Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Book 1: Rise of the Halfling King

author: David Bowles

illustrator: Charlene Bowles

Cinco Puntos Press, 2020

grades 3-7 (Mayan)

For millennia, Indigenous elders have transmitted histories and their teachings through story. In many of the teachings the lessons are inferred rather than directly stated. The objective is to tell an interesting story that would engage listeners in an enjoyable way. The story stays with them longer and the lesson in the story might be discovered later. Traditional stories are interesting, engaging and memorable. And when written or drawn, the depth of meaning is still there. “Graphic novels”—when done well—engage the eyes and the mind at the same time. And the presence of the storyteller, which was always visual, remains in the graphic novel.

Some two thousand years before the Spanish conquest, the Mayan peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula developed a hieroglyphic script to record their stories and histories with words and images. It’s not much of a stretch to see these codices—most of which the Spanish conquistadores burned—as the forerunners of today’s graphic novels.

In Tales of the Feathered Serpent, David Bowles translates traditional Yucatec Mayan stories and gifts them to young adult readers. Now, in Rise of the Halfling King—the first of ten graphic novels, each based on a story in Tales of the Feathered Serpent—he transmits some of this millennia-old traditional lore in a way that’s accessible to younger readers, and, accompanied by Charlene Bowles’ vibrant art, shapes these stories into another part of the same experience.

Trained to become a curandera since she was a young girl, apprentice witch Almah is beloved by her community for her goodness and kindness and ability to call down the gentle rain. Time passes, and although nearby Uxmal had not had a king for a hundred years, the aluxes—“mystic elfin beings who wield great magic to protect nature”—select Almah to receive a magic stone and a drum that will “announce the true king of Uxmal.” As the villainous Kinich Kak Ek is enthroned, his chief advisor, the sorcerer Zaatan Ik, announces that “no man born of a woman can usurp” his sovereignty and that when a “kingmaker” drum sounds, his rival must be given the opportunity to take the throne by overcoming three challenges.

Uneasy with the sorcerer’s prophesy, (partly because he mistranslates “not born of a woman” as “not born”), the king conquers the surrounding cities and establishes a barbarously cruel empire. 

Out of fear of the king and his priests, the community shuns Almah. Lonely and wandering in the hills, she finds an unusual egg, which she takes home and places near the hearth, by the “kingmaker drum” that she had hidden. When a little boy—a “halfling” secretly gifted to Almah by the aluxes—emerges, Almah adopts him as her grandson, names him Sayam, and as he grows (but not as much as other young people), she teaches him “green magic and the sacred prayers that call down gentle showers in spring.” And she realizes that he’s destined to be king.

Under Almah’s tutelage and through her unconditional love, the brave and reckless young Sayam matures and begins to understand what it is to be a leader with a sense of duty to his people. He also learns earth magic, how to read the “ancient books”—the sacred Mayan codices—and works with the Bobatil Ju’un, the Book of Prophecy. These are important skills he will need when it comes time to fulfill his prophecy—to defeat Kinich Kat Ek and assume the throne.

Throughout this gripping, fast-moving plot—which includes Sayam’s defeating a serpent from the underworld that aims to devour the people’s beloved dead—Bowles seamlessly weaves in references to Mayan philosophy, ethics and traditions. As well, he embeds, in heavy, bold type, the incantations that Almah, Sayam, and others utilize in the Yucatec Mayan language. And he sprinkles into the dialogue present-day phrases and thoughts, such as when Sayam apologizes to some of the dead ancestors for having to unwrap them: “Sorry, old ones, I need a diversion” (to get the serpent’s attention).

Charlene Bowles’ expressive digital art seamlessly melds strong, dynamic lines typical of the ancient drawings with modern comic-book “speech balloons” and text boxes. Her organized panels provide clarity for the dialogue or narration and, at the same time, the large ones offer visuals to emphasize specific moments. 

Throughout, her varying palettes tie into the story’s environment and what’s happening at a particular time. For instance, the forested areas overlay greens, the darker environments are mostly blues and purples, the outside kingdom locations feature more reds and teals, and the inside scenes where the rulers plot to keep themselves in power are dark and foreboding browns.

