Little Chanclas

author: José Lozano
illustrator: José Lozano
translator: Luis Humberto Crosthwaite 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2015 
preschool-grade 2 
Mexican American

Little Lily Luján loves her chanclas. In a whole school year, their flipitin-flipitónes have accompanied her to “six quinceñeras, four baptisms, three weddings, two graduations, and sixteen family barbecues.” Everyone can hear Lily coming and going, and that’s why her nickname has become “Little Chanclas.”

Although the unrelenting, noisy flipitin-flipitón of Lily’s chanclitas majorly annoys everyone—relatives, neighbors, and others in the community—no one takes her flip-flops away. After all, they are part of who Lily is and how she navigates her world.

Now, every adult (but not necessarily every child) knows that nothing lasts forever—even flip-flops. Once their delicate straps break, it’s over. Lily’s personal tragedy occurs when the straps snap during a family barbecue, one of the chanclas falls into the guacamole bowl, and Chewcho, the neighborhood bulldog, quickly swallows the other one. ¡Aye, que no! Lily’s chanclitas are gone, she’s totally bummed, and there’s no consoling her.

Lily’s relationship to her beloved flip-flops and how friends, family and community members react to the strong-willed little girl is the essence of the story. As her Abuela gently and wisely reminds frustrated family members of their own childhood flirtations with flip-flops, the unspoken subtext demonstrates the acceptance of individual differences and the care and patience bestowed on the community’s children, who are to be loved and indulged rather than scolded or punished.

Using watercolor and inks on a vibrant palette of mostly oranges, yellows, blues and greens, Lozano’s art is reminiscent of the great Mexican and Chicano murals, especially those in East Los Angeles, the Mission District of San Francisco, and the Tex-Mex border towns. Flip-flop designs fill all of the front matter and back matter, and there are chanclas on virtually every interior page as well. Stylized full-bleed illustrations that often spread to parts of the accompanying pages contain real cultural events and real characters whose faces encompass the wide range of ethnic mixes among the Raza peoples in the Chicano communities.

Adding cultural authenticity and lively storytelling for young readers and listeners—hablantes and English speakers together—are the Spanglish words and phrases, together with onomatopoetic word play, all flawlessly woven into both texts. There’s, for example, Lily Luján’s “chanclas slippity-slappetying like castanets” (or, in Spanish, her “chanclas flipitín-flipitoneaban como castañuelas”). And, after Chewcho gobbles down one of Lily’s chanclas, “Chewcho se enfermó de chanclitis.” There are also some tongue-twisting place names tossed into the mix: Benny’s Burgertería, por ejemplo, and Sukey’s Sushitería.

It would seem that author-illustrator José Lozano and translator Luis Humberto Crosthwaite —who both demonstrate a dry wit and deft command of language—worked together, a practice rarely permitted in publishing.

Of course, Lily eventually grows to love a variety of other kinds of shoes—including high heels and moccasins—as well as her beloved chanclas. But her new favorites become—CLEATS! And, while everyone hears Lily’s “clickety-clackety ruckus” on the soccer field, no one cares. As she scores one goal after another, “todos gritarán de emoción,” ¡Échale ganas, Chanclitas!

The charm and enthusiasm of Little Chanclas (the child) invites young readers and listeners into her world, and the vibrant illustrations and upbeat word play of Little Chanclas (the book) is a delight for everyone.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/11/16)

Rooster / Gallo

author: Jorge Luján 
illustrator: Manuel Monroy 
translator: Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books, 2004 

El gallo abre su pico
y sale el sol.
El sol abre su mano
y nace el día.
El día se asombra cuando la noche
tiende su capa y la colma de estrellas
para que coma el gallo
y vuelva transparente
al nuevo día.
The rooster opens its beak
and up comes the sun.
The sun opens its hand
and the day is born.
The day is surprised when night
spreads its cloak and fills it with stars
that the rooster can eat
and so clear the sky for
a new day.
With only three lyrical sentences, this elegant, simple yet complex poem about the diurnal round brings to life all of the aspects of day and night. Here, all have volition and all cooperate for the greater good of the whole: Rooster pulls in his blanket of clouds to bring in the sun, who opens its hand to bring forth the day, who is surprised at the advent of night, who brings forth the stars for Rooster to eat and clear the sky for a new day.

Monroy’s striking images of bright and muted watercolors on a palette of blues, browns, golds and greens darken as night approaches and lighten at daybreak; he masterfully depicts Rooster sometimes as a weathervane, sometimes in the shape of a cloud, sometimes bringing in the day, and sometimes spreading his cloak to release the stars. The design, which forefronts Luján’s original Spanish in large red letters, is followed by the English translation below in smaller black or blue type that contrasts with the background.

Written in Spanish and beautifully translated into English, Rooster / Gallo is a brilliant little book with a large meaning. For babies, children and adults to enjoy at their own levels of understanding, it’s highly recommended.   

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/7/16) 

Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera

author: Monica Brown
illustrator: Thelma Muraida 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2011 
Mexican American

When I was a little girl, my family and I lived in Borough Park, a low-income Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. My grandparents, economically marginalized people with large families, having been hastily transplanted some 30 years earlier from stetls in Poland and Russia, had brought little with them to the “goldene land”—pretty much just each other and the clothes on their backs. And their stories. Some of the stories were heartbreakers—such as the one my father told me about when the family had to sell their cow to the butcher in order to get the money for them to leave. As the butcher led her away, my father recalled, she turned her head to the family and mooed her goodbye.

