All Around Us

author: Xelena González
illustrator: Adriana M. Garcia 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2017 
grades 1-up 
Mestizo

Grandpa says circles are all around us. We just have to look for them. 

In this warm, gentle story that celebrates family, culture, community and the connectedness of all things, a young girl and her grandfather work side by side in their vegetable garden, hang out in their backyard, walk around their neighborhood—and find circles to see and contemplate. A rainbow, whose other half is down below the earth, “where water and light feed new life.” And stems, leaves, and seeds—veggie leftovers—“to bury back in the ground.” And round body parts, such as bellies and eyes, to laugh about. And bicycle wheels, and the sun and the moon, and gentle lessons about the cycles of birth and death. 

González’s and Garcia’s picture-book debut was informed by the author’s own experiences as a Mestiza child at school, and the characters were modeled after her daughter and father in their garden, backyard, and San Antonio neighborhood. In her author’s note, González explains the story behind this story. “When I was six,” she writes, 
I was given a class assignment to draw a timeline of my life. Birth was the beginning. First steps and first fallen tooth were milestones. I wondered aloud how my timeline would continue, and more importantly, how it would end. My father shook his head when he heard me. “People will tell you it’s a line, but we believe it’s a circle,” he said, gathering two imaginary points of a timeline and joining them midair to form a circle.

While “timelines” are typical first-grade assignments, they undermine Indigenous knowledges and nonlinear ways of visualizing time. All Around Us should have begun here, with an example of what Indian kids—such as the young Xelena—often encounter in school, and with the kind of loving affirmations that Indigenous family members—such as her grandfather—often give to their kids. 

Since all of her art depicts the outside, Garcia used a rich, textured earthy palette of mostly greens and browns, with brightly colored vegetables and some pinks and yellows as accents. She told me that she began this project with photos, which she digitized and collaged and used as a guide, and then added the background details. But rather than creating a photorealistic piece, her “imagination took over” as she redrew the images with digital paint, inserting mostly circular lines that both complement and transcend the story. I’m especially impressed by the differing skin tones between Grandpa and granddaughter, something that few picture-book illustrators get right. And, in many of the illustrations, lines almost blur as the two literally blend in with their environments. Where they’re digging in the garden, for instance, they appear to be dark brown on one spread and green on another; and where they’re sitting in sunlight, smiling at each other, they are yellow.

Just before sunset, Grandpa and granddaughter walk to the back of their yard, away from the house. There’s a fenced-in area with an arbor, a small bench, and a tall pecan tree, indicating that this area might be set aside as a family burial ground. Here, Grandpa and child sit on the bench, quietly, their eyes closed. Young Xelena says, “Grandpa seems sad when he sits here, because this is where we bury the ashes of our ancestors. I don’t remember them, but he does.” 

While González makes clear in her author’s note that it’s not her own family practice to bury their relatives’ ashes in this way, educators may want to use this passage in a class discussion—at another time, so as not to interrupt the story—of different practices associated with death and dying.

Finally, we walk to the front yard to water our smallest tree. Grandpa planted it for me on the day  I was born, and everything that fed me while I grew in my mother’s belly is buried at the roots. I love bringing water to the apple tree that is already taller than I am.
Here, young children who are literal thinkers might imagine their mothers’ bellies as filled with cereal and bananas to feed them as they grew inside; so there’s an opportunity to introduce the terms, “placenta” and “umbilical cord,” which are often buried at the roots of newly planted trees to connect newborns to the land.

As young Xelena waters her tree, she notices new growth, and Grandpa pats her head and says,“Do you see, my grandchild? We have new life with you.” “I am part of the circle too,” Xelena answers, “the part we can see…just like a rainbow!”

All Around Us is a quiet, beautiful story, and is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/12/17)

Marti’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad

author: Emma Otheguy
illustrator: Beatriz Vidal 
translator: Adriana Domínguez
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low 2017 
grades 2-up 
Cuban















Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera
Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma,
Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morir, me quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera


Every Cuban child knows the lyrics to the folk song, “Guantanamera,” the national song of Cuba. “Guantanamera” is an adaptation of several stanzas from José Martí’s Versos sencillos (Simple Verses), the last of his works to be published before his death in 1895; and since the American folk music revival in the 1960s, “Guantanamera” has been popular in the US as well.

A fierce yet gentle poet-revolutionary who fought against all forms of injustice, from slavery to colonialism, José Julián Martí Pérez is a national hero of the Cuban people. His many writings, along with thousands of images of him—in books, paintings, drawings, posters and on statues—can be found all over Cuba, and a gigantic marble memorial to him stands in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.

As a young man, Martí—affectionately called “Pepe”—found himself at the apex of what was to become a great struggle for the liberation of Latin America from Spain, and US intervention as well. He continues to be adored by the Cuban people and all who work for justice, and Marti’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad is the story of his early life, his first encounters with oppression, his organizing in Cuba and the US, and his joining the armed struggle for freedom.

In a series of paired stanzas, Otheguy and Domínguez each tell portions of Martí’s life and struggles in the style of Versos sencillos, his most famous work. Especially appealing are the placements of the English text and translation of a verso alongside the Spanish translation and one of Martí’s original versos, so that both hablantes and English-speakers can look from one to the other and examine them together. 

