Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits

author: Jairo Buitrago
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng 
translator: Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2016 
all grades  

On the cover is a little girl, comfortably lying down with her head resting on her papá’s leg. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are wide open; she’s happily playing with her toy bunny. Papá is sitting upright, leaning on his backpack. He’s looking warily into the distance. 

Towards the middle of the story, readers will see that Papá and daughter are riding on the top of a train. They are refugees, fleeing for their lives, fleeing to El Norte, hitching rides on one of the old, rusted-out trains they call “La Bestia” (“the beast”), but this child does not know any of this. All she knows is that she’s with her papá who loves her, and that’s all that counts.

And she counts: “Cuando viajamos” (When we travel), she says, happily riding on Papá’s shoulders, “yo cuento lo que veo” (I count what I see). She sadly counts the hens and chicks, as she says goodbye; she counts the cows, being led away by a new owner; she counts “un burrito aburrido, y cincuenta pájaros en el cielo” (one little bored donkey and fifty birds in the sky), as she and Papá and a coyote watch people load all their belongings on makeshift rafts; she counts the people who live by the train tracks, as they wait for La Bestia to take them to El Norte; and she counts the clouds, which take on the many shapes of a child’s imagination. Throughout, the little girl is all energy and fascination, while Papá watches for danger.

The center spread shows the reason for Papá’s fear: Here, border patrol agents have stopped the train and are pulling people out. As they handcuff and arrest some, Papá and daughter and others—accompanied by the coyote—are running for their lives.

On almost every double-page spread, readers will see a coyote and sometimes more than one. They are “chuchos” (“mutts”), as Papá calls them. They represent the human smugglers who, for an exorbitant price, accompany the undocumented refugees, sometimes hundreds of miles and sometimes on foot—to reach El Norte. Sometimes coyotes bring the refugees all the way to a safe place and sometimes they abandon them, on their own, often without food or water, in the middle of the desert. The lives of refugees are far from safe and the trip is often deadly dangerous.

Yesterday, three young children who had a chance to read this book almost dropped it when they realized that the “chuchos” were coyotes. Their father was a refugee from Mexico, and their mother had told them who the “coyotes” are. Young children who are not part of refugee families—and even some who are—may not readily understand all of the symbolism in these illustrations. (The reviewer from Kirkus didn’t, either.) But all Maribel, Amelia Edosia, and Anthony Rodriguez needed was a brief explanation from their mother about “symbolism”—and they were off!

As they read the story and looked carefully at the artwork, the children noticed and were able to answer questions posed by the large details: “Now the papá and daughter look sad. Are they saying goodbye to their hens and chicks? Did they sell their cows to that white guy?” “Why are they talking to the “chucho”? “Where are they going on the rafts?” “Why do all those people live by the train tracks?” “Why are they climbing on the train?” “Why are the papá and daughter and their friends running away?” At first, Maribel had figured it out and explained it to Amelia Edosia and Anthony. But very soon, the younger ones “got” the symbolism and effectively explained them to each other.

The small details didn’t escape these kids, either: “Why is that cop (border control) grabbing that man’s wrist?” “Why does that woman look ashamed?” “Why are the people in handcuffs?” “Why do all the cops have rifles?” “Why are the cops being mean to everyone?”

When Papá and daughter stop at a grocery in a small Mexican town to get temporary employment and pay another “chucho” to lead them further, the daughter plays with the store owner’s son; and when it’s time to move on, the youngsters trade: her toy bunny for his two white rabbits, whose home is a cardboard box.

In giving up her toy bunny to her new friend, the little girl is trading in her uncertainty for the reality of the two white rabbits, who are going to be free on the other side of the wall. As she and her papá finally cross the border, the child releases the two white rabbits—who on the last double-page spread, with the border wall behind them, scamper off to freedom.

In many ways, the two white rabbits, now free, are symbolic of the courage that it takes for this refugee father and his young daughter to cross the desert and risk their lives in order to get to El Norte. Rabbits are survivors; they signify determination. They’re extremely strong and can leap great distances. They can squeeze under fences and—as Maribel, Amelia Edosia and Anthony noted—dig underground tunnels. Their sharp vision can detect predators from all directions. They have intimate knowledge of their surroundings and know how to forage for food.

As Maribel, Amelia Edosia, and Anthony quickly figured out when I asked them who the white rabbits were, they said, almost in unison: “Papá and the little girl.”

