Soñadores // Dreamers

author: Yuyi Morales
illustrator: Yuyi Morales
translator (Spanish): Teresa Mlawer. 
Neal Porter Books / Holiday House, 2018 
preschool-up (Mexican)

On the cover, facing front, is a young Brown mama, in a white Mexican blusa with blue embroidered trim. With both hands holding her baby safely up against her body, this mama looks straight ahead. Her eyebrows are slightly raised and she is not smiling. Her expression is concerned and questioning, maybe a little fearful. 

The book’s spine bisects mama’s face and body. To her right and the cover’s left—on a bright background of embroidered Mexican flowers in blues, reds, pinks and yellows—is the south, the land she is leaving. On her left and the cover’s right, two flowers peek out from behind her. She and her baby are traveling north, to a place unknown.

Safe in the arms of his mama, a diapered Brown baby—slightly lighter-complected than his mama—is smiling and looking northward. With one tiny hand on his mama’s sleeve, his eyebrows slightly raised, he is secure and curious. This baby’s eyes are focused on the book’s greenish and cottony-soft title. He is a soñadorcito, a little dreamer, open to all the new things around him. Above him a swallow flies into the clouds; and almost below him a monarch butterfly alights on a flower to take in the energy-rich nectar that will sustain its long journey. Guided by the swallow and the butterfly, the mama and her baby—and their dreams—are headed north.

And behind them all shine the rays of a bright sun.

In 1994, Yuyi and her two-month-old baby journeyed from their home town of Xalapa to San Francisco. Soñadores // Dreamers is Yuyi’s story of how and why they came here (“migrantes, tú y yo”) and how the magical place they eventually found—the San Francisco Public Library—changed their lives. Yuyi has told this, her “immigrant” story, many times to many different audiences. She was a shy young mother then, coming to a place where she did not understand the foreign language—English. Where (“cometimos muchos errores”) she did not know that a public fountain was not a place for her son to bathe and play (“¡Ay!”). And where she and her baby became caminantes, walking all over the city. This shy young mother eventually discovered “un lugar que nunca antes habíamos visto”—the glorious public library, a place (“Misterioso. Fantástico. Increíble. Sorprendente.”) that held thousands of books, a place in which kind strangers allowed her and her baby to stay all day, and—with something called a “library card”—even take home as many books as she could carry! For free!

It’s here, as she says and writes, that “Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestra lengua. / Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestro hogar. / Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestro vida. / Y tú y yo / aprendimos / a leer, / a hablar, / a escribir, / y / a hacer / oír nuestras voces.” (“Books became our language. / Books became our home. / Books became our lives. / We learned to read, / to speak, / to write, / and / to make / our voices heard.”)

As she checked out what must have been thousands of books, Yuyi taught herself how to make books: how to paint with various media, create handmade paper out of scraps, and bind books with string. As a stranger in a strange land, learning to transform paper and ink and scraps and string into storybooks, she began to see herself as someone with a voice and stories to tell.

As the pages turn, Mama Yuyi is making her own books and becoming more proficient and more confident in her art(s), and baby Kelly has become a toddler, helping his mother and drawing on his own as well.

Yuyi’s full-bleed double-page spreads are luminous. After creating the initial artwork with acrylics and pen on paper, she photographed and scanned in things that were meaningful to her: her studio floor, the comal on which she grills her quesadillas, her childhood drawings, a brick from her house, one of her chairs, a metal sheet, leaves and plants from her garden in Xalapa, hand-painted pants she had made for Kelly, a traditional wool skirt from Chiapas, and much, much more. Each spread becomes, in effect, a gorgeous giant collage of Yuyi’s life and work. 

As well, Yuyi has incorporated into her art and text a voluminous collection of titles and covers of her favorite picture books, many of which are favorites of mine as well. (I was stunned to see, for instance, Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition, a little known and important picture book about the dilemma of a young boy during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.) 

On the last spread of the English version (left) and the Spanish one (right) is this:
We are stories.
We are two languages.
We are lucha.
We are resilience.
We are hope.
We are dreamers,
soñadores of the world.
Somos historias.
Somos dos lenguas.
Somos lucha.
Somos tenacidad.
Somos esperanza.
Somos soñadores,
soñadores del mundo.
Yuyi wrote her autobiographical story in her second language, and Mlawer then translated it into Spanish. Although I would prefer to have seen Yuyi’s story in her own Mexican vernacular Spanish, I can understand the publisher’s wish to make the Spanish “universal.”