Marti’s story faces Vidal’s full-page, gouache folk-art paintings, rich with detail, that vividly portray the lush Cuban countryside, the horrors of slavery, and the multicultural and multiethnic mixes of the Cuban people. This diversity of people and their lives is subtle yet clear, and Vidal makes these complicated issues visually accessible to young readers:

• As a threatening white overseer, whip in hand, glares at enslaved African people who are chopping and bundling sugar cane, a young Martí, nearby on horseback, watches helplessly.

• While a young Black peasant raises the Cuban flag, a throng of protestors—Black, Chinese, Mestizo and white; country folk and city folk; unemployed, homeless, low-wage workers and some with means—gather at the Spanish Governor’s Palace in Havana, demanding justice.

• As Martí and some friends, all well-dressed and light-complected, distribute political pamphlets—mostly to interested white people—a homeless Black man carries all of his possessions on his back. While a young, well-dressed Mestiza looks towards him, one of Martí’s friends offers him a pamphlet, but he averts his eyes.

• At a crowded indoor rally in Nueva York, workers cheer an older Martí, who is standing in front of a large Cuban flag and speaking about freedom for Cuba. But in the street, as he attempts to hand out pamphlets, the white people ignore both him and a beggar and his dog at the curb.

More than anything else, Domínguez’s beautiful translation not only captures Martí’s words but also takes the spirit and passion of his verses into another realm. Indeed, she crosses the boundaries of what is often seen as “acceptable” in kid lit. On a personal note, it irks me that children’s book publishing generally regards translators as less important than authors and illustrators. Here, for instance, the inside back cover shows photos and bios of the author and illustrator, but not the translator, who is clearly an equal contributor.

Although the life and work of this great revolutionary and champion of human rights is not told in its entirety here, Otheguy provides significant information in an afterword on Cuba’s history, a brief author’s note, a selected bibliography, and excerpts from Versos sencillos in the original Spanish and an English translation.

Marti’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad is a lovely, evocative telling of a brilliant political writer and freedom fighter who gave his life for patria y libertad. It’s highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/6/17)


Trabajamos para los niños, porque los niños son los que saben amar, porque los niños son la esperanza del mundo. Y amamos que nos aman, y nos ven como algo de sus corazones.

We work for children because children are those who know how to love, because children are the hope of the world. And we love that they love us, and see us as something from their hearts.
—José Martí, La Edad de Oro, 1881

How Do You Say? / ¿Cómo se dice?

author: Angela Domínguez
illustrator: Angela Domínguez 
Henry Holt, 2016 
preschool-up

When two young giraffes—one who speaks Spanish and one who speaks English—discover each other at an acacia tree that provides a “delicious! / ¡sabrosa!” leafy meal for both of them and they can share water from the same small pond as well, they become instant friends. On elegantly designed double-page spreads that contain lots of white space—and a total of 24 words—the two see the tree (“Food!” / “¡Comida!”) hesitantly meet (“Hello?” / “¿Hola?”), discover everything they have in common, and, after their feast and a lively fiesta, they, of course, join together for a siesta. This last spread contains no white space, just the two giraffe bodies, leaning into each other amid a tangle of balloons, blissfully asleep.

Domínguez told me that her artwork in How Do You Say? is similar to her Lola Levine covers. For the giraffes, she began with pencil sketches on illustration board, on top of which she then glued tissue paper and digitally added layers of color. She painted the leaves, balloons and party hats with gouache and marker on illustration board, and then digitally “cleaned up” these images as well. An imaginative use of limited text, white space, and contrasting colors makes this sweet little book beyond adorable. 




Each double-page spread highlights the two young animals—or parts of them—as they meet, greet, and celebrate each other and their world. How Do You Say? / ¿Cómo se dice? is a gentle, sweet little book with a light-hearted message about similarities, differences and friendships that cross cultural barriers that are, after all, imaginary. Indeed, the youngest hablantes who may be learning English, bilingual kids, and children who don’t speak Spanish (yet) will love this—maybe as a group in a conversation about friendship during snack time and just before nap time. As Domínguez writes on the inside front jacket, “We may speak different languages, but friendship is universal!” / “¡Podemos hablar differentes idiomas, pero la amistad es universal!” Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/3/17)

Esqueletitos: Un libro para contar en el Día de los Muertos / Little Skeletons: Countdown to Midnight

author: Susie Jaramillo 
illustrator: Susie Jaramillo
interpretor: Susie Jaramillo 
Encantos Media Studios, Cantícos Series 
preschool-up 

El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), on November 1 and 2, is celebrated in central and southern Mexico and, in recent years, has moved north as well. Originally based on Aztec tradition, it’s a time when the spirits of the people’s beloved (and sometimes not-so-beloved) relatives walk among the living and are welcomed and celebrated by festive parades and raucous partying, visiting and decorating graves with marigolds, candles and other colorful and fragrant mementos, and setting out family altars with photos and ofrendas of flowers, beer, and foods that were favored by those relatives. It’s at this time when the spirits of the dead often appear as the scent of marigolds, the sight of flittering hummingbirds, or other things of beauty. After the spirits have left and returned to their graves, their friends and relatives gather together to eat the food and take down and store the altars for the following year.