Yockteng created the sketches in pencil, which he then scanned and digitally colored and outlined. The result is stunning, with a muted palette of mostly browns, blues and greens that create a sort-of sameness, complementing the story and highlighting the long journey on which all there is for the child to do is to count—and dream. Buitrago and Yockteng have intentionally left the place, which may be Mexico or anywhere in Central America, ambiguous. That’s because, as IBBY Foundation President Patricia Aldana writes in a brief Afterword, “close to a hundred thousand children from Central America make the very dangerous trip you see here to find safety and a way to survive in the United States,” and this small family could represent any of them.

Originally written in Spanish and seamlessly translated into English, Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits is brilliant, profound and heartbreaking—and highly recommended. (Note: I listed this book as appropriate for all grades because it can be effectively read in preschool- through undergraduate levels, as well as in courses such as Early Childhood Education, Children’s Literature, and Library Science.)

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/17/16)

Muchísimas gracias a mi amiga y colega, Judy Zalazar Drummond, who introduced me to Maribel Rodriguez (11), Amelia Edosia Rodriguez (9), and Anthony Rodriguez (6), and to their mom, Melissa Rodriguez—and to the children, for allowing me to see this beautiful story through their eyes.

Best Mariachi in the World // El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo // The Best Mariachi in the World / El mejor Mariachi del mundo

author: J.D. Smith
illustrator: Dani Jones 
translator: Eida de la Vega 
Raven Tree Press, 2008 
preschool-grade 2 

This title was published in hardcover and paperback, in English-only, Spanish-only, and what the publisher labels “Bilingual—with mostly English and concept words in Spanish formats.” (For those who may not know—apparently including the publisher—a bilingual book contains the complete text in two languages.)

Summary: “Gustavo wants to be in the family mariachi band [sic], but he cannot play the violines [sic], trumpets or guitars. He finds his place in the band with his singing talent.” The book’s message is something about a little kid (literally) “finding his voice.”

This book seriously downplays the role of nurturing in a large extended family. Mariachi groups are often family-based, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, all training the future generation of musicians. Think of the Trio Los Panchos—they’ve been around for over 50 years and are now composed of grandsons of the original mariachis.[1] This takes work and dedication and teaching from an early age. None of this is shown in Best Mariachi, and that is its fatal flaw: it totally negates the role of family in Mexican culture.

The story begins on this depressing note: “Gustavo was the worst mariachi in the world.” In the first illustration, Gustavo—dressed in a green t-shirt and brown pants, hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward—stands sorrowfully in the middle of his (male) relatives who are dressed in mariachi outfits and happily playing mariachi instruments: violín, trompeta, and guitarrón. The only one who acknowledges Gustavo’s existence is the dog at his feet.

Although Gustavo dreams of becoming a great mariachi, recognized and applauded by everyone, young readers find out that Gustavo is the “worst mariachi” because none of his mariachi relatives—his father, his uncle, his brother, even his cousins—will let him as much as touch their instruments, so he cannot even learn to play.

Let’s stop here for a moment. This story stretches credulity and completely obscures the reality. Any Mexican or Mexican American mariachi family (or any musical family) would be delighted to encourage their children to learn the music—as well as traditional, historical and contemporary songs—and to learn to play whichever instruments suit them. There would be lots of hard work to accomplish the goal of becoming a mariachi: lots of learning and lots of practice, probably after school and homework; and maybe even working a part-time job to save money to purchase the instrument and fabric for the outfit. The whole thing might become a family or community project in which the child learns many things about history, music, study, work, and economics. That would make a good story.

But here, young, sad and alone, Gustavo goes out into the desert each night to sing. At first, he is hesitant, and then, little by little, he gets more confident and sings louder as “he sings all the songs that he knows as well as he knows his own name.” After a while, the townspeople hear his voice, loud and clear. They applaud. They say he is a “true mariachi—the best mariachi in the world.” His cousins carry “the best mariachi” home to an “enormous breakfast” consisting entirely of a huge plate of what appear to be plain tortillas. Served by someone wearing a chef’s outfit. Oh, well.

Jones’ gouache, oil, and colored-pencil illustrations complement the stereotypic story. With very small differences, all of her over-the-top cartoonish characters look alike—exaggerated, oversized heads and small bodies, dark complexions all the same shade of brown, expressions denoted by closed or bugged-out eyes and wide open or curved-downward mouths. As well, the limited palette of background colors—mostly bright turquoises and blues, browns, greens and purples—seems to be a weak, half-hearted attempt at Mexican sky, desert flora and fauna, and adobe.