Both Soñadores and Dreamers are indeed a song of struggle and tenacity and hope and dreams—a song that becomes who immigrants and refugees are, rather than what they have or don’t have—Somos lucha. Somos tenacidad. Somos esperanza. Somos soñadores. Both are highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/13/18)

Thank you to the great Noam Szoke, Diseñador Extraordinario, for his expertise, not to mention his patience. 

Note: Yuyi Morales is a kind, generous, multi-talented soul, and I wondered why, some 20 years after she and her baby arrived here, she decided to write and publish this, her autobiographical “immigration” story. Yuyi’s honesty and generosity extends to our interview. Readers can find it below. 


Beverly: When we first met in 2013, you were reading and performing Niño Wrestles the World to an audience of very young children in a public library in Oakland. As I remember, you were interacting with them in both Spanish and English, and they were transfixed on you and the images in the book. In places—especially when you dramatically and hilariously voiced Niño as he battled the monstrous imaginary enemies—the children were screaming with laughter, and their parents and library staff were delighted with your performance as well. What do you remember about that time in your life? 

Yuyi: I have lived in the USA as an immigrant for 20 years already and I am currently working in my studio in my town of birth, Xalapa, Mexico. My life is divided nowadays, as I constantly travel between Mexico and the USA to do my work and to be close to people I love in both places. I feel like I am a constant immigrant, like the monarch butterflies, or the swallows, or the free-tail bats (and many other animals) that every year make their way between Mexico and the USA. My own constant migration sustains me and my work—my heart always divided between two lands, and it is in the USA where I get to have a conversation with readers and have moments like the one you describe, where children and I get together to discover, share, and even scream with joy at the power of stories and books.

What were your thoughts as you first crossed the border, as a young mother with your baby, speaking one language; and what are your thoughts now, being able to travel back and forth as a talented and established artist and children’s book author—fluent in two languages? What changed for you and what about you remains the same? 

I was actually pretty nervous. While I was pregnant I had already been denied a tourist visa to come and meet my future baby’s family, and when I finally crossed the border—carrying papers to solicit entry with a fiancé visa—I was mentally prepared to be denied entry again. Once inside the USA, I got to meet my son’s family and I had a wedding, required by my visa, in which I didn't understand anything of what was said during the ceremony. But until that time, not speaking English hadn’t bothered me because I was in the USA visiting for only a few days and soon I would go back home to my life—or so I thought. Soon after my wedding, I learned that the visa I had been granted was not a “visiting” visa but an “immigrant” visa, which gave me the right to live in the USA—a right I was required to exercise. From that moment on, my lack of English, and unexpectedly having to make a home as a new mother in another country, became a journey I felt completely unprepared and insufficient for.

Nowadays, when I travel between the USA and Mexico, every time I present my citizenship papers at the immigration booth, I realize how fortunate and privileged I am to be able to call Mexico and the USA, both, my homes. But it took me 18 years to arrive at such a place.

For you and your baby, crossing the border involved walking across the bridge between Mexico and the US. Separating from your people, language and culture was emotionally difficult, of course. Now, for others, crossing remains all these things and is also much more dangerous. What message, if any, would you send to people on this side who may believe Trump’s reductive rhetoric about immigrants and refugees? What message would you send to the many parents and children whom this administration has forcefully separated from each other?

When my son and I entered the USA we were actually welcomed, and along the journey many people extended their hand to us—and people’s support became even more apparent when we discovered the public library. There were librarians who in doing their jobs changed my life completely. Nowadays the discourse about immigrants is so pernicious that we have become the new “boogeymen.” The Trump administration has linked the image of the immigrant to words such as crime, rape, stealing, taking what others have worked for, violence, and so many other scary terms that immigrants have become the new subhuman of whom a whole country must get rid, turn away, and exterminate rather than welcome or aid. 