The traditional stories were often hilarious, with each having an embedded “lesson.” In one, a poor peasant with a large family, including his wife, many children, and his mother-in-law, live in a tiny house in a tiny stetl somewhere. All he wants is peace and quiet. So he enlists the aid of the rabbi, who, after lots of beard-tugging and heavy thought, tells him to bring the dog and cat inside. When the noise worsens, the rabbi tells the man to bring in the cow, then the goat, then all the ducks and chickens. When the man can no longer bear the chaos, the rabbi tells him to put the animals back outside. After which the man enjoys his newfound peace and quiet, and finds out—as listeners already know—that life could always be worse.

Monica Brown’s Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera was inspired by this traditional Jewish story. Here, a grumpy little girl, one of eight children, is “tired of not having any space or time” to herself. She doesn’t like to share, doesn’t like to do her chores, and doesn’t like to read. Overwhelmed, the child’s mother sends her to the curandera down the hall. But, rather than being taught how to survive the chaos of everyday life, Clara is given more tasks than she’s ever had—which indirectly teaches her that she has value in her community. In the end, when the curandera allows the transformed Clara to resume her old habits, she chooses to be helpful to everyone, and—while her family, friends and neighbors appreciate her for this newfound generosity—the curandera goes on to help another child with a problem.

Brown’s story has little left of the traditional one that inspired her—she’s flipped the time, the place, the characters, the cultural elements—and even the lesson learned. Yet, Brown is a talented storyteller and her version has a genuine feel to it, it’s got good rhythm, and it’s respectful of Mexican American elders, children, and the community in general. And, similarly to the “original,” the story is nuanced rather than “teachy-preachy”—the words show rather than tell. Young listeners will enjoy how Clara and the Curandera gently conveys its lessons.

Unfortunately, Muraida’s pastel artwork, on a palette of mostly blues, browns and golds, sabotages the story. Although the facial expressions of the main characters—Mami’s exasperation, Clara’s grumpiness, and the elderly curandera’s wisdom—are portrayed well, there are too many errors, ethnically and culturally. There is no father in the text; rather, it appears that Mami is a single mother of eight. Yet, the father appears as a small figure in the background of two illustrations. In the text, the family and community are Mexican American, but except for the curandera’s apartment (with candles, carved boxes and frames, and patterned tablecloth), nothing in any of the illustrations reflects the community’s culture. Rather, every room, hallway, and street appear to be bare; and in Clara’s apartment, which is home to her large family, nothing is out of place and there’s not a speck of dirt anywhere, not even a spot of grease on the oven.

Everyone—even the neighborhood children—has the exact same (light) complexion. And several of the artistic details—two of which separate the English from the Spanish text—are unforgivable. In one, Clara, hauling a heavy, stinky bag of trash, imagines herself enslaved. She is painted as dark. In another, a mini-portrait of Mami, Papi and the eight children, all of them are painted as dark. And in a third illustration, while Clara’s favorite doll is Mexican, the curandera gives her a new doll. This doll is white.

Behind the substandard art and boring design is this question: What kind of damage does this type of illustration inflict on children, especially the children whose cultures are being depicted? The lack of editorial attention, direction, and cohesiveness here are unacceptable. Our children deserve much better than this.

Unfortunately—despite the fact that Monica Brown is a very good storyteller—Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera, as a picture book, can’t be recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/1/16)

Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo

author: Monica Brown 
illustrator: Sara Palacios 
translator: Adriana Domínguez 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3 
Peruvian American

Marisol McDonald, for those who may have forgotten, is mismatched and marvelous, unique, different, and one of a kind. In Marisol McDonald and the Monster, our young Peruvian Scottish American narrator reveals that her favorite letter is “m.” She loves almost all things that begin with “m.” In Spanish and English, her favorite foods are mangoes, melocotones, and milk with miel; and her other favorite “m” words include magic, mustard, moon, monkey, mami, maíz, and magnífico. But the one “m” word that Marisol doesn’t like, at all, ever, in any way, is monster. In fact, she is so afraid of monsters that she keeps her family members up all night until she can fall asleep.

The many “monster-under-the-bed” picture books are primarily for children who sleep alone, and the parents are the ones who solve the problem. What’s unique about this story is that Marisol has agency—she figures out the problem and works it through. I would have expected no less of this resourceful little girl.

How our young narrator takes control is delightfully, marvelously, uniquely, differently and totally, Marisol. With Mami’s help and her “big and great and wild imagination,” she gathers markers, colorful yarn, old soccer socks, and whatever else she can find and makes her own three-legged sock monster who is “unique, different, and one of a kind”:

I dress her in a purple polka-dot skirt and a green striped shirt. I sew on three legs so she will be extra good at soccer. And I give her red hair, just like me, and blue fingernails!

So, while there’s still a monster under the bed, she’s Marisol’s own monster. Her name is “Melody,” or “Melodía” (of course), and it seems that she’s also scared to be by herself.