It’s a brilliant idea to present Mesoamerican traditional literatures as “graphic novels” for young people because they’re essentially extensions of the ancient Mayan codices. As David Bowles writes: “Blending written words and images, comics and other sorts of graphica allow our brains to process stories more like our ancestors did.” Working together, the father-daughter team of David and Charlene Bowles have produced a remarkably illustrated, Mayan tradition-based story, seamlessly interwoven with comic-book action (wham! pow! bam! thud! klonk! thok! fwoosh! glorp!) And it’s not surprising that the two have pulled this off brilliantly. Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Book 1: Rise of the Halfling King will mesmerize middle-grade readers. It’s highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 1/7/21)

(Note: I was disappointed to learn that Cinco Puntos Press intends to bring in “various illustrators” for the remaining nine volumes of Tales of the Feathered Serpent. Young readers form visual connections with graphic novels, and the first in a series establishes the vision for the rest. Contracting with different artists who use different art styles is likely to destroy the vision and ruin the continuity. I would like to have seen consistency of the creative team across the series.—BHS)

My Big Sister // Mi hermana mayor

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Thelma Muraido

Piñata Publications / Arte Público Press (2012) 

preschool-grade 2 (Puerto Rican)

On the cover, a young boy offers his older sister a small bunch of flowers he has just picked along the road. His eyebrows are slightly raised as he looks up at her. As their hands meet, she accepts his gift with a smile. 

In this gentle, bilingual story that centers the loving relationship between young Pablito and his big sister, the child shows and tells young readers all that Anita does for him while their parents work in a factory, where they “sew jeans for the whole world.”

Throughout an ordinary day, Pablito is full of enthusiasm.

Anita wakes him up, and applauds while he ties his own shoes “with lightning speed.” After Pablito gobbles up his “hot, creamy oatmeal with raisons,” Anita walks him to the school bus, where she “plants a kiss” on his cheek and he greets the driver. After school, Anita sits with him as he does his homework; then they play a round of soccer with some neighborhood boys, come home and have dinner, and get ready for a nighttime story (which happens to be Monica Brown’s Clara y la curandera, illustrated by Thelma Muraida) and bed. After Pablito falls asleep, his parents return and praise Anita for taking care of him, “because,” as Pablito says, “¡ella es era hermana mayor que cualquier hermanito querría tener!” (“She is that big sister that any little brother would want to have!”)

In working class Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it’s common that both parents have to work at low-wage factories while older siblings care for the younger children. This is one way that they are allowed to demonstrate responsible behavior and it creates a strong family bond.

Since Pablito narrates his relationship with his big sister—his experiences—he doesn’t mention that Anita goes to school after she puts him on the bus and picks him up on her way back. However, young readers will notice that Anita carries two backpacks—the bigger one is hers and the smaller one belongs to Pablito. 

Anita has a lot of responsibilities, but they do not include cooking. Rather, at dinnertime, she and Pablito enjoy a delicious, nutritious, and traditional festín de sobras—a feast of leftovers. 

Caraballo is a talented storyteller and poet who composes first in Spanish and then in English. Since every Spanish-speaking culture or region has its own dialect, including local names for plants and animals, people’s names, and the ways in which words or phrases come together, Mi hermana mayor is full of Puerto Rican modismos. For instance, while Pablito picks “buttercups” for Anita, in Caraballo’s Puerto Rican Spanish they’re “botoncitos de oro”—little gold buttons. 

Muraida’s full-bleed, earth-toned pastel and colored pencil illustrations reflect the warm relationship between the young boy and his older sister, who cares for him while their parents “sew jeans for the whole world.” 

On the first spread, expressionless images of a line of factory workers at their sewing machines recede into a rounded earthy background that gives the impression of “the whole world.” Across a “road” is a sketchy image of a town with faceless inhabitants. They are all wearing jeans. 

Mostly single page illustrations on the right and spare text on the left—with the English and Spanish texts separated by spot details—depict Pablito’s and Anita’s day. By their expressions, it’s clear that the two are devoted to each other. And on almost every page, their tiny Chihuahua accompanies them.

It’s important to note that, although Pablito and Anita’s parents work at low-wage jobs, the family is not impoverished. They live in a tree-lined Puerto Rican neighborhood of small, single-family houses, they have curtains on the windows and furniture and books and family photographs.