I am so saddened, so enraged by this hateful rhetoric and the recent actions of separating families and criminalizing immigrants, refugees and amnesty seekers, and my helplessness multiplies every time I see people supporting these reductionist beliefs. At some points, my frustration has been so high that it has become difficult for me even to do my work, to make the books I so much love to create. But then I believe in the power of books as a way of hearing and listening to the voices of the most vulnerable ones, and with Soñadores // Dreamers I am hoping to extend an invitation for immigrants to make their voices heard through their own stories.
How do you see your stories and art engaging with people from both sides of the border? Especially, how does your story and art connect with the personal stories of other migrants and immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America? How do you see their hopes and dreams connecting with yours? What would you like to tell them?

Through all these years, as I have been sharing my books and stories, I have been meeting and talking with immigrant families, and whenever they would ask me how I had entered the USA, I could see that even in our different journeys we all had something in common. We often come heartbroken for having to leave behind our places of birth; difficult places sometimes, but to us they are places that define us and that we also love. 

And in coming to a new country we are often perceived as if we have come to steal what others have worked hard for. We are seen as invaders, takers, the ones who don’t have anything to give. This is absolutely untrue! We immigrants and refugees have so much already. And we bring all we are with us.

I would like to tell these families that all of their stories are important, and I want to work with families and children so that they can tell their own stories. It is part of the purpose of Soñadores // Dreamers.

Why did you create Soñadores //Dreamers and what subliminal messages did you think about transmitting through its creation? When you say, “Somos soñadores del mundo,” to whom are you referring and whom are you including?

As much as I like to tell stories through books—and my agent had talked with me about the need for us, as authors, to share our immigrant stories—I had never thought about making my own story into a book. And when the primaries began and then candidate Trump made attacks on immigrants a main part of his campaign, and then he won the election, I felt a big emptiness of purpose, I felt unable to work anymore. 

And I felt that my story wasn’t important. After all, I didn’t cross the desert through a dangerous journey, I didn’t enter undocumented, I had a new family who wanted me to be in the USA and were finding out how I could enter. And although in my heart it was devastating having to stay unexpectedly in the USA, I also knew that I had many advantages that most immigrants don’t have when they try to come here.

It was then that my editor and agent tapped into something I had not considered myself, and it is that my story matters, too. You know? As they encouraged me to make my immigrant journey into a picture book for young readers, there was another element I thought about: In my crossing borders, I had not done it alone. I had come with a very young baby who, together with me, had to grow and learn to thrive in a new land. The message that I wanted to bring across in Soñadores // Dreamers is something that has taken me a long time to realize and be able to put into words: that it is a fallacy that we immigrants come to a new land to take everything and give back nothing. To me it is important to uncover my own learning and to share what I have come to understand: that all of us who come to a new country bring with us amazing gifts to create a better life and a better world for everybody. Somos soñadores del mundo and we bring regalos.
¡Ningún ser humano es ilegal! (To be human is never illegal!) What does this mean to you, personally and politically?

To brand a human as illegal is an act of violence and oppression. It is a way to snatch the humanity from people in order to justify the violence acted upon them. We must fight against this labeling of people for the purpose of reducing their humanity and making it easier to wage a war against immigrants and refugees. There is much work to do.

Yo Soy Muslim

author: Mark Gonzales
illustrator: Mehrdokht Amini
Salaam Speaks / Simon & Schuster (2017)
all grades 

In this letter to his young daughter, Afro-Mexica Muslim father, poet and spoken-word artist Gonzales gently and lovingly introduces her to the many facets of her world. Speaking directly to Muslim children and indirectly to all children everywhere, he addresses the beauty of Islam and “learning what it means to be human.”

It has been said,
if you climb a tree
to the very top and laugh,
your smile will touch the sky. 

From the ground below, the hopeful father looks up at his daughter. Smiling and secure, she is balanced at the top of a tree, her arms spread to take in all that surrounds her. Here, her father reimagines a teaching from Rumi, 13th Century Muslim scholar, philosopher and poet, who wrote: “Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”

As well, there are many Koranic references to dreams, which are often said to be prophecies. Introducing this concept to his daughter, Gonzales continues, 

If you stay there overnight,
you will learn to count stars like dreams.

As they walk in the steel shadows of skyscrapers, Gonzales reminds his daughter of the giant Mayan pyramids “that too lived amongst the heavens.” As they fly together through the skies, he tells her that there are “questions we all ask when we are learning what it means to be human”—and “questions this world will ask,” some curious and others hostile. 