Palacios’ bright, colorful artwork, rendered in ink, marker, crayon, and cut paper, then digitally enhanced, engagingly balances the well-spaced text, which falls on solid-color or white backgrounds. Her not-so-scary monsters and subtly simple yet detailed illustrations also show what is not explicitly stated. Here, for instance, is Marisol, whose bright red hair matches that of her father and whose complexion is more like her mother’s; while her brothers’ ethnic mixes are shown by their varying complexions and hair colors as well.

In one my favorite double-page spreads, the whole family, exhausted, is slumping on two small living room couches. The boys are practically asleep, dad is yawning, mom is staring into space while holding Marisol’s little brother, and Marisol is trying to stay awake. The only one not in any way affected by their almost-stupor is Kitty the dog, chasing a ball around the room. (And readers who notice Kitty the dog’s exuberance on many of the pages might guess at his connection with the “monster” sounds that frighten our otherwise brave young protagonist.)

Domínguez’s idiomatic and rhythmic Spanish text is both translation and interpretation, so hablantes will enjoy the story as much as English-speaking readers and listeners. Besides having several words and phrases in Spanish italicized in the English text (which is common in some bilingual stories), Dominguez has “flipped” the parallel English words and phrases into the Spanish in a way that feels natural and without missing a beat. In addition, Dominguez uses the fact that plurals in Spanish end in “os” or “as” to add to the rhythm of the text. For instance, while the English reads, “I know monsters aren’t real, but when I think of them, I see scary eyes and wild fur and pointy claws and sharp teeth,” the Spanish reads, “Sé que los monstruos no existen, pero cuando pienso en ellos, me imagino ojos espantosos, cuerpos peludos, garras puntiagudas y dientes filosos.”

This teamwork of author, illustrator and translator have created the third in a series of fast-moving stories in a bilingual picture book format, in which a bicultural (at least), independent, resourceful, confident little girl invites hablantes and English-speakers to join her as she navigates her world. As with the first two titles, Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/25/16)

Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre

author: René Colato Laínez 
translator: René Colato Laínez 
illustrator: Laura Lacámara 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low 
kindergarten-grade 3 
Salvadoran, Salvadoran American

In Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre, young Sofía accidentally knocks over her mama’s purse, spilling out its contents. When a resident alien card drops out, the child discovers (she thinks) that mom must be an alien from outer space. Since her parents’ explanation doesn’t yield any usable information, the child does the research and the math and puts the puzzle together:

Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That meant I was half alien. I looked like a human girl, so my alien parts were hidden. But I needed to find out which half of me was hidden. Could I be alien from my head to my belly button? Or from my belly button to my feet? Could I be alien only on my right side or only on my left side?

It’s only after 23 pages that Sofía discovers the term “alien” has more than one meaning (“alguien de otro planeta o alguien de otro país”) and becoming a US citizen is easy and equally attainable by all. And that’s this story’s fatal flaw. While Colato Laínez’s writing is humorous and endearing, his Spanish translation is very good, and Lacámara’s bright, acrylic-and-collage artwork is appealing, the story ignores the inequities and dangers that immigrant and refugee children and their families must endure, and glosses over the issues of who gets to become a citizen and who doesn’t.

Mamá the Alien is sure to resonate with well-meaning teachers and librarians looking for picture books that are relevant to contemporary issues. And Mamá the Alien will surely be a hit as a read-aloud in bilingual early childhood classrooms. No doubt, refugee children will sit, heads down, confused and shamed and not understanding why.

We are living in a scary, dangerous time. Especially for undocumented children and their families, this fact cannot be disputed. While a nasty, hateful, racist xenophobe may become the next US President, the current President has unleashed thousands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to ensure that raids and dragnets remain commonplace. Confused, scared, unaccompanied children who are running for their lives—to get to the “safety” of El Norte—more often than not find themselves in detention centers, waiting for strangers to decide their fates. And others may hide for years—sometimes with extended family members who live in the US—in fear of being caught and sent back. Their lives must be kept secret, even from their classmates and friends. The same issues come back again and again and again and again.

Immigrants with papers, on the years-long road to US citizenship, don’t have it easy either. Job and housing discrimination, and verbal and physical attacks by xenophobes, are common. Both documented and undocumented individuals and families are often insulted as “aliens,” and even, “illegal aliens.”

Children who are not enmeshed in this difficult life, whose citizenship has never been questioned, need to be taught to challenge these inequities. They need to be taught to recognize the pain and call out those who demonize immigrants and refugees, and to become allies in what might seem to be an impossible struggle. The conversation is necessary. It’s beyond excuses.

The publisher’s note enthuses, “The book’s bilingual text makes it an especially good fit for English language learners who may struggle to find books that reflect their experiences,” and Mamá the Alien has garnered raves from the major review journals. As the Booklist reviewer wrote, “[this] heartfelt and humorous story is perfect for primary-school readers, as well as a useful way for parents or educators to introduce the topic of immigration.” And the Kirkus reviewer called it “a delightful, original, clever, purposeful, multicultural alien tale.” Unfortunately, all are missing the point.

While I do not doubt the good intentions of the author and illustrator, both of whom are immigrants, Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre trivializes the pain that so many children and their families undergo and makes light of migration issues that have yet to be resolved in this country. It cannot be recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/21/16)

Míl grácias a mi colega, Oralia Garza de Cortés.

