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)

The Smoking Mirror (Garza Twins, Book One)

author: David Bowles 
IFWG Publishing, 2015 
grades 5-up

Mexican American

The multi-talented Chicano scholar, historian, linguist—and damn good (not to mention award-winning) writer of spell-binding children’s and middle-grade books has gifted the world with a five-volume (so far) series featuring the Garza Twins. The Smoking Mirror is Book One.

When 12-year-old small-town Mexican American twins Carolina (Carol) and Juan Ángel (Johnny) Garza learn that their mom has suddenly gone missing, they set out to find her—and their lives are forever changed. After their grieving father ships them off to relatives in Mexico, they discover that, not only is their mom a nagual, a shapeshifter—but they are naguales as well.

Hurriedly schooled by their experiences, Johnny and Carol find out that twin naguales come along only once in a millennium, and, as such, they are capable of wielding “savage magic” that not even the gods can control. Their education is quick and experiential: In order to find and rescue their mother, they must descend into the Aztec underworld and face and defeat all of the supernatural powers that confront them—in each of its nine levels.

As the twins careen between worlds, Bowles keeps his readers riveted from beginning to end. But The Smoking Mirror is more than just a page-flipper. Rather, middle readers will go back and forth, quickly reading to find out what happens next—and rereading to experience the previous episode again. 

Carol and Johnny are best friends and despite lots of back-and-forth middle-school snark, the two have each other’s back:

Carol’s concern (that Johnny would overestimate his own abilities) took a backseat as the beating of dozens of massive wings came from all around them. A group of fire-breathing flying serpents was converging on them, presumably furious at what the twins had done to their master. Johnny turned and flew backwards, raising the shield with his talons to deflect their flaming attacks. Carol ducked and weaved as she flew, narrowly avoiding streams of fire. When a wyrm would get too close, she’d blast it from the sky with her xoxal-enhanced blaze…. Five deserts down. Four more to go.

In the worlds of The Smoking Mirror, middle readers will discern that the battles are not between “good” and “evil.” Rather, they’re between “order” and “chaos”—and, as Carol and Johnny battle cucuys and Mesoamerican deities, they must utilize their new-found abilities to stop the forces of chaos from ending the world. But ultimately, it’s their love for each other—and for their mother—that pulls them through.

The cover illustration by Charlene Bowles (the author’s daughter) is perfect. Here, the two children, confronted by Tezcatlipoca, the enormous, snarling, three-pawed jaguar emerging out of the smoking obsidian mirror—brother and enemy of Quetzalcoatl—are given a choice that tests their love for each other and for their mother, and their power to help destroy the world. Middle readers will be mesmerized by this image long after they’ve finished the book.

Bowles’ chapter-by-chapter “guide to Spanish words, phrases and songs” is a collection of Tex-Mex Spanish that contains regional dialects, accents and terminology—and some of it is a stand-alone hoot. In addition to offering translations, Bowles effortlessly code-switches contemporary Tex-Mex phraseology into a sort-of English equivalent that resonates with middle-graders without necessarily offending their parents or teachers. And for a wealth of information and ideas, adults may also delve into Bowles’ extensive teaching guide (

In The Smoking Mirror, past becomes present as myth careens into reality and a sister and brother’s impassioned search for their mother drives them to a heroism they never could have imagined. Middle readers—even those who might not initially “get” all the historical and cultural references and nuances the first time around—will be unable to put it down. And they will look forward to Book Two. A well-deserved Pura Belpré Prize winner, The Smoking Mirror: Garza Twins, Book One is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 10/21/20)

What might “Lucy” say? What might the ancestors say? What might an Indigenous child feel? A review of SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello

What might “Lucy” say?

On November 24, 1974, In the Afar Triangle region of Hadar, Ethiopia, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and some colleagues discovered—buried in sediment—a 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton of a human ancestor. The skeleton was about 40% complete: skull, jaws and some teeth, some rib pieces, long bones from the arms and legs, part of a shoulder blade, part of a pelvis, and a knee and ankle. 

The size of the skeleton, according to scientists, indicated that it was female. 