Gonzales tells his daughter to say it with him: “Yo soy Muslim,” and the child is no longer questioning. She knows who she is and what she comes from, and confidently holds her arms out to embrace her world:

Yo soy Muslim.
By those who dance with the wind,
smile at the sun,
laugh in the rain,
and pray.

Amini’s digitally rendered collage-style art, on a vibrant, jewel-toned palette, features bold, exuberant designs and expressions that complement Gonzales’ careful and loving teachings. 

Every detail has meaning, and Amini’s bright, stylized art reflects the multicultural and multiethnic nature of Islam. Throughout, Gonzales’ Afro-Mexica daughter wears a beautiful Mexica orange, red and green embroidered-and-fringed dress, along with striped leggings for modesty; when she’s not barefoot, her shoes of choice are the ever-popular Crocs. And, as a child, she wears hijab only when she prays. 

In many illustrations, the child’s eyebrows are raised, sometimes questioning, sometimes in wonder. In most, she is depicted with her father or her mother, rarely alone, always protected. When the child proffers her hand to a curious group of strangers, her mother, a hijabi who wears a beautifully patterned jilbab, empowers her daughter by quietly standing behind her; but when other strangers appear less than friendly, her mother turns to her daughter, takes her hand and calmly speaks to her. 

“On that day,” Gonzales writes, when she must abide the hostile stares of unsmiling strangers, “tell them this…”

Yo soy Muslim.
I am from Allah, angels,
and a place almost as old as time.
I speak Spanish, Arabic,
and dreams.

On one side of a particularly evocative spread, a sorrowful mama holds her baby close. She wears a loose green headscarf patterned with plants growing in cultivated rows. Her headscarf design trails across to the next page that shows where her sadness originates: a slightly stooped-over abuelo, working the fields with a hoe. Some young readers may recognize her as Pachamama, the sacred Earth Mother of the Indigenous peoples of the Andes—and know that their own ancestors are both spiritual and physical:

Mi mama creates life.
Mi abuelo worked the fields.
My ancestors did amazing things
and so will I.

Surrounded by the love and protection of her faith, her parents and her community, Gonzales’ young daughter is standing confidently on the top branches of a tree, arms spread to take in all the world. She is counting stars like dreams and soaring over the minarets with a flock of geese. She is contemplating the ancient Mayan pyramids in the steel shadows of skyscrapers and meditating in a mosque. She is receiving the blessings that hummingbirds send with their wings and listening to the ancient drums in the hoofbeats of horses and the sweet music of the angels. 

As a parent, Gonzales understands that his job is to instill confidence and humility and love and reverence and joy in his young Afro-Mexica Muslim daughter. “No matter what they say,” he tells her,

….know you are wondrous.
A child of crescent moons,
a builder of mosques,
a descendant of brilliance,
an ancestor in training.

This lyrical, compassionate, and intensely personal book is for all Muslim children—no, for all children. Yo Soy Muslim is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/2/18; revised 7/21/18, rewrote paragraph (“On one side of a particularly evocative spread...” to substitute “Pachamama” for “Madre Tierra.”)

Thank you to my dear friends, Nasira Abdul-Aleem, Hadiyah Abdul-Mu’min, Shohreh Doustani, Mehdi Rajabzadeh, and Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh. 

On the Other Side of the Garden

author: Jairo Buitrago 
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng 
translator (English): Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2018 
preschool-grade 3 

Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng, who gifted us Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits and Camino a casa // Walk with Me, present young readers with another beautiful story in which the complexity and symbolism is half-hidden in its seeming simplicity. While children born on this side of the garden will enjoy an evocative story of a little girl’s temporary stay with her loving grandmother while her parents sort out their lives elsewhere, immigrant children born on the other side will see the difficulties they themselves may have had to endure while navigating a new and different world and learning some of life’s lessons along the way.

Textually and visually, sadness permeates almost every page. As young Isabel’s grandmother shows her to the place where she will be sleeping, she looks straight ahead and doesn’t notice an owl-decorated bedspread, a frog planter, some lilies in a vase, and a small framed picture of two mice with a huge hunk of cheese. All she knows is that this house isn’t her house, and she realizes that she no longer lives with her parents. She covers her face with a pillow and sighs: 

My bedroom wasn’t my bedroom…. I lay down on the bed that wasn’t my bed, thinking about the city, about my friends who were far away now, and that Dad would have to come back and get me some day.