Nueva Generación

Jóvenes muchachos
Niñas mujercitas.
Adolecentes todos.
Llenos de vida y esperanza.

¿Quien eres? te preguntan.
¿o Guatemalteco?

¿Mexico Americana?

American citizen?
Illegal alien?

¡Tantas preguntas!
¡Que confusión!
Solo venemos
con toda esperanza
buscando una vida
Mucho más mejor.

¿De adonde viniste?
¿De adonde eres?
¿Adonde naciste?
¿Adonde vas?

Busco a mi madre
quizàs mi padre
Trabajan duro
como burros,
o peor—esclavos.
Papá de obrero
Mamá de gallinera.

(Y no tienen papeles,
confiesas con una voz
casi silenciosa
como la de un ratoncito
en el sotano.)

Eso no importa, te contestan
y te invitan
a leer tu mundo nuevo, 
a cantar tu própio mundo
Lleno de sagradas alabanzas de querida 
poesía de lo nuestro: 
Neruda, Mistrál, Martí
Alarcón y Tafolla.

¿Los conoces? te preguntan.
Ven. Acá. Acércate aquí
A este temple hecho
Especialmente para tí.  
En donde puedas acariciar 
la Palabra,
cuando sientes
que te habla.

Diles que quieres saber todo sobre
el mundo entero.
Que quieres leer
Que quieres recitar
y actuar
como cuando primero
se creó el Quinto Sol. 

Ven, jóven. Ven.
Acércate a la féria
de estos benditos libros.
¡Son tuyos también! 
Tus mejores amigos
Que te darán vida
Y toda esperanza 
para un mundo
Mucho más mejor.

—Oralia Garza de Cortés

(published 7/18/16)

© 2016 Oralia Garza de Cortés
All Rights Reserved.

Little Crow to the Rescue / El cuervito al rescate

author: Victor Villaseñor
translator: Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz 
illustrator: Felipe Ugalde Alcántara 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2005 

When a boy becomes frustrated because crows are stealing the chickens’ corn, he asks his father why the thieves fly off before he can catch them. So Papá, as usual, answers his question with a story. This one, passed down from the boy’s great-grandfather in Mexico, is about a crow who teaches his son the reason that birds fear humans, and to fly away when they see a human pick up a rock. As the young crow listens to and learns from his father, “he [thinks] really hard and [watches] the farmer and his son”—and “has the biggest, brightest idea that he had ever had!”

It’s not hard to imagine a classroom full of kindergartners shrieking with delight at the young crow’s father’s announcement of his son’s brilliance and everyone else’s joining in:

“My son is a genius!” he crowed. “He has taught me something new! From now on, when any human approaches any of us, fly, fly away as fast as you can even before he bends down to pick up a rock because he might already have it in his hand!”

“There’s a genius among us!” other crows crowed in loud, shrill voices…. This message was so bright and new and marvelous that from valley to valley all the crows shouted it, cawing with their best and loudest voices!

Ugalde Alcántara’s brilliant color and bold images are reminiscent of the artwork of the early Mexican muralists. In the bright, sunlit fields, everything—from the blue-purple-black crow feathers to each yellow kernel of corn—is outlined in an opposing color against a subtly layered background, and the rows of crops in the fields become curved as they reach the horizon. A small image that reflects the story separates the Spanish and English passages on each left page. While most of the single-page, full-bleed illustrations on the right depict both human and crow characters, the two species are never shown in close proximity.

Cummins Muñoz’s colloquial Spanish translation flows smoothly and effortlessly, following the English in its storytelling rhythm. In some cases, the Spanish is actually preferable in its pacing to the English. For instance, when the farmer throws a rock at the crows, the English reads: “The big stone came flying fast and hit the tree the crows had been sitting on with a bang!” And the Spanish reads: “La piedrota voló bien rápido y ¡zas! chocó con el árbol donde habían estado sentados los cuervos.”

Towards the end of the story, the young narrator says, “Like many of his stories, Papá had learned it from his mother, Doña Margarita, who had learned her stories from her father, a powerful Indian from Mexico.” The facing illustration shows Margarita as a child, looking up adoringly at her strong Indian father. My guess is that Villaseñor never knew his great-grandfather’s name or tribal nation, and I would like to have seen something about this in his biographical note.

In this beautifully illustrated, captivating story within a story that begins and ends with the same question and answer—and examines the interdependence of humans and animals—the message that will especially resonate with young readers is how children can sometimes teach their elders a thing or two. Little Crow to the Rescue: El cuervito al rescate, which was awarded the 2007 Lacapa Spirit Prize, is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

A Mystery Bigger than Big: A Mickey Rangel Mystery / Un misterio más grande que grandísimo: Colección Mickey Rangel, Detective Privado

author: René Saldaña, Jr. 
translator: Carolina Villarroel 
illustrator: Mora Des!gn Group 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
grades 3-6 
Mexican American

Mickey Rangel is the real deal, a smart, wise cracking fifth-grader; an honest-to-goodness detective with an identification card in his wallet and an on-line certificate on his wall to prove it. And he’s already solved several cases—The Case of the Pen Gone Missing / El caso de la pluma perdida (2009), The Lemon Tree Caper / La intriga del limonero (2011), and The Mystery of the Mischievous Marker / El misterio del malvado marcador (2013).