Last year, I viewed an amazing 2013 performance by Mariachi los Tigres, students from Stephen F. Austin Middle School in San Antonio.[2] Here was a group of talented, disciplined, practiced, joyful young people, full of pride and community esteem, performing instrumental and vocal solos, revolutionary corridos and popular songs. Towards the middle of their performance, their teacher asked the parents and other adult community members to stand and receive applause for their hard work and dedication. Then all acknowledged the children for maintaining their grades and good citizenship before engaging in the “fun stuff” of playing mariachi music. Love spread all around. This is what community is about.

All of this is what’s missing from The Best Mariachi in the World // El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo. Mariachi family members who won’t let a child touch their instruments. A child left alone with no one to help him realize his dreams. So he accomplishes all this on his own. And becomes the best.

The “bilingual” version—from the title on (which, rather than “El Mejor Mariachi en Todo el Mundo, would correctly be, “El mariachi mejor en todo el mundo”)—is piled high with errors and inappropriate usage. Here are just two more examples:

            No one was there to play. But he had to stand up and sing. He had to cantar.[3]

Since “cantar,” above, is an infinitive, the (incorrect) English translation would be, “He had to to sing.”

“Hmm,” Gustavo thought, “I want to be in the band—in la banda mariachi. But what can I do?”

(1) The term, “mariachi,” is both singular and plural: A person who sings and plays mariachi music is called a “mariachi,” and the group is also called “mariachi.” (2) “Banda” refers to Mexican country dance music; it doesn’t mean “band,” as a synonym for a musical group. That word would be “grupo” or “conjunto,” followed by the name of the group. And finally: (3) Inserting Spanish words into an otherwise English text does not make a story bilingual. Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people do not talk this way. Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people do not even think this way.

Rather than reflecting Mexican children’s ways of speaking, ways of thinking, and ways of being in the world, the story is a deficit view of Mexican families, and the language is worse than stilted. Children who are hablantes or who are bilingual learn by working through meaning and concepts and nuance. But by using an English-dominant translation—using English as the literal point of transfer—the story obscures meaning, rather than bringing together two ways of meaning and two ways of seeing the world.

The Best Mariachi in the World / El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo is a culturally inappropriate story—about a young Mexican child who must, and does, go out alone to “find his voice” because his mariachi family doesn’t care enough about him to encourage his talent. The story contains inaccurate Spanish, amateurish and stereotyped pictures, and a fake “multicultural” overlay—all of which promotes a sort of  “bootstraps mythology” to be fed to innocent little kids. Despite its winning second place in the 2009 International Latino Book Awards for Best Children's Picture Book, The Best Mariachi in the World / El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/14/16)

Míl gracias to María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Pat Enciso, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and Ricardo Ramírez.

[1]Here they are, in a 20-minute compilation of six of their well-known songs: “Contigo,” “Si No Estás Conmigo,” “Flor de Azalea,” “Poquita Fe,” “Triunfamos,” and “Sabor a Mí.”

[2] Enjoy this wonderful community concert: The teacher is the guy in the back who’s playing the guitarrón and can’t stop smiling.

[3] In the book, the phrases in bold here are highlighted in red.

Out of Darkness

author: Ashley Hope Pérez 
Carolrhoda Lab TM, 2015
grades 9-up 
Mexican American

On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak led to a deadly explosion and collapse of the all-white school in New London, a town in East Texas. Ashley Hope Pérez, who grew up nearby, mined her grandmother’s recollections, archives, and historical narratives to build a complex and memorable novel around this event, a novel that at its core explores love across hard racial lines.

Seventeen-year-old Naomi Vargas, now called Naomi Smith, is a misfit in New London—the dark-complexioned daughter of Mexican-American parents. Shortly after she was born, her father drowned and her mother married a handsome Anglo oil field worker. Henry Smith, though, proved to be a demanding and troubled husband, and when his new wife died after bearing twins Beto and Cari, Henry left the three children with their abuelos in San Antonio. But now sober and an evangelical Christian, he has brought the family to East Texas where they must follow the rules to fit into the white side of a Jim Crow society. They must also renounce their Mexican heritage. Here, Naomi prepares her half-siblings for school:

“That’s enough sass,” Naomi said when they caught up to her. “Let’s hear the rules.”