In the next spread, Isabel sits up, surprised. She’s not alone. The three creatures—the owl, the frog and the mouse—are alive and peering at her through the window. Rather than being frightened, she opens the window and talks with them. Here, observant readers may notice that everyone speaks the same language and that this story is more than it appears to be.

Yockteng’s textured digitally produced illustrations—mostly on a limited, almost-monochromatic palette of dark, flat blues with only the owl, the frog, the mouse, Isabel’s nightdress and an occasional image in other colors—appear as hand-drawn scratchboard or linocut prints and complement the child’s somber emotions. 

On the cover and on almost every double-page spread that follows Isabel’s initial meeting with the creatures who have come to visit, young readers will see a long wooden fence separating one side of the garden from the other side of the garden. At night, as the owl, the frog and the mouse walk with Isabel along the fence, they caution her:

“Never cross this fence, Isabel,” warned the owl. “There are some fierce dogs on the other side.” 
“And they bite,” said the frog.
“Sometimes I sneak across to eat a little of their food. So if you want to go over there, I can keep watch so they don’t appear all of a sudden,” offered the mouse.

Here is where young migrant or immigrant readers will probably understand the symbolism: The “fence” is the international border, the “fierce dogs” on the other side of the fence represent La Migra, the US Border Patrol; the owl and the frog will stay on this side to warn other migrants and immigrants of the dangers to come as they cross, and the mouse is a “coyote,” a guide who leads groups of migrants and immigrants safely across to the other side. 

As the new day dawns and Isabel begins to grow into her new (for now) environment, Yockteng’s scenes take on more color. The owl, the frog and the mouse remain at their posts while Isabel says goodbye and runs toward her grandmother’s house. Here, on this side of the garden, she is safe in the protective arms of a woman she hardly knows, and she will settle in to await news from her parents on the other side of the garden. The child has taken off her muddy boots and, next to them on the grass, is a plate of bread and jam her grandmother has prepared for her. Isabel’s grandmother is smiling while she shows the child the flowers in her garden, and Isabel, holding a cup of steamed milk, acknowledges that “the garden looked different in the daylight,” but hasn’t yet begun to smile. There’s still danger lurking, though: A black cat is stalking the frog and the mouse, who are trying to conceal themselves and preparing to flee. And on the next spread, the cat has picked up speed and is chasing them.

In the upper right-hand corner, a small falcon navigates the currents of air. And Isabel is almost smiling. Although her parents have not returned (yet), still, she feels less abandoned and, with her grandmother’s love and patience, is beginning to heal. We don’t know how this young person’s story ends, because, in this story as in reality, there is no neat ending to what has occurred and what is continuing to occur. 

Throughout history, the rise of fascism has always been marked by the dehumanization—the “othering”—of some people and often, of children. A carefully guided reading of On the Other Side of the Garden, along with Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits, presents an opportunity for caring educators to make a difference in the difficult lives of migrant and immigrant children who, for one reason or another, may not be able share the realities of their lives. These educators have an opportunity here, however small, to push back against this government’s xenophobic assaults by acknowledging and honoring the children’s struggles and showing them that they are loved. On the Other Side of the Garden is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/25/18)

Julián Is a Mermaid

author: Jessica Love 
illustrator: Jessica Love
Candlewick Press, 2018
Dominican American

On the front endpapers, young Julián, wearing red swim trunks, joins his abuela and her friends as they swim in the local pool. While the adult women hold on to the pool’s wall, Julián swims like a fish, happily blowing air bubbles. On the back endpapers, Julián’s abuela and all her friends—still wearing their swim caps and patterned bathing suits—have become mermaids, the pool has become open water and all of them are submerged and blowing bubbles. At the forefront is Julián, a purple mermaid with a long yellow tail, his hair loose and flowing. He’s looking directly at the readers, inviting them to join the party. 

In an exemplary model of “show, don’t tell,” Love limits her-matter-of-fact text (“This is a boy named Julián. And this is his abuela. And those are some mermaids. Julián LOVES mermaids.”), and employs her luscious art to welcome young readers into Julián’s world. 

As the story begins, we meet Julián and his abuela, returning from the beach and headed towards the subway. Julián is holding a large picture book about mermaids that his abuela has given to him. When the two sit down, Julián turns to his abuela, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Soon after, three fabulous turquoise mermaids board the train and one waves at the entranced Julián.