The scientists named her “Australopithecus afarensis” and nicknamed her “Lucy” (after the popular Beatles’ song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”).

We don’t know her real name, but we know some things about her. We know that she walked on two legs. We know that she had strong arms that were built for load-bearing and that her upper body was adapted for partial life in trees. We know that she had opposable thumbs. Teeth marks indicate that she was killed and eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. A lot of what we “know” about her is based on sophisticated technology—bone scans—and educated guesses. 

What we don’t know is this: What might “Lucy” say about strangers’ making plaster casts of her bones and taking them far away from her world? Might she say: “Leave me alone!”? Might she say: “Whatever, as long as you go away!”?  

My friend and colleague, Judy Zalazar Drummond (Cahuilla / Chicana) taught sixth grade for many years at Horace Mann Middle School. The school was a project-based experiment in child-centered learning, in which the students helped create the curricula and the teachers facilitated. This student-based research, she said, increases not only the interest but the school success rate. 

One year in particular, Judy remembered, the students had the opportunity of working with Donald Johanson.

One of Judy’s team members, the social studies teacher, had contacted Johanson for permission to use his materials. He loved what they were doing with his work, and, as Judy told me, “honored us by assigning a top researcher” who came in two days a week for a month with a set of Johanson’s casts of “Lucy’s” bones. He taught Judy’s students about the role of the scientist in learning and teaching about the ancient past. Her students worked in teams and the culminating project, she said, was called “the Lucy Fair.” Her students shined, she said—“they made books, they made a movie, they made posters, they prepared a presentation about archeological tools.”

“One of my students,” Judy told me, “said that this was the best year of his life. Another said she had become a pen pal with Tim White, one of Johanson’s students.” 

“The kids were all convinced that they could research and learn and become successful. They remember it to this day as being exhilarating and they say it began their lifelong quest for learning.”

What might the ancestors say?

The other day, a friend said to me, “Egyptians who want to learn about their culture have to go to the London Museum.” 

Every culture has some sort of funeral ritual(s). Sometimes they’re public, and everyone’s invited. Sometimes they’re mixed, for the community to share stories, songs and prayers. Sometimes they’re private, for family and close friends only. Funeral rituals are an ancient way of imparting and maintaining history and culture. 

European-based archeology poses large questions. If maintaining a people’s history is an important part of ancient burial rituals, is it ever permitted to dig into graves to learn about their culture? What do we learn from examining people’s bones and is uncovering the burials of a people’s beloved dead permitted if it’s used as a tool for discovering how they lived? What might the ancestors say? 

The modern fields of anthropology and archeology are rooted in colonialist ideology. My friend and colleague, Kelly Reagan Tudor (Lipan Apache) told me that she’s “heard horror stories from Indigenous students who’d had professors who treated them as a ‘field of study’ rather than as citizens of a living culture.”

Even outside of the classroom, she said, “it’s an unfortunate situation, where Indigenous individuals participate in things that are harmful to their own people. It’s still grave-robbing. It’s still looting the ancestors.”

There are cultural and Indigenous approaches to these fields. For many years, Indigenous people have struggled to repatriate the burial items currently on exhibit in museums. Since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has provided a process for museums and federal agencies to return human remains, funerary objects, and other sacred cultural material. Still, looting continues—and the struggle continues. 

So what should a respectful archeologist do? As Kelly said, without hesitation: “Ask for permission and don’t assume that there are no living relatives. Look for clues from the past and leave them in their place.”

My friend and colleague, Rachel Byington (Choctaw), told me about Kurt Sampson, a white guy and an archeologist by trade, who is passionate about the protection and preservation of the effigy mounds. Working with guidance from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, Sampson organizes volunteers to take care of the mounds and make sure they’re not being overgrown. He advocates for them and provides knowledge for best-care practices.

In Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota as well, Native and non-Native people work together on cleanups and preservation and share what they’re learning.They respect the cultures who are connected with the mounds and their accompanying sacred ritual space and they know that the mounds deserve respect. 

In teaching people about the effigy mounds, Sampson engages with students and teachers, arguing that there’s a living culture connected to those mounds. And that the ancestors who are buried in them want the mounds to be left alone.