With a sigh, Cari said, “The main thing is, we don’t talk Spanish in the street or at school or anywhere. Which is stupid, if you ask me.”

“All right, then,” Naomi said. “Just remember. And what else?”

“We call Henry ‘Daddy,’” Cari said. She frowned. “And what about you? Do you have to even though he’s not your daddy?”

“Me, too, and you know it,” Naomi said. She crossed her arms over her chest.

Rule following goes by the wayside when handsome Black teenager Wash Fuller (who is not allowed to attend the Consolidated School but goes to the inferior Colored School, with shorter hours, a shorter school year, and cast off supplies) finds Naomi hiding from bullies in a tree and she introduces him to her seven-year-old half-siblings. Beto and Cari enjoy exploring the piney woods and fishing for their supper with Wash, and Naomi faces down her anxiety about sex—the result of Henry’s sexual abuse of her while her mother was dying—to become intimate with him.

But Henry, who has started drinking again, has designs on Naomi, who is now old enough to legally replace her mother in the marital bed. Surprisingly, most of the town, including the pastor and the Smiths’ churchgoing neighbors, think that such a union is acceptable—certainly far more acceptable to them than a loving, consensual relationship with peers of different races. It is in this volatile racial and sexual mix that the explosion happens.

Pérez’s eloquent third-person omniscient narrative focuses on Naomi, Wash, Beto, Henry, and The Gang, the group of white students who enforce the color line and gossip about Naomi’s beauty and desirability as they stereotype and torment her. Using the third person allows her to comment on her characters whose lives take on the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, and to immerse the reader in a richly drawn setting that is itself a character.

They had been happy for a time, before the rules found them. Before the terrible price was exacted for their transgressions. For the crossing of lines. For friendship, for love.

Ultimately, this powerful novel asks: What are we willing to sacrifice for friendship and love? For defying an unjust society? For working to bring about racial justice? Out of the Darkness is highly recommended.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 10/3/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.

Editor’s note: Toward the beginning of Out of Darkness, a classmate explains to Naomi his position at the bottom of the town’s social hierarchy: “Nah, I’m a low man on the totem pole.” Debbie Reese, founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, ( noted this culturally problematic term and called it to the author’s attention. Rather than being defensive, the author thanked Debbie and, in the next printing (paperback), author and editor agreed to replace this line with: “Nah, no suck luck.”


author: Raina Telgemeier
illustrators: Raina Telgemeier and Braden Lamb 
Scholastic, 2016 
grades 3-6 
Indigenous, Mexican American

Poorly conceived, abysmally written, and apparently neither well-researched nor fact-checked, Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, which saw a six-figure first-print run, garnered record sales even before its official release. Favorably reviewed by all of the major trade journals, a thoughtful reading of Ghosts may well answer the question about the difference between “multicultural celebration” and “multicultural appropriation.”

Presenting a Mexican American family that includes a child with a profound disability, Ghosts would appear to be a celebration of multiculturalism. Sixth-grader Catrina Allende-Delmar and her younger sister Maya and their family are moving from sunny Southern California to a cloudy northern coastal town called Bahía de la Luna. Maya has cystic fibrosis and the family has been told that the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea will be good for her. As the family moves into their new digs, they meet their neighbors, the Calaveras family. Carlos Calaveras tells them that the town is densely populated with ghosts.

Let’s stop here for a moment. It wouldn’t be a stretch to opine that no Latino family in the world would be named “Calaveras,” which means, “skull,” any more than, as Laura Jiménez points out, there would be “a family named Advent Calendar living in a town with a reputation for elves.”[1]

Cat and Maya’s mom, Leona, is an assimilated Mexican woman who has married a white guy and turned away from her people to the extent that she doesn’t speak any Spanish and wishes she could cook Mexican food like her mother used to but can’t. It’s the offer of authentic Mexican food in this story that tempts the girls to accompany Carlos on a tour that includes the local mission, which has been abandoned and is, like the rest of the town, full of ghosts, because ghosts like to hang out in foggy places.