In this new mystery, everyone’s talking about Natalia, who’s just arrived at school. She’s too skinny. Her clothes are worn and shabby. At lunch, she eats too quickly. She sits at her desk too quietly. She doesn’t interact with anyone, never smiles, and never even looks up. Who is this skinny, raggedy, quiet girl? Where is she from? What is she hiding?

Rumors are flying: Maybe her parents were Russian spies who ended up in Siberia. Or maybe they were killed in a plane crash and she was the sole survivor. Or maybe her father was a Mexican drug lord and she’s in the Witness Protection Program. Or maybe she’s an escapee from the circus or from some kind of asylum. She could even have been abducted by aliens and eventually returned. What’s her real story? Mickey, goaded on by his arch-nemesis, Bucho, is determined to crack the case. 

Mora’s attractive pen-and-ink illustrations complement the text and add to the suspense. Here is the sad, too-thin Natalia, sitting at her desk, staring off into the distance. Here is Mickey, studying Natalia, daydreaming about solving the mystery, and eavesdropping on conversations. And here is Bucho, the school bully, confronting Mickey. Without sacrificing the detective’s hard-boiled narrative, Villarroel’s engaging Spanish translation in this bilingual flipbook maintains the pace and suspense of the English.

While the earlier Mickey Rangel stories are fun and appealing, what makes this fourth mystery different from the others is the immediacy and importance of the subject and how effectively it is relayed to intermediate readers.

When Mickey first sees a news report about children from Central America who left their families behind to come to the US, he’s perplexed. How can children just leave? How can their parents allow them to? What happens to them? How is any of this possible? “Times are desperate,” his father tells him. Soon after, in a class discussion, Bucho relates a heartfelt story about his grandfather’s difficulties when he came here from Mexico. And Mrs. Garza, after reading a picture book to the class about a harrowing journey of a boy and his father, discloses to her students that her father also came here. Those were difficult passages and desperate times, just like now. And Mickey makes the connection between the skinny new girl and what she is going through: Natalia has become one of the countless, unaccompanied children from Central America, fleeing for her life to the uncertainty of El Norte.

Soon after, when Natalia—the sad, skinny, mysterious girl who appeared one day—suddenly disappears, Mickey (encouraged by, interesting enough, Bucho) makes an important decision:

She had left family behind, I’m sure of it. She had traveled such a long and hard way already. And I was certain her journey was not over yet.

Thinking about her and my silly attempt to discover her identity, I hoped for two things: one, that she would one day get to the place where she might eventually begin to smile again; and two, that she understood I was sorry for having hurt her like I did.

Sometimes some mysteries are best left unsolved.

In the context of a well written, fast moving school mystery, A Mystery Bigger than Big / Un misterio más grande que grandísimo is an excellent discussion about the difficulties of immigration and the dangerous lives of children—often without their parents—struggling to get to a safe place. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/2/16)

My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata // My Nana's Remedies / Los remedios de mi nana

Here are two children’s picture books by the same author. They are almost identical in title, some content and general theme; but much different in concept, approach and overall execution. Although   My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata  appears to be a majorly improved version of  My Nana’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi nana, I’m examining the two titles here because they were published as separate projects.

author: Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford
translators: Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford and Luis Humberto Crosthwaite 
illustrator: Antonio Castro L. 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2015 
grades 2-up 
Mexican, Mexican American

In My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata, young Aaron expresses interest in learning how Tata Augustine (or “Tata Gus,” as everyone calls him) makes his remedies, and the elder curandero decides that this is as good a time as any to begin the child’s education—“poco a poco te voy a ir enseñando qué usar y cuándo usarlo.” He directs his grandson to the shed in which dried flowers hang from rafters, and jars and bags are filled with other traditional medicinals—leaves, herbs and teas—each labeled, sorted and stored in its appropriate place.

As it happens, Tata’s first patient of the day is Aaron, who has hit himself in the forehead with the balero that Tata had given him. With Árnica de la Abuela and Árnica flowers—along with a handclap and a well-known healing rhyme—Tata’s remedy soon has the desired effect.

As each person in the community—relative, friend and neighbor—presents a health problem, Tata tells his grandson exactly what to get and where to find it, and then shows him how a particular herb or tea is used to solve a particular problem. Aaron learns, poco a poco, how to take away a bee sting, how to make feet stop itching, and how to cure diaper rash, burns, eye infections, and even a cold and a toothache. When Mamá and Uncle Mark arrive, they’re invited to spend the night, and Aaron gets to experience yet another cure and some stories from the family’s past. As Tata tucks him in and reminds him of the necessity of practice, Aaron thinks about how fortunate he is to have Tata as his grandfather and his teacher as well: “To have a loving grandfather is like a santo remedio—a magical cure!” / “Tener un abuelo cariñoso es como un santo remedio.”