Based on the popular Latin American children’s song, “Los Esqueletos Salen de la Tumba” (“The Skeletons Come Out of the Tomb”), in which activities change from hour to hour, Esqueletitos is an interactive how-to-tell-time counting rhyme that features a clock with moveable hands on the inside front cover. Modeled in part after Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada’s prints and engravings but minus his biting satire and political critiques, Jaramillo’s adorable cacophony of mostly gussied-up esqueletitos rise from their tombs and decorated graves at 1 a.m. and party all day and night. 

Accompanied by a skeleton pollito, elefantito, and ratoncito from Jaramillo’s previous board books—and with a skeleton kitty, puppy, monkey and bat joining them as well—the esqueletitos dance into the town square that’s been decorated to welcome them with an enormous wreath, festive flowers and papel picado. On the way, they all eat, jump and jive, play chess, take a rocket ride, dance some more, eat some more and finally, as the clock strikes midnight, return home to their eternal resting places—until the following year (or whenever youngsters open the book and begin again)!


With Esqueletitos, Jaramillo took a break from her usual bright acrylics overlaid with black ink and used pencil only. Her purpose, she told me, was to maintain the rustic black-and-white look of the Posada prints. While one might think that this technique would transform something meant for little kids into a somber grey and black board book they wouldn’t want to pick up, the joyous, laughing skeleton expressions and continuous action maintain at least the same effect as would full color. And, as a plus—the cover appears to glow in the dark!

Unlike other bilingual books in which the English text is almost always dominant, this practically indestructible accordion, fold-out reversible design features the Spanish text on one side and its English adaptation on the other, so that the youngest hablantes, bilingual, and non-Spanish speakers can flip the book over to switch languages whenever they want to.

Although the images are the same in both the Spanish text and English adaptation, each maintains its own rhythm and rhyme, capturing the melody, spirit and sense of humor without being forced to conform to the other. And the refrain in both Spanish—“Tumba-laca tumba-laca tumba tumba”—and English—“Tomb-a-laca tomb-a-laca tomb-a tomb-a”—join together, playing on the terms, “tomb” and “calacas.”

As a plus for hablantes who are learning English (as well as to maintain the meter), Jaramillo effortlessly inserts the Spanglish term, “skeletitos,” into the English adaptation. I look forward to seeing entire picture books written so that hablantes can relate to them in this positive, “homey” way. 

Esqueletitos: Un libro para contar en el Día de los Muertos / Little Skeletons: Countdown to Midnight is another great, fun addition to the Cantícos board book series, and is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/29/17)

Uninterrupted View of the Sky

author: Melanie Crowder
Philomel, 2017 
grades 9-up 
Bolivian, Aymara

Seventeen-year-old Francisco Quispe loves soccer, but even though he’s smart, he doesn’t expect much of a future in school because of discrimination related to his Aymara heritage and appearance. Along with his friend Reynaldo, he dreams of selling knockoff soccer shirts and equipment in the market in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he has lived his entire life.
In an instant, his life changes when his mother tells him and his eight-year-old sister, Pilar, “Papá ran out of gas on the highway” and has been arrested. The reader is as confused as Francisco is. Why would a taxi driver walking to the gas station be in trouble with the police? 
“The police…said that he was going to make cocaine with that gasoline.” Mamá leans over the sink. Her head hangs below her shoulders, and her fingers grip the chipped porcelain. “It’s a lie and they know it.”
Because Francisco’s father is Indigenous, the police consider him guilty of Bolivia’s infamous Ley 1008, with no way of proving himself innocent. Unable to cope as a single mother with the stigma of a husband in prison, Francisco’s Mestiza mother abandons the family, so Francisco and his eight-year-old sister, Pilar, must live in the men’s prison with their father where the bathrooms are fouled with sewage and prisoners must pay for their own cells. Before they can afford a cell with Mamá’s final paycheck, Pilar is sexually assaulted, and both Francisco and his father are beaten by other inmates. Yet Francisco and Pilar are allowed to leave the prison in the daytime to attend school, and in those hours of freedom, he embarks on a quest to save his family—and himself.
Francisco decides that he wants to become a lawyer to help his father and others in prison as a result of Ley 1008, which gives police unlimited powers to detain persons suspected of manufacturing cocaine and other controlled substances. The law was passed in 1988 in response to pressure from the United States, which faced a drug crisis and scapegoated Indigenous Bolivians who for centuries have used the coca leaf in sacred rituals. Never a strong student—because he believed university to be an impossible dream—Francisco faces even greater odds in the form of application fees he has no way of paying. He makes a Faustian bargain with his old friend Reynaldo, who has run away from home and become a drug dealer due to family problems and despair for a better life through any other means now that Francisco can no longer go into business with him.
Crowder portrays the economic and racial divides in Bolivia without preaching. The book uses very little Spanish or Aymara—basically just enough to communicate that this is a different place and culture—which helps to avoid the awkwardness that comes from writers trying too hard to prove their knowledge of the language. Francisco is a complex and compelling character, loyal to his sister, his father, and his friends (which makes it all the more painful when they appear not to return his loyalty). When given the choice between taking Pilar to their grandparents in the Altiplano, he is torn between her safety and her opportunities in life—for the school there ends after a few grades—and he is worried that leaving his father alone in prison will break him. Complicating his decision is Soledad, an Indigenous classmate whose drug-addicted father is also in prison and who grew up fighting sexual harassment on a daily basis. Soledad teaches these survival skills to Francisco and Pilar, but as he becomes attached to her he also learns how to approach someone who has been abused. Also complex and fascinating is Francisco’s relationship with best friend Reynaldo and the other students in his class, who avoid him because he lives in prison but come to be tempted by the easy riches of the drug trade that contributed to the passage of the draconian law. 
An Uninterrupted View of the Sky takes place around 2000. Opposition to Ley 1008 contributed greatly to the election of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006. While the law is still on the books, Morales has sought to strengthen legal protections for people, particularly Indigenous people, accused of drug crimes, and to improve prison conditions. An Uninterrupted View of the Sky is highly recommended.
—Lyn Miller-Lachmann 
(published 8/15/17)