Cultural Appropriation 1:

The California Missions

After a long trek, the three arrive at the ruins of a local mission, where they encounter tombstones and a large crowd of ghost-like creatures, who entrance Maya but totally freak out Cat. Carlos speaks Spanish to the ghosts because “most of the people buried here were from Mexico, so they like it when you speak Spanish to them.” Since these ghosts are “a little shy around people they don’t know,” Carlos hands Maya a bottle of orange soda and a bottle opener, which immediately attracts the ghosts, who happily morph into friendly skeletons who embrace and tickle a giggling Maya, who thinks they’re “awesome.” When Maya has a sudden coughing episode because the ghosts have, according to Cat, “stolen her breath,” the mission tour is done. That’s it. The missions are the homes of shy, Spanish-speaking ghosts from Mexico—not the Indigenous people who really worked at the missions and were forced to speak Spanish, the language of their oppressors—who dance around and will do anything for a bottle of orange soda.

Here’s how the author describes her relationship with the California missions (from her blog):

I like exploring old abandoned places and mysterious towns. I love skeletons. I love stories with magical realism in them.”[2]

That’s it. All of her research about the California missions seems to have been boiled down to her love of old abandoned places and skeletons. Telgemeier lives in California. In September of last year, Pope Francis journeyed from Rome to Washington, D.C.,  to canonize Fr. Junipero Serra, who created the brutal California mission system. Fewer than ten minutes of research by Telgemeier or anyone else would have uncovered tears and protests from thousands of people descended from the “Mission Indians.” It also would have uncovered this information:

During the period from 1769-1848, some of the most stable societies in human history had to contend with warfare, disease, and colonization—resulting in a population reduced by over 90% in fewer than two generations. It would not be a stretch to compare the Indian Holocaust of the California Mission system with the Nazi Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It would not be a stretch to compare any of the California Missions to any of the European concentration camps. But, since its inception, the teaching in California schools of the California mission system, or worse, of the “Mission Indians,” has always been a political and religious hot potato.

In 1987, in an attempt to derail the impending canonization of Junipero Serra, Rupert Costo (Cahuilla) and Jeannette Henry Costo (Cherokee) edited The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide[3], which was published by the non-profit Indian Historian Press in San Francisco. This book, which contains an excellent chapter called “The Indian Testimony,” remains the cornerstone of educational work about what occurred during the Mission Period. Here is an excerpt from “The Indian Testimony.” It’s called “The Crying Rock—Where They Killed the Children,” told to Rupert Costo by Rosalie Robertson (Kumeyaay), who learned it from her great-great-grandfather:

One way they had was to get to the people through the children. They would take the children up on the cliff and drop them down the cliff and killed them. And that went on. You can get some of the people to show you just where that happened. Where they threw the children down and killed them, they call that place the “Crying Rock” today.

A lady asked me why they did that to the children. And we know it was done to make the parents do what they were told to do. They didn’t want to do what the padres told them to do, so they forced them to do these things; if they knew the children would be killed they would be more likely to mind the padres.

But there’s so much more. Here is part of Wendy Rose’s poem, “Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission”:

They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.[4]

Literally. The bodies of Indians who had died or been killed were cemented into the walls and body parts were mixed into the masonry and dirt used to build and repair the missions. Can you imagine the horror of, not only not being able to bury your beloved dead in your traditional way, but actually using their body parts as building material?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Miranda, wrote about the generational trauma of the California missions in her blog, Bad Ndns[5]:

[All] of my relatives and I live in a secular world that is pocked by the scars of everything that happened in the California missions, including the devastation that Mission Mythology spreads among Natives and non-Natives alike.

Had she chosen to include in her story anything even approximating the real histories of the Indigenous peoples enslaved in the California Missions, Telgemeier could have perused the following books and materials:

Castillo, Elias, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions. Craven Street Books, 2015.

Costo, Rupert, and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds., The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. Indian Historian Press, 1987.

Haas, Lisbeth, Saints and Citizens: Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California. University of California Press, 2014.

Lightfoot, Kent, Indians, Missionaries and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. University of California Press, 2006.

Miranda, Deborah A., Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday Books, 2013.

Sandos, James A., Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Yale University Press, 2008.

“Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions,” special issue of News from Native California, vol. 28 #2, winter 2014-15.

And. A quick Google search would have come up with literally hundreds of news items, articles, and essays, many from a Native perspective. Here are just a few:

“Indian Resistance to the California missions”

“The dark, terrible secret of California’s missions” / SF Gate (11/8/04)

“Indian Country Diaries. History. California Genocide / PBS”

“It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians” / LA Times (5/22/16)

“Jacque Nunez explains beginning of genocide” / California Missions / California Museum and Cultural Center / (8/7/13)

And, definitely not least, Deborah A. Miranda’s blog,, has a wealth of information for educators, children, and others who really want to know.