Castro L.’s realistic and expressive single-page illustrations, rendered in colored pencil and watercolors, complement this authentic and loving portrayal of close family and community ties. Here is a horrified Sara, being stung by a bee. Here is an unhappy Justin, soaking his itchy feet in Creosote rinse. Here is baby Anita, “crying up a storm,” suffering from diaper rash. Here is Malila, in pain from a deep burn on her arm. Here is Rudy, the postman, with a red nose and watery eyes. Here is mariachi José Luis (“Guapo”), massaging his aching mouth. And here is a young child beginning to learn from his Tata how to help people in the community; a kind, generous Tata passing on his knowledge of healing and sharing—while an ever-patient Nana, with a big smile, provides comfort with fresh-baked empanadas and hot chocolate.

The endpapers remind me of earth and roots, and beautifully designed text pages—reminiscent of aged paper on which well-used recipes might be found—extend each full illustration and depict a specific herb with its common name in English and Spanish. As well, the back matter contains a helpful and educational bilingual “Glossary of Medicinal Herbs & Remedies / Glosario de hierbas medicinales y remedios,” in which each illustrated entry has both its common and scientific name in English and Spanish.

The excellent idiomatic Spanish is sometimes translated and sometimes interpreted, so the story flows in Spanish as effortlessly as English. Here, for instance, as Tata intones the children’s healing rhyme, “Sana, sana, colita de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanará mañana” (which translates as, “Heal, heal, little frog’s tail, if you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow”), young Aaron explains that it’s Tata’s way of saying, “I’ll kiss it and rub it and make it go away. Now that you’re better, you can go out and play!” In the Spanish version, of course, there is no explanation because none is necessary.

Rather than a typical European “beginning-conflict-resolution” children’s story that tells rather than shows, this beautiful book shows how oral teaching of traditional herbal remedies is transmitted across generations of community.

My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata, which won Antonio Castro L. an Illustrator Honor Book Pura Belpré Award, is a pleasure to look at, read, and learn from—and is highly recommended.

author: Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford
translator: Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford 
illustrator: Edna San Miguel 
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 2002 
grades 2-up 
Mexican, Mexican American

In My Nana’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi nana, there is no community to speak of. All we see of the family are a young unnamed narrator, her unnamed Nana, and her unnamed baby brother, who observes what little action there is. The story consists in its entirety of a list of conditions (“when I have a headache…”) followed by Nana’s cure (“my nana prepares for me…”). Each double-page spread depicts the narrator’s or her brother’s problem (sore throat, sleeplessness, stomachache, headache, chill, and fright) and Nana’s dispensing the traditional or herbal remedy.

The Spanish is grammatical and functional, closely following the English. Except for the next-to-last spread, which has a number of errors. Here, the English reads:

Whenever I don’t feel well, my nana is always at my side.
“I’ll kiss it, I’ll kiss it, and make it go away; then you can go out and play.”

And the Spanish reads:

Cuando no me siento bien, mi nana siempre está a mi lado, y me dice:
—Sana, sana, colita de rana. Si no sanas ahora, sanarás mañana…—

Here, “Sana, sana,” the healing rhyme, which is used by parents and grandparents all over Latin America to take a child’s attention away from a hurt or illness, is confusing; it's neither a translation nor an interpretation of the English that precedes it. Rather, the English, if anything, should have been used to explain the Spanish (as it was done in My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata). And “ahora” should be “hoy.”

San Miguel’s bright and colorful single- and double-page watercolor illustrations may appeal to some children, but they’re cartoonish and jarring. For instance, the young narrator and her little brother have exaggerated expressions and Walter Keane-like eyes, Nana’s eyes are often hidden behind her spectacles, and there’s just too much going on in each illustration. In addition, some of the pictures are confusing: the narrator’s “little baby brother,” on one page, is an infant; a few pages later, he’s about three years old; and on a later page, he’s a toddler. 

The back matter contains a “Medicinal Plants Glossary / Glosario de plantas medicinales,” with illustrations of several medicine plants, along with their common and scientific names in English and Spanish. The introduction to this section in English, in referring to the Native peoples of Mexico and southwestern US, uses the word, “Indian,” eight times (Mayo Indians, Yaqui Indians, Seri Indians, etc.); while the Spanish more accurately refers to the Native Nations without the extraneous ending “Indians” (“Los Mayos viven al sur de Sonora en las orillas,” “Los Yaquis viven a lo largo de las márgines del río Yaqua,” etc.). 

In Mexico, the southwestern US, and all over Latin America, curanderas are important and esteemed community members who practice and teach traditional and herbal cures to everyone, not just to their immediate families. But here, on a close to last spread, our young narrator (who is finally smiling) says, “How lucky I am to have such a special nana! She is my very own, personal healer.” (“¡Qué fortuna tener una nana tan especial! Ella es mi curandera personal.”) Except for information about specific traditional cures, there is no story here—no cultural teaching—and, unlike My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata, there is no relationship with the community. Many lost opportunities here; My Nana’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi nana, the earlier version, is marginally recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
 (published 6/12/16; revised 6/14/16)

Luis Paints the World

author: Terry Farish 
illustrator: Oliver Dominguez 
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 2016 
grades 2-5 
Dominican American

In the 1960s, Chicanos comprised only about 5% of the US population, yet made up about 22% of the US casualties in Vietnam. So towards the end of the decade, the Chicano community in California began organizing against their young people being drafted into the US war against Vietnam, comparing it to the US war against Aztlán. “Too many Chicanos have died in foreign jungles,” activists said, “and too many have died in barrio streets. ¡Ya, basta!”