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

The Smell of Old Lady Perfume

author: Claudia Guadalupe Martínez
Cinco Puntos Press, 2008 
grades 5-up 
Mexican American

By the time I actually started sixth grade, I felt like a burro—a donkey, which was what they called the kids who weren’t too smart. We had missed a little more than a week of school. Nothing was like it was supposed to be. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, except that I felt very small. (p. 66)

As Chela Gonzalez eagerly prepares to enter sixth grade, her strong father—the center of her universe—has had a stroke and her maternal grandmother comes to stay to help take care of the family. She brings with her, among other things, “the smell of old lady perfume.” As Chela’s father has to make major life adjustments in order to recuperate, her mother has to secure employment to support the family. Her having married young and never having had a job before presents a great challenge for the entire family. Because of her father’s illness, Chela is unable to begin school with the rest of her classmates, and her vision of a perfect new school year is quickly thwarted when she finds herself isolated and shunned by the popular girls. Chela does not have any friends, her teacher completely forgets about her, and she cannot even tell her father about it for fear that the stress might make him ill again. Although Chela’s father’s health seems to improve and he is able to build the family a home of their own, soon after they move he has another stroke, this one fatal. And the smell of old lady perfume once again returns to the Gonzalez home. 

Martínez’s debut young adult novel captures the turmoil of a family’s losing its center, and at the same time emphasizes the importance of staying in school. Chela’s parents are immigrants and her father makes clear that his options are limited because he had been unable to go to school, so he wants his children to take advantage of every opportunity. Chela, of course, is an exceptional student and is even in the gifted and talented students program. Education has become central in the Gonzalez family’s life, and being recognized as the smartest girl in school becomes Chela’s main goal. 

The relationship between migration/immigration and education is a significant theme within Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Stories like Gloria Velasquez’s Juanita Fights the School Board (Arte Público Press, 1994), Luis Rodriguez’s América is Her Name (Curbstone Books, 1998,  http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2013/04/america-is-her-name.html), and Jorge Argueta’s Moony Luna / Luna, Lunita, Lunera (Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2005, 2013) capture various struggles that Latina/o children face in school and the role that their parents play in helping students overcome these challenges. Here, Martínez also highlights the parents’ desire to see their children succeed and how education can be a means for many immigrant families to secure that success. 

The Smell of Old Lady Perfume also presents an opportunity for a classroom discussion of how traditional gender roles within Latina/o families impact children and may reveal ways to reconcile or challenge them. Chela’s father’s death shakes her family’s structure because her mom now must secure employment in order for the family to survive, leaving older children with the responsibility of caring for the younger siblings. The reality, which Chela explains, is that they have to take care of themselves. With the father now gone, the boys in the family are told that they must now act as the heads of the family and are forced to hide their emotions.

In The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, Martínez has created an honest and endearing character through Chela Gonzalez. By the end of the story, the school has recognized Chela’s hard work and her family is there to support her. This young Latina has reaped the benefits of education; and despite having lost her father, she shows great strength and determination to succeed—something her father had encouraged and of which he would have been proud. 

Towards the end of the story, Chela visits with her father in the cemetery because she wants to share some news:

I know you would’ve been there if you could’ve. I still wanted you to know, so I came to the cemetery and put down my thirsty roots…. Don’t tease me and make me laugh. I just want to lay here and listen for your heartbeat….We were so happy. Now I’m sad when I’m sad, and sometimes I’m sad when I’m happy. I close my eyes, and you are exactly as you were. I can hear your voice. “Cuando me muera no quiero que me lloren.” (p. 248)

Chela and her father had had a strong relationship, and her great personal loss and the obstacles in dealing with a death in the family will resonate with young adult readers. The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is highly recommended.

(Note: The publisher has informed us that a Spanish edition will be available by the end of this year.)

—Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD
(published 8/14/17)

Juan Pablo & the Butterflies

author: JJ Flowers
Merit Press / Simon & Schuster (2017)
grades 7-up 
Mexican

Teenagers Juan Pablo and Rocio are neighbors and best friends, two young people who have spent their lives together, each raised by a grandparent in a quiet butterfly sanctuary in the tiny village of El Rosario in the State of Michoacán in Mexico. The two are not your ordinary small-town Mexican teens: they are budding scientists who are bilingual and homeschooled, well-read in both English and Spanish and often communicate to each other in English via their iPads. They spend a lot of time together learning from JP’s abuela, who is the town’s curandera, medical doctor, and all-purpose wise woman. JP is a brilliant classical violinist and, having taken online courses at the Khan Academy with Rocio, he’s a math whiz besides. The teens’ main passion, besides reading and watching movies on TV as well as The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, is working for the butterflies.

JP’s elderly abuela is dying. JP’s mother had died while giving birth to him, Rocio’s mom is working in Arizona and her brother is attending medical school in the US, and neither of their fathers is present (although JP’s abuela has told him that his father’s name is “Juan Laves”). Oh, and Juan Pablo has green eyes. Which the author mentions often. Hold that thought.

All hell breaks loose when a drug cartel invades and almost everyone leaves. In an attempt to protect Rocio who has been grabbed and is about to be raped, JP accidentally kills some of the narcotraficantes with his abuela’s poison. His abuela dies shortly thereafter, followed by Rocio’s abuelo. Pursued by agents of the murderous cartel, the teens hurriedly bury JP’s abuela in the butterfly meadow and are forced to leave Rocio’s abuelo’s body to the cartel. JP takes desperate measures to save his dear friend while they are on the run, following the butterflies north to Pacific Grove, California where, his abuela had told him with her dying breath, someone would be waiting for him. 

Guided by the butterflies and his now deceased abuela’s wisdom, the two cross the Mexican desert, travel by water, encounter the generosity of strangers, temporarily split up, and deal with the violence of the drug traffickers and issues of poverty, immigration, and human rights. 

Unfortunately, Juan Pablo & the Butterflies is littered with, among other things, highly unlikely events; each signaled by the arrival of a butterfly, who guides JP, showing him where to go and what to do. (The butterflies, of course, embody the spirit of JP’s abuela, now residing with the “Sky People.”) Such events include, but are far from limited to, the sudden appearance of strangers—from wealthy tourists to poor agricultural workers—who arrive on the scene to save JP from catastrophe and provide a passport and birth certificate for Rocio; the opportunity for JP and Rocio to save a baby whale (while the youngster’s mother hovers nearby), who had become entangled in netting; and—as JP confronts his own inevitable death and hears his abuela’s wisdom about everyone’s being spirits having a physical experience here on earth—the sudden arrival of the cops and a SWAT Team (the “good guys”) to rescue him from the narcotraficantes' bounty hunter.

Besides these unlikely events, there’s confusing dialog and mangled Spanish. And, although Juan Pablo is the protagonist, the focus of the story is his abuela. It’s JP’s memories of Abuela’s teaching that becomes the vehicle for the author’s nonsensical imaginary perspective of “old Indian wisdom.” For instance, she tells a young Juan Pablo about one of the roles of the “Sky People”:
Sky People are immersed in the energy of love, in a way we cannot imagine. It gives them a great wisdom and bad people view their deeds through a prism of boundless compassion. You are too young to understand, but there can be no greater punishment for a soul. (p. 34)
Most of Abuela’s spiritual teachings and admonitions guide Juan Pablo from beyond the grave, which allows the author to insert of lot of fortune-cookie philosophy:
Coincidences [are] no more than an awakening to the miracle of life. (p. 15) 
If you show [the Sky People] a problem, they will show you the answer. (p. 26) 
One unlocked mystery leads to ten more mysteries in the cosmic geometry of the universe. (p. 53) 
If a problem has no good solution, then it is best to decide not to have the problem. (p. 87) 
Even in the darkest times, you can choose happiness. You can choose your thoughts. (p. 110) 
Abuela also maintains that whales, elephants, and butterflies are the “three sacred species…special souls from the spiritual realm…”
You can tell because almost all people have a wealth of heart energy for them; people everywhere want to see them, touch them, draw close to their presence. Their spiritual purpose is to use this heart energy to connect people to the plight of all living things on earth. (p. 117)
Middle readers (and everyone else) are to be forgiven for not knowing what any of this means. And the author is not above tossing in a bit of “old Indian wisdom” that she’s found on the Internet. For instance, when JP finds out that he is wanted by the drug traffickers and that his picture has been plastered all over the Internet: 
[T]he great World Wide Web that covered the entire earth, just as that old Indian predicted a hundred years ago: “The land shall be crisscrossed by a giant spider’s web.” (p. 137)

NOTE ABOUT THE LANGUAGES AND MANGLED SPANISH

The story is located mostly in Mexico, and most of the characters are Mexican, with the implication that everyone speaks Spanish. Later, readers discover that JP and Rocio’s grandparents have raised them both to be bilingual, with an emphasis on reading and writing in English. To demonstrate this, the author tosses in an occasional Spanish word or phrase, such as “sí, sí” instead of “yes” or immediately translates a Spanish word into English (or vice versa), such as when Abuela tells Juan Pablo: “This is your journey, your transformación.” (p. 14) There are also some weak attempts to demonstrate code-switching, such as this, from a Spanish-speaking gang member: 
He gets the job done. No questions. Finito, done, everyone is muerto; the problem is no more. (p. 23)
Nobody talks like this. 