Cultural Appropriation 2: 

Día de los Muertos

Here’s how the author describes her relationship with Día de los Muertos (from her blog):

I’m really interested in holidays (like Halloween and Día de los Muertos) that celebrate spirits in different ways. I attended San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos procession and Festival of Altars while I was working on GHOSTS, and everything I saw and experienced made its way into the book in one way or another. It’s a very respectful, reverent, and beautiful experience, and everyone brings their own story and history to it. Traditionally, it was celebrated in Mexico, and while there are many common themes and motifs, every town and region has their own take on it. I researched multiple traditions and sources, and the town of Bahía de la Luna celebrates it in its own unique and special way. If your town celebrates Día de los Muertos, I encourage you to learn more about it![6]

The purposes of contemporary Día de los Muertos festivities, which involve the whole community, are to remember and honor the ancestors, to entice and welcome them home, to invite them to visit among the living for a while, before they have to return to the land of the dead. Traditionally, the souls of children who have died are welcomed home on November 1, and the souls of adult family members, on November 2. In some places, especially in Mexican towns, the ceremonies are elaborate and religious, involving both Indigenous and Christian traditions.[7] But in both towns and urban areas in Mexico and the US, there are usually parades, celebrations at cemeteries, and elaborate altars set up in homes—with pictures of the ancestors, fragrant and beautiful marigolds, and delicious foods, drinks, candies as well as toys to let the visitors know they are welcomed. It is only after the souls have absorbed the essence of the food and returned to the land of the dead that the families may eat and drink what’s on the altars. The souls may present themselves to families in any of many forms, including hummingbirds or the scent of flowers, or the music of a favorite song. But the souls of the dead are not ghosts. They do not float around and they do not touch people.

In Ghosts, Catrina dresses up as La Catrina for “Halloween / Día de los Muertos.” But. Halloween and Día de los Muertos are not the same, not even similar. And. La Catrina is no ordinary “ghost” and has nothing to do with Día de los Muertos. She’s a creation of José Guadelupe Posada (1852-1913), who became a political cartoonist during the Mexican Revolutionary period. His satirical work mocked the Mexican upper classes, members of whom, even in death, stubbornly refused to surrender their wealth. For a Mexican or Mexican American child to personify “La Catrina” would be the equivalent of someone who is African American dressing up as “Amos” or “Andy,” caricatures of Black people. During contemporary Día de los Muertos parades, children and teens sometimes deck themselves out as skeletons (and may even be carried around in mock open coffins out of which they toss candy), but they don’t costume themselves as specific people.

As Laura Jiménez writes, “In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street.”[8] Ghosts and spirits and souls are not interchangeable, yet Telgemeier has made a mishmash of them. “The end of the book,” Jiménez continues, “is full of music, flying, an inexplicably dead lighthouse attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food. If you are teaching kids about Día de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.”

I imagine that the black cat who delivers Mexican food on the last page—and who makes brief appearances by crossing Maya’s path several times—is supposed to be the children’s departed abuela, demonstrating her love for her family through food. One of the clues is the photo of Abuela, smiling, on the altar nearby. But. This is yet another unnecessary cultural anomaly. The Mexican and Mexican American souls who visit among the living at Día de los Muertos aren’t shape-shifters. They’re just not. And they don’t prepare (or deliver) food for the families—even families who are so thoroughly assimilated that they just can’t figure out how to make decent tamales. The families prepare food for the souls to enjoy. What a mess.

Had Telgemeier wanted to portray an honest interpretation of the cultural facets of Día de los Muertos, she could have perused many excellent books for children. They include, but are not limited to:

Ancona, George, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead, photographs by the author. HarperCollins, 1993.

García, Richard, My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits / Los espíritus de mi tía Otilia, illustrated by Robin Cherin and Roger I. Reyes, translated by Jesús Guerrero Rey. Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1986.

Morales, Yuyi, Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2003.

Morales, Yuyi, Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2008.

Salinas, Bobbie, Indo-Hispanic Folk Art Traditions II: The Day of the Dead and other year-round activities, illustrated by the author. Piñata Publications, 1988.

Toledo, Natalia, and Francisco Toledo, Light Foot / Pies Ligeros. Groundwood Books, 2007.