On August 29, 1970, some 25-30,000 mostly Chicano people marched through the heart of East Los Angeles. This enormous, community-based familia included elders and parents and babies, students and teachers and seasoned political activists, documented and undocumented workers from the factories and the fields, and veterans from World War II and Korea and Vietnam. They came together from barrios all over the country: from San Diego, from Chicago, from Denver, from San Antonio, from Seattle. From New York, a large contingent of Puertorriqueño members of the Young Lords Party joined them. Here, at the National Chicano Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam, organizers declared that, for Chicano youth, the front line in the struggle for justice and human rights was not in Vietnam, but rather, in the barrios of the United States.

Soon after the march was over, thousands of demonstrators entered Laguna Park to hear the speeches and entertainment—and squads of LA county sheriffs, backed up by busloads of city police, attacked, wading into the crowd with tear gas rifles and batons. Most of the people tried to run for safety. There was none. Some fought back. By the end of the day, the cops had injured and arrested many, and killed three Chicanos, including the well-known and -respected journalist Rubén Salazar. For many reasons, the Chicano Moratorium was a day to remember and a day that the Chicano people hold in their hearts. It was a new day that was instrumental, a few years later, in ending the draft and the US war against Vietnam.

The great Chicano Moratorium is the context in which a colleague and I read Terry Farish’s picture book, Luis Paints the World. Here, young Luis, who is Dominican American and lives on the East Coast, can’t understand why his older brother, Nico, has decided to join the army and is about to be deployed. Nico’s answer is simply—and incomprehensibly for young readers and everyone else as well—that he will be “[s]eeing the world. Just like the army promised.” This is all that’s said about Nico’s military service. We don’t know where he’s going, we don’t know why, and we don’t know if or when he’ll be back. Just that he’s wearing camo (referenced in the art, but not the story) and he’s being sent “far away” “to see the world”—a phrase that Farish inserts into the story nine times. Luis, who doesn’t want Nico to leave, tries to convince him that “the world” is right here, by painting “the world” as a mural on an alleyway wall. But Nico leaves, and, as Luis awaits his return, neighbors join in to paint their world. Although Mami hints that, “some people don’t come back,” Nico does, and the reunification—as is the mural—is complete.

The murals in Dominguez’s brightly colored artwork—in what appears to be rendered in pastels—are chalky and less detailed than the people, who are more sharply outlined. This is a close-knit, economically marginalized Dominican neighborhood, with plenty of concrete on which to paint. I especially like the double-page spread that shows adults and children working together to create a beautiful and lively depiction of their world.

But. By creating a sanitized, feel-good picture book about a young Dominican American man who joins the Army to “see the world”—by focusing solely on peace and art and a thing called “multiculturalism”—Farish ignores the harsh realities of the lives of poor and disenfranchised people and the political and economic issues of why Latinos and other peoples of color disproportionately enlist in the US military. By doing so, and by ignoring the historical, political and cultural significance of the Chicano Moratorium and its aftermath, she is lying to innocent little kids about armed combat, about who goes and who gets to stay home, about US imperialism and world hegemony, and about peace, justice, community, struggle, and protest.

Luis Paints the World is not recommended. Older readers who are looking for the important historical context omitted here should read Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s outstanding YA novel, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood (Cinco Puntos Press, 2004).

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/2/16)

Mil gracias a mi colega, Ricardo Ramirez.

ABeCedarios: ABCs in English and Spanish // Opuestos: Opposites in English and Spanish // Colores de la Vida: Colors in English and Spanish // Count Me In! Numbers in English and Spanish // Animal Talk: Animal Sounds in English and Spanish

Oaxaca has had a wood carving tradition since long before first contact; the products of this tradition—from sacred to practical to whimsical—have taken the forms of religious statuaries, cooking utensils, household instruments, children’s toys and the like. Fast-forward to the 1950s, when a shepherd named Manuel Jiménez from the town of Arrazola was carving little wood animals while grazing his sheep at Monte Albán. When a white guy who owned a folk art shop in Oaxaca City “discovered” Jiménez and offered to buy everything that he could produce, others started to imitate Jiménez’s style, and the craft spread to San Martín Tilcajete and La Unión.

At about the same time, the opening of the Mexican span of the Pan American Highway brought to Oaxaca an influx of tourists, whom folk art dealers realized would happily purchase both replicas of old carvings and work that had no longstanding cultural traditions. This beginning of the folk art woodcarving practice has brought construction of paved roads, schools and hospitals to the area, and has been an important source of cash income for the woodcarvers and their families. And it’s one of the crafts that have made the state of Oaxaca world famous.

Weill, an English teacher who is fluent in Spanish, spent a Fulbright Teacher Exchange year in Mexico City and travelled to Oaxaca on weekends. Initially drawn to its abundance of crafts, she later enrolled in a doctoral program, researching intercultural collaboration in folk art production—and what would result if artisans created what pleased them rather than what might appeal to potential buyers. She also wanted a platform, as she told me, to showcase the work of the artists and artisans in ways that would recognize their unique talents.

Weill’s academic work eventually became a cross-cultural collaborative art project with several folk art producing families in Oaxaca. If a project were to be collaborative as well as cross-cultural, Weill would find out, she would have to give up a lot of control and become “joined at the hip” with the families with whom she worked. And everyone would have an equal voice.