In a dream sequence inspired by the pictures in his book and by the three mermaids, the train fills with water as Julián strips down to this tighty-whities and transforms himself into a fabulous mermaid with long, flowing hair, a purple lower body and yellow tail. In a sea of gorgeous turquoise-green, he swims with a variety of sea creatures, and accepts a necklace from a large blue fish with white patterned scales. Hold that thought, and look for the blue-and-white pattern later on.

Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Abuela wakes him. It’s time to go. Julián and the mermaids wave to each other. On their way home, he asks Abuela if she had seen the mermaids. “I saw them, mijo,” she says. As the two reach their front door, Julián tells her that he is also a mermaid. Now, having come out to her, Julián’s posture has changed. He’s standing tall now, relaxed and smiling. 

While Abuela takes a bath, Julián has an idea. He strips down to his tighty-whities again, creates a headpiece with wavy fronds from Abuela’s potted fern and flowers from her vase and a mermaid’s tail from a gauzy, flowing curtain, and finishes the look with Abuela’s purple lipstick. He. Is. Fabulous. As he reaches for a hanging philodendron, Abuela comes out, looking upset. Uh-oh. She retreats to the bathroom and soon emerges—in a blue dress with white patterns. And she gives Julián a necklace. Together, they walk to the Mermaid Parade, where she tells the shy little boy, “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.” And they do. In the parade are many of the sea creatures Julián had swum with in his dream sequence and, at the head of the line are the three mermaids who had been on the train. Julián waves. They wave back. Everyone is fabulous.

Love skillfully uses vibrant watercolors, gouache and ink in mostly double-spread, full-bleed illustrations whose vivid details virtually glow against the soft matte background of brown kraft paper. She lovingly depicts the broad range of complexions and body types and ages of the community’s women; and attends to small but important details, such as Julián’s raised eyebrows when he’s trying to figure out Abuela’s expression, or a slight slump of his shoulders when he’s not sure of something, or his chin held high when he becomes part of the parade. There is also not-so-hidden symbolism, such as the relationship between Abuela and the giant blue fish, or that between three girls joyfully playing at an open fire hydrant and the three mermaids Julián meets on the train. In addition, many of the full-bleed, double-page spreads are wordless, so child readers can discern the action without being told exactly what’s happening. 

And not least importantly, it’s refreshing to see Spanish words that are not italicized.

In giving Julián this picture book about mermaids, Abuela is both acknowledging and encouraging his emerging self. In this sense, it’s clear that both Julián and Abuela have agency. Throughout, their relationship is strong; he questioningly looks to her for guidance, and her loving affirmation feeds his spirit and enriches his life. 

When Julián quietly tells his abuela that he is also a mermaid, the little boy is telling her that he’s finding his place in the world. And, on the end papers, when he joyfully swims with his own abuela and the community’s other abuelas—all of whom are also mermaids—he’s claimed his own identity and has found his place. 

While Dominican American children who live in Brooklyn will recognize the people, the neighborhood, the G train to Coney Island, and, of course, the annual Mermaid Parade, the author wisely leaves the door wide open, so to speak, as an invitation for other children to enter the story as well. 

Throughout this delightful, life-affirming picture book, young readers will see young Julián growing into the person he was meant to be. Full of love and joy, Julián Is a Mermaid is for all questioning children and children who may not conform to the “norms” of their genders—and for everyone else as well. Julián Is a Mermaid is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/13/18)

Míl gracias a mi coleja y amigo, Noam Szoke. You’re FABULOUS!

(Y gracias a Candlewick Press for permission to reprint the illustrations in the body of this review.) 

Juana & Lucas

author: Juana Medina 
illustrator: Juana Medina 
Candlewick Press, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3 

In her almost-breathlessly dramatic narrative, a smart, active, Colombian fourth-grader introduces herself, all the people and places and things important to her, and the issues in her life. Young Juana doesn’t just like things—she LOVES them. She LOVES Brussels sprouts (“more than cheese and chocolate and ice cream”). She LOVES her dog, Lucas (who is her “absolutely-no-single-doubt-about-it best amigo). She LOVES living in Bogotá, Colombia (the city that’s closest to her heart). She LOVES drawing and reading and playing fútbol—and she LOVES Astroman, who glides from galaxy to galaxy in his shiny, intergalactic suit. 