Samuel Caraballo’s engaging bilingual story of a day in the lives of loving family members, and warmly illustrated by Thelma Muraida, will appeal to young readers—both Spanish- and English-speakers. My Big Sister / Mi hermana mayor is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/27/20)

Míl gracias a mi amiga, Judy Zalazar Drummond, who is also a great fan of Samuel Caraballo’s.

La selva de Zonia // Zonia's Rain Forest

author: Juana Martinez-Neal 
illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal
Candlewick Press, 2021 
all grades (Asháninka)

[Reviewer’s note: La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is reviewed in two parts. The story and the back matter are discussed separately.


La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: The Story

Young Zonia’s rain forest home is calm and beautiful—everything is “green and full of life.” A hammock hangs between two trees, and the presence of metal pots, a woven basket, a gourd and wooden bowls signals to young readers that this story takes place in the present. As Zonia looks on, her mom contentedly nurses her baby brother. Green grows all around, and a blue morpho butterfly flits around them.

“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia,” and, every morning, she answers. With the butterfly in the lead, Zonia greets the forest’s creatures: two-toed sloths, red Andean cock-of-the-rocks, and South American coatis. She takes a ride on the back of a jaguar and says hello to Amazon river dolphins, congratulates an anteater family on the arrival of their new babies, plays hide-and-seek with a spectacled caiman, hangs upside-down on a high branch with a boa constrictor, and visits with a group of Arrau turtles. And after Zonia’s visit, the butterfly guides her home—almost.

What she sees frightens her—much of the forest has been clearcut; all that’s left are stumps. Zonia’s animal friends are gone; only her butterfly guide remains. She runs home and tells her sorrowful mama that the forest needs help.

“It is speaking to you,” says Zonia’s mama.

“Then I will answer,” says Zonia, “as I always do.”

On the final spread, Zonia is no longer a carefree child. Her face is painted and she wears a patterned dress. With one hand on a remaining tree trunk, she looks forward. She is ready for the struggle ahead. With the butterfly circling around her and showing her the way, Zonia tells young readers:

“We all must answer.”

It’s no surprise that Martinez-Neal tells the Spanish version, La selva de Zonia, at least as beautifully as the English. Especially, in the Indigenous struggle to save the rain forest, her repetition of a particular phrase—“verde y llena de vida” (“green and full of life”) strikes an emotional chord, because, by the “end” of the story, young readers ascertain what’s coming and what has to be done—and that it is far from the end of the story.

Martinez-Neal sets every full-bleed double-page spread—rendered in acrylic, colored pencil, pastel, ink, and linocuts and woodcuts—on handmade textured banana bark paper, which she purchased from women paper artisans of Chazuta. In most of the illustrations, gentle rainforest greens frame Zonia’s bright yellow dress; and the blue butterfly on the right of each spread leads to the next page. Young readers see the soft textures and blending of art and story coming together in a gentle, satisfying whole.

On the acknowledgements page, Zonia’s guide—the blue morpho butterfly—circles around a statement issued by the United Nations International Labour Organization at the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention in 1989:

The peoples concerned shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development. In addition, they shall participate in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of plans and programmes for national and regional development which may affect them directly.

As this particular story—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest—ends, young readers understand that this brave little girl knows who she is, what she comes from, and all that she has been given to do. And the story of all the “Zonias”—the struggle of all the Indigenous peoples who acknowledge the Amazon rain forest as their home—“green and full of life”—continues.

Told in a way that engages the youngest readers and listeners—and everyone else—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is a beautiful and important story that encourages compassion and activism. It’s highly recommended.

— Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)

La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: About the back matter

“Todos debemos de responder.” // “We must all answer.” In the last few words of the story, Zonia acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who, for some five millennia, have sustainably managed the rain forest—and are now struggling to save it. And she calls out to allies all over the world to join them. 

Asháninka is the name of Zonia’s people, the language that’s spoken at home, and the language of one of the largest Indigenous nations struggling to save the Amazon rain forest. The author acknowledges and thanks the many people who worked to translate this story into Asháninka Satipo-Junin, and others who worked to vet it for fidelity and accuracy. So it’s unfortunate that the Asháninka version was relegated to one page in the back matter and accompanied only by an illustration of a sloth hanging upside down. 