And, while it’s appropriate to use Spanish for honorifics, such as “abuela,” or “curandera,” or names of words that might be lost in translation, the only terms in English used for Juan Pablo’s abuela are “old lady” and “old woman.” Although the literal translation, “vieja,” is a term of endearment, “old woman” and “old lady,” both of which the author uses a lot, are derogatory.

It’s apparent that the author used Google Translate, rather than actual Spanish speakers, to check her use of Spanish. Here are just a few mistakes in the author’s use of Spanish:
Last week, a large black, red, and white banner sporting a menacing el diablo with sinister eyes and a leering grin…(p. 8) (“A menacing el diablo” translates incorrectly as “a menacing the devil.”)
“You”… he began with a soft viciousness, but he was breathing in huge, unnatural heaves,…“don’t know what you’ve done…persona estúpida…” (p. 32) (“Estúpida" or “estúpido” means “stupid person,” so the word “persona” is an incorrect repetition.)
He shook his head furiously, motioning for Juan Pablo to vamoose, to save himself… (pp. 28 ff)
The old man shouted, his hand waving, “Vamoose, Juan Pablo, vamoose.” (p. 35) (“Vamoose” is an English—white, Texan—corruption of the Spanish word, “vamos” or “vamonos,” let’s go. It’s not a Mexican-Spanish term and it’s not used by Mexicans.)

The older men cursed, spit, shook their heads. One swore, “La maldición del dios banditos.” (p. 186) (As written, this is meaningless: “The curse of the god bandits.” Perhaps the author meant that the bandits are the curse of God. That would be “Los bandidos son la maldición de Dios.” Or maybe she meant, “The curse of God: bandits.” That would be “La maldición de Dios: bandidos.”)

Towards the end, JP finds out that his father, whom his abuela had identified as “Dr. Juan Laves,” was the famous butterfly scientist, Dr. John Keys, of Stanford University (hence JP’s green eyes). Only “laves” is not the Spanish word for “keys.” That would be “llaves.”


NOTE ABOUT JUAN PABLO’S ABUELA

Juan Pablo’s abuela is the local curandera, also referred to as a “medicine woman.” She’s an Indian woman and a practitioner of traditional medicine. And she graduated from medical school.
His abuela was both a real doctor and the local curandera. The old ways had been passed down to her and after absorbing this ancient wisdom, she had gone on to attend Mexico City’s medical school. She had wanted to make sure she knew every aspect of healing. (p. 11)
Curanderas are trained, sometimes from childhood, in healing the body and spirit; indeed, curanderismo is something that requires lifelong dedication. Curanderas don’t just magically “heal” people; they work with people and with herbs and plants, to affect healing. There’s also an occasional curing that can’t be explained, and there are some things curanderas can’t do. But here, the author, by referring to this lifelong education and practice merely as “absorbing ancient wisdom,” diminishes all that goes into its study and practice.

Abuela appears to be a shaman as well. She’s an all-in-one spiritual phenom, singularly embodying not only a whole culture’s metaphysics but also bits of other cultures—a mishmash of mythology and mysticism that the author invents. 
Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s [sic / the nickname for “José” would be “Pepe,” not “little José”] poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away. (p. 11)
Of all the characters, Abuela is the most confusing because there are so many unanswered questions: Where did she get the money to attend medical school in Mexico City, where only the rich and privileged go? Where did she learn to speak and read English well enough to teach Juan Pablo and Rocio? (“Much of his abuela’s medical education,” the author writes, “had been in English and she was very fluent.” (p. 54) But. The courses in Mexico’s medical schools are taught in Spanish.)

More questions: Where, how and from whom did Abuela learn her shamanism and curanderismo, which are two different studies? How and why did she become the embodiment of everything that’s noble and mystical? 

Yet, despite all of Abuela’s talents, she’s helpless because she doesn’t know of any medicine or magic that would save her community from the terrible plague of the drug traffickers. But. Abuela is a healer. It’s not a curandera’s job to stop corruption and lead the people in rising up and taking back their village. Many curanderas are gifted, but this thread is major cultural appropriation. 

And, despite her training in both traditional and “city” medicine, Abuela gets a lot of things wrong. Just before Rocio’s abuelo succumbs to a fatal heart attack, for instance, Abuela warns Rocio that her abuelo’s poor health is due to his bad eating habits: He needs to stop eating like a barn animal and start eating like a hummingbird or I fear even my medicine will fail, she warns. (p. 24) However. Hummingbirds are tremendous eaters. With the fastest metabolism on earth, 100 times that of an elephant, they eat as much as three times their body weight each day. They eat all the time. No medical practitioner who is treating an obese person in poor health would counsel him to eat like a hummingbird. 