 Kingsley Bend Mounds, Wisconsin Dells, WI 
after Spring Cleanup, 2020 by Ho-Chunk Nation 
photo: Lucas Quackenbush, Effigy Mounds Initiative

What might an Indigenous child feel?

There are young people who travel with their class to a museum and see its exhibit of “prehistoric” skulls and clothing and blankets and pots. These young people might be awed by the beauty and age of the items in this exhibit and the knowledge and history that it holds. There are also young people who travel with their class to a museum’s “prehistory” exhibit and recognize that these “artifacts” come from—and belong to—their own families and tribal nations. They may be horrified to know that their families and their burial items are being used as objects to further “scientific knowledge.” And these young people might not feel empowered to speak up, so they remain silent. And they know that something needs to change.

My friend, Judy, remembers a particular incident “as if it were yesterday,” she said:

Our class went on a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and we came upon a staging with scenery and people. It was labeled “Early California Indians” and I kept looking at it. There were kids with sticks digging in the ground and our teacher said that that’s how they got their food, digging for worms, and that’s why they were called “Digger Indians.” It was a family scene, with other kids. I don’t remember what they were doing because I focused on this one kid and the words, Digger Indians and the teacher’s saying that’s what they were called. The picture in our textbook was the same picture from the museum.

I was so humiliated. I couldn’t look at anything else. I couldn’t say anything. It was like a blanket had been thrown over me. I just wanted to shrivel up and roll away. I don’t remember anything else. This has affected me all my life.

SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello

author: Monica Brown

Spanish: Adriana Domínguez

illustrator: Elisa Chavarri

Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low Books, 2020

grades 4-up

Indigenous / Peruvian

In this well-researched and beautifully illustrated picture book biography of Indigenous Peruvian archeologist Julio C. Tello (1880-1947)—nicknamed “Sharuko” (Quecha for “brave”)—young readers will feel the “brave and curious” boy’s passion for exploration, his remarkable discoveries as a young man, and his accomplishments as the founder of modern Peruvian archeology.

In telling Sharuko’s story, Brown discusses the child’s growing up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, his pride in his own indigeneity, and his dedication to Peru’s Indigenous history which led him on a path that would make him famous as the first Indigenous archeologist in the Americas—in a way that will resonate with young people. 

Chavarri’s appealing gouche and watercolor paintings are mostly double-page spreads, highlighting the Andean mountains in saturated yellows and muted greens. Several portray Sharuko as a child with his loving family and their small gray chihuahua on practically every page. Single-page illustrations of country people and city people focus on radiant brown faces of varying tones. One spread shows the violence of the invading Spaniards, destroying everything. Most depict an adult Sharuko (now “Julio”) exploring archeological sites and studying in the city, and, on a background of Indigenous Peruvian motifs, a Peruvian family admiring a statue of Julio C. Tello. 

One especially lovely and complex spread symbolically depicts the way Indigenous people keep oral teaching alive to pass on to future generations. Here, a wondrous Sharuko listens to his father’s accounts of history. While their pup naps next to them, father and young son sit on a colorfully woven rug. Although both remain in the present, they appear to be traveling across the sky, guided by the sacred condor who flies past Machu Picchu, to encounter three Indigenous people from long ago in their resplendent regalia, looking out at the reader. 

Endpapers show the stone heads taken from the Chavín de Huántar site and highlighted throughout are motifs of Paracas textiles.

As always, Domínguez’s excellent Spanish, which appropriately forefronts the English text, doesn’t disappoint. She pays careful attention to the rhythm and the spoken value of the narrative, and whenever necessary, she switches the order of phrases or words. For instance, while a section in English reads, 

For centuries, the Indigenous people of Peru were treated unfairly and faced discrimination. This started in the 1500s when Spanish soldiers invaded Peru. The Spanish were looking for gold, and when they found it, they claimed the land and its riches for themselves. They established control by killing many Native Peruvians and rejecting their belief systems. The Spanish destroyed temples and cities, all in the pursuit of wealth and power.