Although Candlewick took the extra step of hiring a team to translate this beautiful story into the Asháninka language, no one who speaks or reads the language will benefit from its placement in any substantial way. Rather, Asháninka speakers will have to turn back to the illustrations to enjoy this story.

Since this book is set to be published in Spanish and English only—and the decision was made not to incorporate the Asháninka version into the story—I would like to see the story in Asháninka, perhaps in a limited print run, donated to the Asháninka people. As it stands, the inclusion of the Asháninka text on a single page, while a well-intended gesture of respect, is ultimately hollow and performative because it’s unlikely that anyone from that region will benefit from the translation of this story about their beloved rain forest in their own language.

The rest of the back matter is divided into seven  sections: “The Asháninka People,” “A Few Facts about the Amazon,” “Threats to the Amazon,” “Illegal logging,” “Farming,” “Mining,” and “Oil and Gas Extraction.” The back matter is limited and confusing. It contains numerous errors and is full of Eurocentric markers as well. 

Here are examples:

1. Text: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon… 

What’s wrong: Referring to an Indigenous nation as a “group,” rather than “people,” “nation,” or “society”—diminishes them. 

Corrective: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous nation living in the Peruvian Amazon.

2. Text: They have a long history of insisting on self-determination….

What’s wrong: “Insisting on self-determination” diminishes their continuous struggle, recognized by the United Nations. 

Corrective: They have a long history of struggling for self-determination and freedom—to exercise control over their own economic, cultural and social development. 

3. Text: Those rights continue to be ignored and violated, and harassment grows because of others’ impatience to develop, cultivate and mine the world’s tropical forests for profit. 

What’s wrong: Placing the Asháninka people’s difficulties into the passive tense—things that happen to them—rather than the active tense—who’s doing it and why—in a sense, blames the victim. 

Corrective: They are answering the call to protect the rain forest—their home—from the rapacious multinational logging and mining industries that continue to destroy the world’s tropical forests for profit. 

4. Text: The Amazon rain forest takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into oxygen, producing more than twenty percent of the oxygen on our planet…

What’s wrong: This is a widely held myth that’s been debunked by scientists for years. See “Why the Amazon doesn’t really produce 20% of the world’s oxygen,” in National Geographic, 2019: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/why-amazon-doesnt-produce-20-percent-worlds-oxygen/

Corrective: The trees in the Amazon rain forest filter and reprocess huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps stabilize climates locally and globally.

5. Text: The Amazon rain forest shrinks by 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. It shrank 17 percent in the last fifty years alone. 

What’s wrong: This phrasing hints that “shrinking” is something that happens naturally. 

Corrective: Depredation and degradation caused by the rapacious logging and mining industries destroys some 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. In the last fifty years alone, they have demolished some 17 percent of the rain forest.

6. Text: The Amazon rain forest is home to between four hundred and five hundred different Indigenous groups—some of which are isolated or uncontacted.

What’s wrong: Besides referring to Indigenous peoples as “groups,” the phrasing suggests that they can’t be found by anyone.

Corrective: In some of the larger areas, difficult access has allowed them to remain isolated from the outside influences of the settler society.

7. Text: Every day, the Amazon rain forest is being changed by development. Large infrastructure projects (dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (oil wells, mining) have transformed the lives of the people who live there, sometimes permanently and not always in positive ways.

What’s wrong: The infrastructure projects and extractive industries do not ever “transform” the lives of the people impermanently or in positive ways.

Corrective: Every day, large infrastructure projects (such as dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (such as oil wells, mining) destroy the land and endanger the lives of the Indigenous peoples who have, for millennia, lived and thrived in the vast Amazon rain forest. 

8. Text: Forests are being burned down and cleared to make room for pastureland on which to graze commercial livestock. Destroying the rain forest also destroys a key source of oxygen (which all living things need in order to keep on living).

What’s wrong: See #4.