NOTE ABOUT THE PLACE

The story takes place in the tiny village of El Rosario, in the State of Michoacán, next to the winter nesting grounds of millions of monarch butterflies. While butterflies have a place in Mexican literature (see Guadalupe García McCall’s beautiful Summer of the Mariposas, Lee & Low, 2012, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2015/07/summer-of-mariposas.html), the butterflies’ pretended cultural context here is appropriative. For instance, rather than instructing Juan Pablo and Rocio to follow the North Star in their escape, JP’s abuela advises them to follow the butterflies’ migration pattern, a major plot line.

There are several El Rosarios in Mexico, including one in Baja, and another in the State of Sinaloa, the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, an international drug trafficking, organized crime syndicate that’s considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Does the author not know that El Rosario is the name of where the Sinaloa Cartel lives? 

In at least two places, the author gets the basic geography wrong: “Milkweed fed the butterflies on their perilous journey from El Rosario to the great lands of North America.” (p. 13) And, “[e]very year, fewer of the colorful winged creatures returned to El Rosario, and this year, in alarmingly diminished numbers, they had left for North America early.” (p. 15) When refugees from Mexico flee to El Norte, they’re going to “the north.” Mexico is part of North America. 


NOTE ABOUT DRUG TRAFFICKING

Throughout, the author often and incorrectly uses “banditos” to mean “bandits.” “Banditos” is an Italian word for thieves or robbers who steal property, people who live outside the law. The Spanish word for “bandits” is “bandidos.” During the Mexican Revolution, the ruling classes and the press referred to the revolutionaries as “bandidos,” and in 1967, Frito-Lay created their racist icon, “Frito Bandito,” to sell their chips.

Here, the author conflates the Italian term “banditos,” which was used by Frito-Lay to rhyme with “Fritos,” with the drug traffickers, whom she refers to as “narco-traffickers,” which is not a thing. The cartels are drug traffickers or, in Spanish, narcotraficantes. The cartels—the narcotraficantes—are far worse than “bandits.” Besides selling drugs, they recruit and bribe the local “leaders,” including mayors, judges, sheriffs, cops, and priests; and they murder—in the most vicious and gruesome ways possible—journalists and teachers and students who dare to challenge them. For everyone else, the choices are limited: stay and fight (and be likely to be tortured and murdered), flee to the US (and risk being arrested and sent back), or join the local narcotraficantes. (For an accurate picture of how the narcotraficantes wreak havoc in Mexican towns, see Phillippe Diederich’s excellent Playing for the Devil’s Fire (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2016/05/playing-for-devils-fire.html).


NOTE ABOUT “PLAYING INDIAN”

When Juan Pablo and Rocio were children: 
Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee [sic] in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee [sic] became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave; hospital—Rocio was the doctor and he the patient; school—Rocio was the teacher and he the student; and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—finally, he was Harry Potter and Rocio was Hermione. But lately, as they began outgrowing imaginary games, they hiked up to the tepee [sic] just to read good books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Old Man and the Sea, but also The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. (p.21)
Since most Mexicans are of Mestizo heritage, they’re “Indians.” That Juan Pablo’s Indian abuela would encourage the Indian children to “play Indian” doesn’t make any internal cultural sense. And, as Indian children, why would they want to enact stereotypical Plains Indians? This is all the author’s cultural assumptions and does not apply to Mexican children who probably did not grow up watching “cowboys and Indians” on 1950s TV shoot-‘em-ups. (JP and Rocio’s “tepee” shows up in a later chapter, when Juan Pablo and Rocio are on the run and hide in this “wooden structure,” which a tipi is not.)

The author also inserts some miscellaneous stuff that misrepresents Indians and Mestizos:
If [JP] squinted against the light just so, he could see the narrowest of paths reaching around the cliff. Probably an old Indian path. Indians used to live here hundreds of years ago, after the Aztecs and before the Spaniards. (p. 81)

NOTE ABOUT POOR WRITING, STEREOTYPES AND DESCRIPTIONS OF 
VILLAINOUS CHARACTERS

In a comment to an interviewer (Adventures in YA Publishing, 6/30/17), the author said that she wrote Juan Pablo & the Butterflies in two months. Besides showing sloppy research, faulty grammar and mangled Spanish, her often decontextualized writing contains a plethora of mixed metaphors and over-the-top exaggerations. An example:
These were not ropes, but hair. Girl’s braided hair. Just like ill-fated animals’ heads on a trophy hunter’s wall, no girl had willingly parted with her braids. (p. 20)
And if this is too subtle, the author doesn’t leave any room for misunderstanding:
The boss man Carlos wore a creepy smile, as if the smirk came with murderous thoughts….The man’s face spelled the word mean. Not a normal mean, but the kind of mean that was for no reason. English word: malice. (p. 22) 
What does “normal mean” mean?

