader in the middle of a gentrifying Bronx, seeing the changes from the point of view of a family whose business is threatened by the Trader Joes and Whole Foods that the new residents welcome. Yet the Sanchezes are not innocent either, as they look down on the struggling residents of the neighborhoods that their supermarkets serve. Like Renee Watson’s excellent 2015 novel This Side of Home, The Education of Margot Sanchez raises questions about urban space and class for which there are no pat answers. Along with this broader theme is a compelling story about a teenage girl caught between the image she is supposed to present and the person she wants to become. The Education of Margot Sanchez is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 3/18/17)

A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission. 

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth

author: Cathy Camper
illustrator: Raúl the Third (González)
Chronicle Books (2016) 
grades 4-up 
Mexican American

Take any of your favorite Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” add some random Saturday morning cartoons and a scene or two from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” and toss in some Cantínflas, a little “El Chavo del Ocho,” and a telenovela played at double-speed. What you get doesn’t even approximate Cathy Camper’s and Raúl the Third’s high-octane, hyperbolic, over-the-top punny graphic novel for children and everyone else, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.

In Camper’s and González’s first collaboration, Lowriders in Space, our three amigos—Lupe Impala (ace mechanic extraordinaire), El Chavo Flapjack Octopus (the washcloth-wielding dynamo), and Elirio Malaría (the prime detailer with a bill as steady as a surgeon’s hand)—rebuilt their wreck of a Chevy (“so slow it didn’t even go”) into a lowrider (“the most mechanically inventive, exquisitely detailed car in the universe, with powers gleaned from the galaxy!”) and won the (literally) Universal Car Contest. With the prize money, they were able to buy their own garage, “Bajito y Suavecito,” and became independent from their tyrannical boss. But. At the end of this first volume, their beloved gatito, Genie, frightened by several earthquakes, has disappeared, and Flappy (and the rest of us) see another giant adventure on the horizon….

The three amigos’ adventures continue in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, just after Genie has gone missing. Gone is Genie, who loved it when Flappy sang to him. Gone is Genie, who purred soniditos while Elirio painted. Gone is Genie, who kneaded tortillas on Lupe’s belly until she fell asleep. So the three amigos get into their retro-nuevo super-ranfla—bajito y suavecito—and, following the trail of gatito paw prints, embark on the mero-mero of all road trips.

Their first encounter is a bad-guy character based in contemporary reality. He is the amigos’ “guide,” the serape- and sombrero-wearing Coyote, who looks somewhat like the “Big Bad Wolf” of Saturday morning cartoons—and who confuses the amigos and leaves them stranded in the desert, as do many of the human smugglers (“coyotes”) hired by desperate people attempting to cross over from Mexico and Central America.

After having been deserted by Coyote, the amigos follow the lead of a colony of bats, journey through a gigantic maíz maze, cross the railroad tracks, traverse a field of boulders, and head into a huge volcano. They encounter, among others: the fearsome ghost, La Llorona (who, they say, wanders the Earth, crying, “¿Dónde están mis bebés?” and grabs up children to replace her own), whom Camper and González have morphed into a sad kitty-cat with great big anime eyes that rain great big blue tears all over her umbrella-patterned dress. And El Chupacabra, the dog-like monster who feeds mainly on the blood of goats and other livestock, appears to have a special taste for Lupe (who is, after all, a ruminant mammal).

But the main bad guy—even worse than Coyote—is Mictlantecuhtli, the hulking, spine-chilling Aztec god—who captures creatures in his great corn maze and forces them to inhabit Mictlan. Here, he becomes el mero-mero, the rudo of all rudos in the Realm of the Dead’s lucha libre ring, swiftly transforming all who dare challenge him into piles of skeletons and whose eyeballs he wears around his neck. In a super-bout that challenges the very lives of los téchnicos Lupe, Flappy and Elirio (not to mention Genie)—their combined technical skills and brainpower, deep affection for each other, and ability to work as a team make for the emotionally best, most satisfying (and kind of unexpected) lucha libre finale ever (followed by a huge Día de los Muertos pachanga, in which La Llorona sings the beautiful, heart-rending ballad, “Cielito Lindo”).