Corrective: The Amazon rain forest is critical to the world because of its rich biodiversity, its enormous stores of carbon, and its effects on many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. Forest clearing for increased commercial agricultural development, such as cattle grazing, decimates the balance of the rain forest.

9. Text: While illegal gold mining is done on a small scale, its effects are anything but small. Illegal mining causes an increase in other types of crime. And, to find even trace amounts of gold, mercury is dumped into the rivers and streams, poisoning the water and all that lives and depends on it.

What’s wrong: Gold mining not only pollutes the rivers and streams, it significantly limits the regrowth of Amazon forests. 

Corrective: The extraction process of mining strips nitrogen from the soil and contributes to the presence of mercury within forests and rivers. This process not only contaminates food sources from the rivers, it also limits the forest’s important capacity to accumulate and store carbon. (See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200629090012.htm)

10. Text: Oil and gas exploration and extraction take place largely in Indigenous territories. Due to poor environmental practices by these industries, the ability of the people and the land to recover from such damage is severely limited.

What’s wrong: This section makes the assumption that the Indigenous peoples of the rain forest are helpless.

Corrective: Decades of oil and gas extraction have widely contaminated much of the Amazon rain forest in Peru. Other negative results of the pipelines include sharp declines in fish stock, interruption of seed dispersal and natural forest regeneration, and habitat destruction. In the last 15 years, protests by Indigenous organizations against the oil companies have exposed the toxic results of this contamination.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)

Míl gracias a mis colegas David Bowles, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Ricardo Ramírez.

My Tata's Guitar / La guitarra de mi tata

author: Ethriam Cash Brammer

illustrator: Daniel Lechón

Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2003

kindergarten-grade 2

Chicano, Mexican

On the cover, musical notes fill the air as an elderly mustached grandfather, wearing a woven straw sombrero and a green shirt, shows his young grandson, who wears a white shirt, how his fingers glide along the frets of his guitar. This cover image is repeated later in the story, as young readers ascertain that the youngster on the cover is the narrator’s grandfather (his tata) in the story, and the grandfather on the cover is his great-grandfather (his tata’s tata).

Narrated by a child who finds an old guitar while exploring “the mazes of boxes and discarded furniture” in his tata’s dusty garage, this warm story of family and community takes young readers into the lives of a Chicano child and his Mexican tata—and how music and culture are passed from one generation to another.

Lechón’s attractive, full-page pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, mostly in primary colors—are as gentle as the story. Although each scene is framed, in most of them, the characters step out of the frame. Since this story spans several generations, the artist circumvents confusion by assigning specific colors to the clothing of each character. For instance, the child narrator wears a black shirt, his tata wears a white shirt (as does his tata as a child), and his tata’s tata wears a green shirt and sometimes a sombrero. 

The short, boxed English text on top and the Spanish below both read with a rhythm that youngsters enjoy. (Since this is a story about a Mexican American family, forefronting the Spanish text would have been a benefit.) 

Rather than an attempt at literal translation, for the most part the English and Spanish texts appear as similar versions of the story or scene. For instance, in showing Tata’s grandpa and others in the community playing in the posadas, the English text reads:

“My tata played in the posadas every Christmas. ‘In the name of Heaven, won’t you give us shelter? My dear beloved wife, tonight can go no further.’ ” And in the Spanish text is the traditional rhymed Mexican version:

—Mi tata tocaba en las posadas cada Navidad: “En nombre del cielo, pedimos posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.” 

In both of the group scenes—the people gathered together to portray las posadas navideñas and children celebrating a friend’s birthday—the people are shown with varying skin tones and hair color and textures that reflect the Indigenous and colonial heritages of the Mexican and Mexican American people. 

And when the story focuses on the music that Tata’s tata plays, he’s shown as singing Mexican songs in Spanish that are compatible with well-known American songs. As a young man, he serenades the young woman who will soon become his wife. “Dulce amor de mi vida, despierta, si te encuentras dormida” (“Sweet love of my life / wake up if you find yourself asleep”) is well matched with the English: “I’m in the mood for love / simply because you’re near me.” 

There’s also the traditional (English) birthday song, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear ….” which, in Mexican Spanish, becomes: “Éstas son las mañanitas que cantaba el Rey David, hoy por ser tu cumpleaños, te las cantamos a tí.” (“These are the mañanitas that King David sang, because today is your birthday, we sing them to you.”)