One of the results of this collaboration is a series of five adorable bilingual concept books that introduce the littlest learners to the alphabet, colors, counting, opposites, and animal sounds. Anyone who is able to sit still for a moment will thoroughly enjoy the brightly colored- and -patterned wooden animalitos, on highly saturated backgrounds that bring to mind the texture of plastered walls.

author: Cynthia Weill 
artists: Armando Jiménez, Moisés Jiménez  
Cinco Puntos Press, 2007, all grades

The first in the series, ABeCedarios: Mexican Folk Art in English and Spanish, features well known animals (“the Elephant / el Elefante”), and rare (“the Quetzal / el Quetzal”), and imaginary ones (“the Unicorn / el Unicornio”), and one that is as yet “undiscovered” (the mysterious “X / el/la X,” a winged creature that breathes fire); as well as animals for which there are uniquely Spanish sounds (“el Chapulín” to demonstrate “ch,” “la Llama,” to show “ll,” “el Ñu” or “gnu,” and “el Zorro,” to depict “rr”).

author: Cynthia Weill
artists: Martín Santiago, Quirino Santiago
Cinco Puntos Press, 2009, all grades

The second work, Opuestos: Mexican Folk Art Opposites in English and Spanish, depicts contrasting concepts on opposing pages (“asleep / dormido” and “awake / despierto”), sometimes depicting the same animal (“inside / adentro” and “outside / afuera” the frame) and sometimes showing a different animal or insect: The opposing concepts “high / alto” and “low / bajo,” show a butterfly on the upper left corner of the left page, while a dog, on the center of the right page, looks hungrily up at it; in another spread, two almost identical dogs, one with a “long / larga” tail faces one with a “short / corta” tail.

author: Cynthia Weill
artists: Rubí Fuentes, Efraín Broa, María Jiménez, Jesús Sosa, Angélica Vasquez, Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, Eleazar Morales, René Mandarín, Eloy Santiago, José Miguel Pacheco Aguero, María Jiménez  
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011, all grades

In the third librito, Colores de la Vida: Mexican Folk Art Colors in English and Spanish , the animals—done in different techniques this time—are mostly displayed on background colors that correspond to the animals themselves. So, for instance, two purple bunnies (with orange carrots, which add some contrast and realism) sit on and opposing a “purple /  morado” background, and a glorious orange lion (with a full mane and what appear to be actual orange slices as ears and eyes) sits on an “orange /  anaranjado” background. I especially like the question at the end (with a cow and her calf on a green background and the lettering on a blue background):  Can you say all the colors in Spanish? / ¿Puedes nombrar todos los colores en inglés?

author: Cynthia Weill
artists: Guillermina Aguilar, Josefina Aguilar, Irene Aguilar, Concepción Aguilar
Cinco Puntos Press, 2012, all grades

Unlike the others, Count Me In! A Parade of Mexican Folk Art Numbers in English and Spanish features all humans, decked out to participate in a festival called “Guelaguetza,” which is Zapotec for “to share.” Except for the initial two-page spread, which shows a line of people beginning the parade (Here comes the parade! / ¡Aquí viene el desfile!), all of the other illustrations (along with captions that will entice the youngest of listeners) land on the right-hand pages on solid backgrounds with only the numbers 1-10 in English and Spanish. Opposite “four / cuatro,” for instance, is this: The giants are my favorite! See the person wearing the costume peeking through from inside? / ¡A mí me encantan los gigantes! ¿Ves a la persona que lleva el disfraz mirándonos desde adentro?

author: Cynthia Weill
artists: Rubí Fuentes, Efraín Broa 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2016, all grades

And finally (for now), there’s Animal Talk: Mexican Folk Art Animal Sounds in English and Spanish. Here, probably the most beautiful and detailed animals and insects in the series demonstrate how sounds from everyday animals and insects (roosters, kitties, fish, goats, tigers, cows, horses, dogs, frogs, piggies, lions, snakes, turkeys, and owls) make sounds that may or may not be pronounced differently in two languages. For example, Roosters say Cock-a-Doodle-Doo. Can you? / Los gallos dicen Ki-Kiri-Ki. ¿Puedes tú? But fish say “glub-glub” in both languages. And the humor is sometimes slyly tucked in for the benefit of children who may be bilingual: Turkeys say Gobble Gobble / Los pavos dicen Gordo Gordo (!) The back cover, which may be my favorite, clearly and hilariously demonstrates how and why this all works: Sometimes they’re talking to you. / A veces me están hablando a mí.

Bilingual, colorful, inviting, absolutely adorable—and definitely child-centric—these libritos will capture and hold the attention of the littlest to the biggest kids (and adults alike—I keep coming back to them, and I’m known to be hard to please). All are highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/1/16)

[Reviewer's note: I want to share with readers some information about how this project's collaborative plan becomes a reality. Cynthia Weill and the artists work together for between two and four years to produce each book. (Cynthia mentioned to me that her role often includes babysitting so that the artist families can concentrate on their craft.) She pays the artists market rate for their work, which she then donates to the Field Museum of Chicago. After each book has been produced, Cinco Puntos Press gives each artist family 100 copies of the book that features their work.]