Written in English with over-the-top puns and other wordplays and illustrations that effortlessly and appropriately incorporate Spanish and Caló, both the first and second titles ingeniously hold the attention of adults and are way silly enough to attract reluctant readers.

A few from Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, including this “knock-knock” encuentro:

Lupe: “Have you seen our cat?”
Coyote: “Knock-knock.”
Lupe: “Who’s there?”
Coyote: “Señor.”
Lupe: “Señor who?”
Coyote: “Señor gato? I don’t think so.”

Then there are Flappy’s malapropisms; here, the names for rock formations—“big dumb ignoramus rocks,” “sedentary rocks…like napping at the beach,” and one of my favorites, and I hope one of yours, “metaphoric rocks, the building blocks of poets everywhere”—which are accompanied by depictions of their correct names (carved out of the giant rocks themselves) and ten-second (at most) geology lessons about weathering and the erosion of rock formations.

There are also short “units” about technology, such as the mechanics of a swamp cooler—“hecho en un pantano”—and the wonders of electromagnetic coils, which, when combined with hydraulics, become powerful enough to make the lowrider “hip and hop, dip and drop,” freeing up the tires so the amigos can escape from the worst monsters in the Underworld.

And, spoiler alert: Genie’s rescue is super-special.

González’s art, in traditional Chicana/o doodling form with the time-honored red, blue and black Bic® pens (this time adding green) on what appears to be brown paper grocery bags stained with coffee, uses cross-hatched, stamped and spiraled patterns mixed with papeles picados and other designs as they happen to occur to him. A master doodler, González gives readers, in no particular order and for no discernable reason, a bunch of fun things to look at. Here, for instance, readers may find a hitchhiking Mexican Kilroy (yes, he was here), a jackalope, a gnome, cuddly bears, Olmec heads that appear to be rudos, Cheech and Chong, and a tiny raven among the crows (warning “nunca más”).

Although all of his flat-out silly illustrations will appeal to hablantes and English-speakers alike, González saves the most exciting, and by far, the most engaging ones for the mega-bust up on the last few pages, which readers of all ages will want to scrutinize over and over. González certainly ought to receive a Pura Belpré Prize for Traditional Mexican Illustration.

In Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Camper and González ramp up their hyper-silliness to the level of a Roadrunner cartoon. Something goes wrong, the three amigos fall off a cliff, and the next thing is they’re having yet another adventure. I look forward to seeing the next in this series, maybe a prequel. Who are the three amigos and how did this inter-species trio get together? We know that Lupe, who runs the show, is an adult. And zoot-suit-wearing Elirio is probably a young man. Flappy, al otro mano, is less mature and the others look out for him. Is he a child or just childlike? Are they all roomies or is there a deeper relationship, sort of like with Bert and Ernie? Will we ever find out?

As in their first collaboration, Camper’s hilarious story and González’s ultra-detailed artwork encourage children to develop their imaginations and appropriate suspension of disbelief. Chicana/o children in particular, besides appreciating the cultural and linguistic references that are part of their everyday lives, may be encouraged to see Caló as poetic and beautiful as “regular” Spanish and that great Chicana/o art doesn’t need expensive stuff to produce. As well, children who are not Chicana/o (or who may not even speak or understand Spanish) will find a lot to learn about and enjoy, and unstated lessons both in the text and art. The story also works for teens and young adults as well, who will “get” some of the smart and funny references and nuanced word play on just about every page. For everyone, perhaps the most important thing they will find here is that community trumps individuality.

Pull-quote: “Lowriders to the Center of the Earth—a delightful, hilarious, exciting, culturally-driven collection of textual wordplay and artful doodles—is must reading for every age, ethnicity, gender and species! It’s the best hyperbole-driven graphic novel in the world!”

—Beverly Slapin
(published 2/7/17)