And, while the child’s tata relates the story from his tata of when the family came to the United States from Mexico, there’s a beautiful scene of farmworkers, wearing woven straw sombreros, sitting around the campfire after a hard day of labor. They sing the traditional Mexican song, “Cielito Lindo” (“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores…”).

As Tata gently and lovingly passes on the music of his culture, musical notes and moths flit out of the guitar and transform into butterflies and flowers and fill the background. In gifting his young nieto with the family’s guitar, Tata both passes on a family treasure and transmits the cultural history of the community.

As Tata gifts his nieto with this guitar—as his own tata did with him—it becomes more than “just” a gift from grandpa to grandson. Rather, his tata’s guitar is a gift from and for the generations. It’s the gift of love, the gift of language and song, the gift of historical and cultural continuity.

My Tata’s Guitar / La guitarra de mi tata is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 11/23/20)

Note: On the CIP page, the publisher thanks Teresa Mlawer of Lectorum Publications “for her professional advice on this book.” I want to acknowledge Teresa, who left us in March of this year, for her great talent and gentleness and love of the culture. She helped shape many children’s stories and their translations, and her loss is deeply felt in the community.

Mis abuelos y yo / My Grandparents and I

author: Samuel Caraballo

illustrator: D. Nina Cruz

translator: Ethriam Cash Brammer

Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2004

preschool-grade 2 

Puerto Rican

The title page shows a small framed photo of a smiling young boy and his abuelos. Next to it sits a little frog in a tiny pool of water. He is el coqui, the national symbol of Puerto Rico. (Throughout the story, astute youngsters will catch sight of several more coquis.)

Together, Caraballo’s evocative, rhyming Spanish text and Cruz’s detailed, full-bleed ink-and-watercolor illustrations convey the warmth and joy of a young Puerto Rican child’s loving relationship with his abuelos.

The cover illustration depicts the youngster, playing with his abuelos, who appear on just about every spread. The three of them—with varying skin tones and hair color and textures—reflect the Puerto Rican people and their colonial and Indigenous heritages. 

Cruz’s soft portrayal of the child and his abuelos is warm and lovely. On just about every page, the elders are embracing or holding hands, smiling at each other and their nieto. Together, the three enjoy the simple things: cooking, playing in the garden, walking on the beach, watching the moon lighting up the horizon, strolling through the museums, taking photos of cruise liners (one of which is named “el coqui”). And the child’s abuelos enjoy watching their young nieto pretend to lead a chorus of birds in the park.

In Caraballo’s first verse (which comes around full circle to end the story) and Cruz’s first spread, the child sits cross-legged on his bed. His neat room is full of meaningful stuff, including a stereo, an enormous wooden box to store his toys, a pet goldfish, a large book entitled Puerto Rico, sports equipment, and a clock (whose face is the open mouth of a coqui!). 

The child embraces the framed photo duplicated from the title page. With a wide smile, he introduces his abuelos to his new friends, the young readers:

Mis abuelos son mi vida,

mi manojito de rosas,

mi música preferida,

mis prenditas más valiosas.

My grandparents are my life,

my little bundle of roses,

my favorite music,

my most valuable good-luck charms.

(reviewer’s translation)

Caraballo’s beautiful, poetic, rhyming Spanish will appeal to young Spanish-speakers as well as English-speakers who want to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, the English translations, while relying on the same imagery, seem awkward—sacrificing nuance for rhyme and failing to capture Caraballo’s lyrical feeling: 

My grandparents are my universe.

They are my rosy bouquet,

my favorite musical verse,

and my most prized treasure.

Here, in Spanish, the young child describes Navidad (Christmas) with his family: 

Las fiestas de Navidad

celebramos bien juntitos

cantando de felicidad,

abriendo los regalitos.

During Navidad fiestas

we all celebrate together

singing of joy,

opening the gifts.

(reviewer’s translation)

However, the published English translation maintains the rhyming cadence at the cost of meaning for child readers:

During Christmas gaity,

we sing together happily,

we celebrate our unity,

we open presents thankfully.