The Spanish reads:

Los indígenas del Perú fueron maltratados y discriminados por siglos. Esto comenzó en el siglo XVI, cuando los soldados españoles invadieron el Perú. Los españoles buscaban oro, y cuando lo encontraron, se quedaron con la tierra y su riqueza. Lograron el control matando a grandes cantidades de indígenas peruanos y rechazando sus creencias. Los españoles destruyeron templos y ciudades en su búsqueda de poder y fortuna. 

(“The indigenous people of Peru were mistreated and discriminated against for centuries. This started in the 16th century, when Spanish soldiers invaded Peru. The Spanish were looking for gold, and when they found it, they kept the land and its wealth. They achieved control by killing large numbers of Indigenous Peruvians and rejecting their beliefs. The Spanish destroyed temples and cities in their quest for power and fortune.”)

Sharuko is an honest and inviting telling of Julio C. Tello’s life and the passions that drove him to become world famous as one of the most important archeologists in all of the Americas. However, the many illustrations of the caves and burial grounds that he explored—containing the bones of his ancestors—are accompanied by text that normalizes—no, valorizes—what Tello did then:

“Nothing scared Sharuko, not even the skulls he and his brothers uncovered in ancient tombs.” (italics mine)

“There (at Harvard University) he focused on anthropology and archeology, learning more about the ancient peoples of the Americas through the study of bones, tools, and other items they left behind.” (italics mine)

“At the (Chavín de Huántar archaeological) site he found art, structures, and other evidence that proved the Indigenous Chavín culture had been established more than three thousand years ago, making it the oldest culture known in Peru.” (italics mine)

“Julio also discovered an ancient cemetery with mummy bundles that showed how the Paracas people honored those who had died.” In her Afterword, Brown writes that “(Tello) also unearthed ancient textiles and hundreds of mummy bundles on the Paracas Peninsula.” (italics mine)

Sharuko treats Tello’s work respectfully—almost reverently, yet uncritically. Tello’s story can be used as a teachable moment about the ethics of archaeology (then and now), and supplemented, perhaps with information about the care and maintenance of the effigy mounds. Sharuko can be utilized as a springboard to raise questions for important discussions about the science of archeology, the role of archeology in “discovering” prehistory and prehistoric peoples, the ownership of the burial sites and their contents, and the responsibility to respect a people’s cultural wishes. In this context, Monica Brown, Elisa Chavarri and Adriana Domínguez—and Children’s Book Press—will have contributed to the furtherance of an important discussion. 

But, as it stands, I cannot recommend SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello on its own. 

The following questions are suggested for wider discussion of SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello

What values inform your life choices? Your career choices?

Who owns the burial sites of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who are alive today? How do you know? 

Who owns the burial sites of Indigenous nations whose people are assumed to be long gone? How do you know?

Is the gathering of knowledge worth the desecration of graves? Why or why not?

And always consider: What might an Indigenous child feel?

—Beverly Slapin

(published 10/15/20, revised 10/17/20)

Muchísimas gracias a mis amigas y colegas, Rachel Byington, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Kelly Reagan Tudor. And honor to Kurt Sampson. 

Sleeping With the Light On

author: David Ungar 
illustrator: Carlos Vélez Aguilera 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2020
grades 2-4

In 1954, bombs rained down on Guatemala in a bloody coup d’etat.This first  covert CIA coup in Latin America overthrew the country’s elected President, Jacobo Árbenz, who had instituted agrarian reforms that gave land to impoverished peasants and ended exploitive labor practices. The coup greatly benefited the US agricultural giant, United Fruit Company, which traded in tropical fruit grown on Latin American plantations. The ensuing 36 years of what came to be known as the “Guatemalan Civil War” (1960-1996) claimed more than 200,000 lives, resulted in more than 45,000 missing, drove countless refugees to Mexico and the US, and wrecked the Guatemalan economy. 

For the terrified Guatemalan families, sleeping with the light on became their new normal.

Sleeping with the Light On is based on David Unger’s semi-autobiographical story, “La Casita: Forgetting Spanish,” first published in Spanish by CIDCLI Books in Mexico City (2012). Through the eyes of young Davico, it’s the story of a small Guatemalan family, how they deal with the terror of the unknown, and how the family’s tough choices land them in a new world where no one speaks Spanish, there’s plenty of food, and people sleep with the light off.