And the author could have used the services of an editor and copyeditor, who would easily have picked up material like this (italics inserted): 

Rocio lay next to him, her tasseled hair forming a dark halo around her head. (p. 49)

The tiny whisper of a noise played like the crash of symbols in Juan Pablo’s mind… (p. 50)


NOTE ABOUT OTHER STEREOTYPES

Besides the “Indian” stereotypes and those of elderly people and Mexican and Mestizo cultures and lifeways, the author inexplicably throws in these:

(1) “Middle Eastern” People Are Afraid of Dogs
In a moment’s inspiration, [JP] remembered once a Middle Eastern tourist had stood at the plaza, terrified by little Tajo. Tajo’s hair lifted and he barked uncertainly… (Abuela explains to JP that “dogs smell emotions the way we see emotions on faces” and that “Tajo was confused by the lady’s fear. ‘Why is the lady afraid of me?’ Tajo wonders.”) (p. 58). 
(2) “Gay” and “Queer” People Are “Weird”

While stowing aboard an American cruise ship, JP meets twins, Cory and Rory. As JP withdraws his iPad from his abuela’s shopping bag, Cory notes:
“You have a girl’s purse.” Juan Pablo shrugged. “It is all I have.” “Weird.” Cory grimaced with a shake of his head. “Are you gay?” Juan Pablo greeted the question with confusion. He supposed he was gay… “I am having fun, yes.” The twins exchanged glances. “But are you…like, gay—like, you know, queer?” Queer? An English word meaning “not usual.” Was he queer? (His life might) seem odd to other kids, but he would not use the word queer. “I don’t think so. Do I seem queer to you?” They shook their heads. “I’ve just never seen a boy with a purse.” “It was my grandmothers,” Juan Pablo explained. “I need it to carry my iPad. I don’t have a phone.” (pp. 146-147)
(3) Children with Disabilities Are Just, You Know, “Special”
Dolores loved sharing stories about her family. Dolores’s husband, Sam, was a professor like her daughter-in-law, but of psychology. Her oldest daughter, Laura, was a veterinarian, and she was married to Lewis, a doctor. They had three children: Mark, fifteen, who loved sports and girls; Kyle, thirteen, who loved astronomy; and little Eva, a “special needs kid,” who Dolores said was a conduit for love. Conduit meant a conductor. Eva was a conductor of love. Dolores’s other daughter, Kimberly, was a schoolteacher…(p. 170)
(4) Villainous People Are Physically Ugly
A loose-fitting black dress shirt over black trousers draped his massive shape. A bear housed in human form. He had a large round head, as bald as a soccer ball, and almost as big. His puffy face squeezed his small, dark eyes. It was impossible to imagine this man smiling. (p. 19)

[A] lady guard stepped forward. The guard’s overweight form spilled out of the too-tight guard uniform. She had large eyes, rimmed in black like a raccoon, and bright red lipstick accented the thin lines of her mouth. Written in messy cursive, her name tag read Margo. She looked angry and sounded mean. (p. 162)

NOTE ABOUT THE REFUGEE CHILDREN’S DETENTION CENTERS

In one of JP’s escapes from the bounty hunter, he turns himself in to a cop by saying “the hardest words he could imagine: ‘I am Juan Pablo from El Rosario, Mexico, and I do not have the proper papers to be in America.’” (p. 160) He soon finds himself housed in what the author refers to as a “shelter,” in which he is “surrounded by a thousand desperate children.” (p. 161) When she discovers that JP speaks English, a grateful social worker immediately recruits him as a translator. It’s unbelievable, even in the context of this novel, that detention facilities—in which unaccompanied refugee children are warehoused while they’re being screened for asylum—would be called “shelters” and which would have no one on staff to communicate with the children. While the detention centers are horrible, there are translators.


FINAL NOTE

The author’s simplistic, formulaic, poorly conceived and abysmally written story disappears the realities behind the narcotraficantes and all those institutions that support them. Indeed, she chooses to ignore the important questions of the political and economic roles of the US and Mexico in the Mexican drug trade—and of the Mexican and American people on both sides of the border who buy and sell illicit drugs. She also chooses to ignore the thousands of undocumented immigrants who die struggling to get to El Norte, and the fates of the thousands of terrified, unaccompanied refugee children languishing in detention centers before being sent back.

In Juan Pablo & the Butterflies, the narcotraficantes are just a gang of murderous “banditos.” They’re the “Mexican bad guys” who just happen to invade a small Mexican village and take over. And, of course, it’s up to Juan Pablo, almost singlehandedly, to stop them—or to escape. Not recommended.


(Update, 8/17/17): Another term the author frequently uses is “droguistas,” which, in context, is supposed to mean “drug traffickers.” Aside from the unreliable-at-best Google Translate (which defines “droguistas” as “druggists”), I could not find the term anywhere and assumed that it was either Caló for “druggies,” or that it didn’t exist. None of my Spanish-speaking colleagues had heard of it either, but one told me that she thought it sounded like “drogadistas,” Spanish for “drug addicts.” Another, who is fluent in Tex-Mex, told me that “drug addicts” in Caló was “drogadicta/os.” Finally, a definitive answer: “Droguistas” is not a Spanish or Caló term for “drug traffickers,” “drug addicts,” or anything else. It. Doesn’t. Exist. Rather, street drug dealers are “tiradores,” from “tirador,” to toss around; and “narcotraficantes” (a term I had referred to in the body of the review) are high-level drug traffickers, such as the cartel bosses.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/6/17, updated 8/17/17)

Míl gracias a mis colegas, María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.