Caraballo is an outstanding poet who typically composes in Spanish, and then in English—so that each version reads smoothly and maintains its own integrity. Unfortunately, the translation here lacks this important connection to the author’s Spanish version. This warm story of a young child and his loving grandparents (in Spanish) is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

(published 11/15/20)

Note: In working on the translations, I phoned some Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues about the meaning of one particular word. It took many phone calls until one said, “I’ve known that word since I was a child!” and told me what it was. I found out that not all Spanish speakers know everything about Spanish.—BHS

Estas manos: Manitas de mi familia / These Hands: My Family’s Hands

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Shawn Costello
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2014
grades 2-up
Puerto Rican

In soft, gentle verse—each of which centers on the hands of a particular relative in her extended Puerto Rican family—a young narrator describes the love and loving care her family gives her. In Spanish and English, with each poem accompanied by a full-page portrait, she honors her mamá, papá, hermano, hermana, abuela and abuelo.

Samuel Caraballo is an outstanding poet who composes in Spanish and then in English, so each version maintains its own integrity. As a child narrator (in the first part) speaks of how the hands of her relatives care for her, young readers see a loving, nurturing family. And as the young woman narrator (in the second part) speaks of how her hands care for them, the circle completes itself. 

Tus manitas, ¡las más tiernas!

Cuando tengo miedo, ellas me consuelan.

Cuando tengo hambre, siempre me alimentan.

Cuando tengo sed, me sirven el agua más fresca.

Abrigo me dan cuando tiemblo de frío.

¡Mamá, tus manitas son como pétalos de rosas!

Your hands, the most tender!

When I’m scared, they soothe me.

When I’m hungry, they always feed me.

When I’m thirsty, they give me the most refreshing water.

They give me warmth when I shiver with cold.

Mom, your hands are like rose petals!

As the girl grows into a young woman, she promises to give back all the love that she has received from the hands of her family:

Prometo que un día, cuando sea ya una mujer, mis manos les han de devolver ese cariño tan grande que de ustedes siempre he tenido.

I promise that one day, when I become a woman, my hands will return all the love you’ve always given me.

And as a mature woman, she fulfills her promise to reciprocate the gift of love and caring her relatives have given her. Astute young readers will notice the parallels between, for instance, how the young child’s mother has nurtured her and how she, now a mature woman, nurtures her elderly mamá:

Mamá, cuando sientas temor, mis manos te darán consuelo.

Cuando tengas hambre, estarán ahí para darte tu alimento y servirte el agua fresca que sacie tu sed.

Mis manos serán tu abrigo en el invierno más frío.

Mom, when you feel scared, my hands will soothe you. 

When you feel hungry, they will be there to feed you and to serve you fresh water to quench your thirst.

My hands will be your warmth in the coldest winter.

Utilizing acrylics and pastels on brown chipboard paper, Costello’s impressionistic artwork is soft and appealing, and complements the gentleness of Caraballo’s poetry. The people of Puerto Rico often refer to themselves as “la gente del arco iris” (people of the rainbow) and here, Costello beautifully presents the family as ethnically mixed with varying skin tones and hair colors and textures. 

With a spacious design that will draw in young people, the text page on the left shows the Spanish at the top and the English at the bottom, and centers a miniature illustration that references the evocative, full-bleed rendering on the right. In the back matter, a section defines the cultural representation of the symbols in each poem: roses represent tenderness, the mahogany tree represents strength, the blooming oak tree represents friendship, white lilies represent happiness, and there’s a note about the sacred ceiba tree. 

In Estas manos: Manitas de mi familia / These Hands: My Family’s Hands, the talents of bilingual poet Samuel Caraballo and artist Shawn Costello beautifully come together to create an honoring of extended families everywhere. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 10/30/20)

[Note: Unfortunately, the choice of past tense in the back matter description of the ceiba tree and the people for whom it is sacred leaves the impression that these peoples no longer exist. It reads (in English):

The ceiba tree was one of the sacred trees of the Taíno and Mayan cultures. For those cultures, the ceiba tree was the tree of life and wisdom. The Taínos and Mayas believed that the ceiba tree was the center of the universe that held up the sky. (emphases mine)