And she has great fun with her very good friend, Juli, because they always have mucho to talk about while Juli shares her most extraordinario and delicioso watermelon gum, blowing bubbles as big as their cabezas—which Seño, the bus driver, definitely doesn’t find entertaining.
But there are also things that Juana STRONGLY DISLIKES. She STRONGLY DISLIKES her uncomfortable PE uniforme, which, like her school uniform, becomes heavy and hot (“like, very hot-celery-soup hot”), and itchy and sweaty and stinky. She STRONGLY DISLIKES accidents, like the tragedia, in which she crushes her favorite kitty-and-rabbit lunchbox and loses her strawberry yogurt, which has explotado. But most of all, Juana STRONGLY DISLIKES surprises. Like when Mr. Tompkins announces that the class is about to have a TON OF FUN:
When a grown-up says something is going to be a ton of fun, it means there will be NO FUN AT ALL. Not even a single bit of fun. Nada de fun.
“My little mischiefs,” he says, “today I’m going to begin teaching you something that will knock your socks off. Prepare for your lives to change…for the better! Today you are going to begin learning the English.”
Julie whispers, “No entiendo nada,” and Juana whispers back that she doesn’t understand a thing, either. Instead of Mr. Tompkins’s promised “ton of fun,” Juana’s first day of school “has become the worst of all first days of schools possible.”

Copyright © 2016 by Juana Medina. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Medina’s ink-and-watercolor cartoon art, on a palette that’s sometimes bright and sometimes subdued, hilariously complements Juana’s pearl-clutching, hyperbole-driven narrative and leaves lots of white space to accommodate often-varying font styles and type sizes. 

And, in the best practices of “show, don’t tell” (especially in an early chapter book), Medina’s illustrations show young Juana’s family members, friends, neighbors and teachers, as culturally and ethnically diverse; and the mix of colonial Spanish-style edifices and modern apartment buildings, large houses and small bodegas show both a geographic and cultural diversity as well.

While Juana’s narration is not exactly code-switching, Medina judiciously plants some Spanish words and phrases throughout, most of which English readers can easily discern from their contexts. Since the Spanish is clear and italicized for emphasis only, Juana’s story will appeal both to English speakers who want to learn some Spanish, as well as to emerging bilingual hablantes who are learning the relationship between both languages.

Juana asks practically every adult she knows why it’s so important to learn a second language, and particularly one that emphasizes the impossible THs and the long and hard-to-say Ls,  and has so many homonyms:
Why are read and read written the same way but sound different? How can I know when people are talking about eyes or ice when they sound about the same? And what about left hand and left the room? So many words, so little sense.
No single person can give her a convincing answer, but despite Juana’s best efforts to resist learning a second language, the different perspectives of relatives, neighbors and others in the community support Juana in her struggle as she manages to learn the English. And when her Abue promises to take her to Spaceland in the US where, in order to meet her super-idol, Astroman, she must be able to communicate in English, well, that seals the deal: Juana works muy, muy hard to learn todo the English that (she) can possibly fit into the space between her pigtails.”  
Before Mr. Tompkins, Mami, the Sheldons, the Herrera brothers, Tía Cris, and my abuelos can believe it, I am a big and loud fountain of English.
What ensues at Spaceland may not be what Juana had been hoping for, but what she discovers segues into author and illustrator Juana Medina’s own personal story:
Because I can speak English so well, I’ve been able to have fun with a lot of new people and make a lot of new friends. And who wouldn’t like for that to happen all around the world? 
The number-two thing I’ve learned is that if I want to travel and make new friends, I will need to learn a gazillion more languages besides English and español!
Juana is a smart, outrageously funny little girl to whom youngsters who speak Spanish, English, or more of one than the other (and other language-learners as well) will easily relate. Juana & Lucas is highly recommended.

Note: Since Juana & Lucas has won a Pure Belpré Prize, I recommend that Candlewick publish a Spanish version as well, with some English words and phrases italicized throughout for hablantes who are learning English. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? And I guarantee it would sell well. ¡Qué good idea! ¿Pués, sí o no?

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/9/18)

(Gracias a Candlewick Press for permission to reprint the illustration in the body of this review.)