Davico, his slightly older brother Felipe, and their parents live on the second floor of La Casita, a small restaurant they are renting in Guatemala City in the early 1950s. Their life is typically middle class and, for Davico, something is always happening. Consuelo, the nanny, takes him to the market and prepares Sunday brunch. Augusto, the cook, and Otto, the waiter, play tricks on him that sometimes make him wet his pants. And Davico is fascinated with the restaurant’s huge glass tank of lobsters, each of whom he names: Don Quixote, Superman, Hannibal, King Arthur, and the largest, Genghis Khan. One by one, the lobsters disappear and are replaced. All but Genghis Khan. 

Suddenly, Davico’s family’s lives are interrupted. Airplanes are flying low overhead. Warning leaflets are raining from the sky. Sounds of guns and rifles are going off. Armies and tanks are filling the streets. Blackouts are taking place every evening. Davico’s and Felipe’s parents know exactly what is happening. They’ve survived “this nonsense” all before, in Germany. “This nonsense,” of course, is their child-friendly euphemism for the Nazi conflagration that the world had to end so those who survived could once again sleep with the lights off.

And because Davico’s family—along with thousands of others—recognizes this “nonsense,” they decide it may be time to pack up and leave everyone and everything they and their children know and love. As the boys bed down with their stuffed animals under the big wooden dining room table, Davico hears his parents whispering plans to go to “gringo-land.” The children will stay with an uncle while their parents take an airplane to this strange place to find work. 

When Davico goes downstairs to say goodbye to the lobsters, the tank has been drained and “all the lobsters are gone, including Genghis Kahn.”

“I should ask what happened to him,” Davico thinks, “but I don’t. Maybe someone bought him and ate him. I don’t want to know.”

While their parents are gone, Davico and Felipe stay with relatives. “We are in jail,” he says. 

We can walk around, but we can’t escape. We watch tons and tons of television, lots of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons. But we don’t find them funny anymore.

Finally, the boys board an airplane to reunite with their parents. In Miami, the land is flat. There are no mountains or volcanoes. There are no roscas, espumillas or canillas de leche, the Guatemalan candies Davico loves. There are no black beans, yucca or plantains. The avocados are big and watery. And no one speaks Spanish. 

Davico promises his parents lots of things:

Not to speak Spanish at school.

Not to complain about the food.

To learn English.

And, before long, all he remembers of Spanish is:

Buenos días.

Tengo hambre.

Necesito hacer pipí.

Forgetting Spanish. This is what coming to the United States means to me.

Soon, Davico is “fitting in, learning to put ketchup on everything.” 

But, of course, he misses his home: “sleeping under the table when the lights go out,” “the blue and yellow papers (the warning leaflets) twirling in the sky and falling into the courtyard,” all the people who worked at La Casita. And he misses “the lobsters in the kitchen, with their warts and their hairy legs. Especially Genghis Kahn.”

Mexican artist Carlos Vélez Aguilera’s cover art—using a combination of watercolors, colored pencils and digital color—is, at first glance, calm. On a peaceful blue background, the boys, clutching their stuffed toy animals, sleep comfortably in their bed. The night table holds a battery lamp with a revolving shade on which “sun, clouds and waves [roll] across the light.” But above the title, astute readers may notice the ghostly images of an armored tank and an airplane in the dark blue sky. 

The dark interior art, rendered solely in graphite pencil and black ink, reflect the tone of the story as well. In one especially somber piece, the young brothers are in “bed” under the wooden dining room table. While Felipe is sound asleep, a wide-awake and worried Davico holds on to his little stuffed pig and hesitantly peeks over the blanket. The dining room is meticulous: there’s a chandelier, framed art hangs on the walls, the curtains are open and the carpet is swept, and on the main table sit an untouched bowl of fruit and a vase of flowers. 

In focusing on one child’s narrative, Sleeping with the Light On effectively tells the story of the thousands of children who have been forced to leave their home countries to escape war and invasion. It would be a treat to read this story in its original Spanish. Sleeping with the Light On is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/28/20)