When Piñata Books reprints Caraballo’s beautiful story-poem, I strongly suggest that an accurate and respectful description be substituted. Something like this: 

To the Taíno and Maya peoples, La Ceiba is the sacred tree of life and wisdom. La Ceiba is so strong that she has outlasted countless storms, floods and hurricanes. It is said that she is the center of the universe and holds up the sky.—BHS]

Mis papitos: Héroes de la cosecha / My Parents: Heroes of the Harvest

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Obed Gómez
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2005 
grades 1-5
Puerto Rican

Front and center in the cover illustration, the first thing young readers will see—and possibly look at for a long time—is a child, struggling to fall asleep. His body cannot relax because he is worried. In suspended consciousness, he sees his parents, at dawn, walking to work. They are looking straight ahead and their chins are slightly raised. Papi, his left hand on Mami’s shoulder, is holding a rake. Mami, her right arm on Papi’s back, is pointing toward the east, beyond the early rays of sunlight shining on them, and a white dove hovers overhead. Framing the boy in his bed are baskets, cut sugarcane, and lots of laughing fruits and vegetables. 

Gómez’s artwork, utilizing black ink and watercolor on a muted palette of mostly yellows, purples, browns, and reds, beautifully reflect the art deco style of the 1950s and are symbolic of the farmworker struggle. Full-bleed illustrations appear on the right side, and a detail from the painting separates the Spanish and English texts on the left. The white dove appears on almost every page.

The child, whose parents labor in the fields, sees their exhaustion every day when they come home. And the next day, they take on this grueling work again, and the next day, and the next.

¡Zum! ¡Brun! ¡Trac! ¡Ras!

Mañana, bien tempranito,

continuarán la cosecha.

Zoom! Vroom! Sap! Scratch!

Early tomorrow, once again,

they’ll return to the harvest.

This child sees his parents as “héroes de la cosecha”—heroes of the harvest.

In words and pictures, in reality and in a child’s imagination—every page speaks to the difficult lives of the agricultural workers and their families. At the same time, his voice reimagines his parents’ experiences and, in his mind, constructs a better world. He acknowledges the good in his family’s life—including their devotion to him and his younger sister—and transforms what’s not good. 

In this child’s fantasy world, everyone is happy, everyone has enough, and everything has volition. He imagines, for instance, that the fruits and vegetables and the cut sugar cane, happy to be harvested, jump into the baskets and boxes by themselves. And,

¡Ja, ja!

Gozan las fresitas

al sentir el toque de las manos.

Ha, ha!

The strawberries enjoy

the feel of my parents’ hands.

That a child of farmworkers narrates the story honors the children of farmworkers and other working children as well. In forefronting this child’s voice, Caraballo’s unrhymed tercets, in Spanish and English (each with its own pattern and flow), complement the dream style of the boy’s imagination and deflect his harsh reality. The first line creates a sound, the second identifies the sound, and the third expands his mental picture.

Rather than translating, Caraballo typically writes in Spanish first and then rewrites in English, so each version flows naturally and neither is an exact “translation” of the other. 

As Gómez infuses bright yellows into every scene of the child’s parents at work, young readers will feel the blazing sun beating down on them.

Gómez’s final illustration replicates the one on the cover. The child is still trying to sleep, but sleep still does not come easy. His body is still tense. His hands still grip his blanket. Laughing vegetables continue to surround him, his parents are once again off to work at dawn, and the little white dove still hovers overhead. Young readers who initially might have wondered about the laughing fruits and veggies on the cover will, by the final illustration, understand their symbolism and significance. And they will empathize with this loving mom and dad, toiling in the fields, day after day, under a sweltering sun. 

¡Zum! ¡Brun! ¡Trac! ¡Ras!

Mañana, bien tempranito,

continuarán la cosecha.

Zoom! Vroom! Sap! Scratch!

Early tomorrow, once again,

they’ll return to the harvest.

In short, profound Spanish and English verses and evocative images, Samuel Caraballo and Obed Gómez beautifully depict a farmworker family’s child, desperately trying to create a world that is much better than the one he and his family inhabit. For now, it’s his only survival technique. Mis papitos: Héroes de la cosecha / My Parents: Heroes of the Harvest is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 10/24/20)