Tonatiuh, Duncan, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, illustrated by the author. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Weill, Cynthia, Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family, art by Jesús Canseco Zárate. Cinco Puntos Press, 2913.

Telgemeier’s work is not “celebration of diversity.” It’s not “multicultural.” It’s cultural appropriation at its worst—the denial and diminishing of the real histories and cultural beliefs and practices of the peoples of this area. It’s privilege without responsibility. With all of its engaging art and pretense of fun and wit and humor, and despite all of its laudatory reviews, Ghosts is a contribution to the erasure of the Indigenous peoples and those who are “mixed” with the blood of the conquerors and the blood of the conquered. And it’s a contribution to the exclusion of young Indigenous, Mexican and Mexican American readers who might be sucked into a graphic novel that purportedly shows their own histories and cultures.

Trafficking in stereotypes can never be condoned, no matter how eye-catching the art, no matter how fast-moving the plot, no matter how humorous the dialogue, no matter how pure the writer-artist’s intentions. Contributing to the erasure of a people is not OK. It is never OK. It never will be OK. Ghosts is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/27/16)

Míl gracias to my friends and colleagues, Maria Cardenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Pat Enciso, Laura Jiménez, Deborah A. Miranda, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and the work of Yuyi Morales, Debbie Reese, Reading While White, and so many others.

[1] Laura Jiménez, (2016).

[3] Costo, Rupert, and Jeanette Henry Costo, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1987.

[4] The entire poem can be found at Deborah A. Miranda’s blog,


[7] What became known as “El Día de los Muertos” began about 3,000 years ago as an Aztec celebration, which the Spanish conquistadores forcibly Christianized in order to subjugate the Indigenous peoples of what is now called Mexico.

[8] Laura Jiménez, ibid.

Pig Park

author: Claudia Guadalupe Martínez 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014 
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

Martínez’s Pig Park is a contemporary novel that depicts with affection and a light touch a bustling, though little-known, neighborhood in Chicago and an unholy alliance between business interests and politicians. Ever since the American Lard Company closed in 15-year-old Masi Burciaga’s Pig Park neighborhood of Chicago, times have been tough for the local businesses tucked behind the plant. Masi’s father and grandmother started Burciaga’s Bakery when they came to Chicago from Mexico some 30 years earlier, but now the bakery is losing money. The local councilman, though, has an idea. He has been in contact with a New Mexico businessman, and if all the local businesses can contribute a sizable sum, the businessman will build a Mayan-style pyramid—“La Gran Pirámide”—in Pig Park to attract tourists.

Overlooking the stereotypes implied in this local “attraction,” Pig Park’s business owners sign on, and construction begins. Masi wants to work outside, but she and the other girls are stuck indoors doing clerical work. Although she has imagined a romantic relationship with her best friend’s older brother, she’s also drawn to the mysterious teenage intern who arrives from New Mexico to help. Her mother, who is ill with diabetes, leaves because the stress is too much. Masi misses her mother, as does her father, and they strategize in their own ways to get her back.

But as “La Gran Pirámide” is built and the community’s money runs out, the schemers want more. Here, Loretta, Masi’s mother’s best friend, voices her suspicions to the community:

“I already put in every last cent I had left on this,” Loretta said. “Besides, we don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo. That’s just for people who like to get drunk. Don’t get me started on Day of the Dead. It’s disrespectful to try to make money off of our dead. And where are we supposed to get all of these ‘historical’ artifacts? Are we supposed to make people think they’re real? Are we building a museum now? I just stood here with my mouth shut last time because we are all so desperate, but not this time.”

As individuals and families begin to realize that they’ve been had, they also realize that something must be done. As narrator, Masi is an engaging and resourceful protagonist who wants to do right by her family and community, and sometimes voices what everyone is feeling.

Through Masi’s narration, Martínez shows, rather than tells, how Spanish language is used in a community that is largely bilingual; and since Masi has grown up working in her family’s bakery, her descriptions of people and places often contain food similes and metaphors.

Readers will be caught up in Masi’s story, wondering if and hoping that her mom will return and the bakery and the other local businesses will survive. Things look particularly bleak when Masi finds out that other places that hired the New Mexican businessmen ended up worse off than when they started—and that the beneficiaries of their pain turned out to be outside investors tight with the local politicians. Eventually, Masi prevails on the intern, her father, and the community to take matters into their own hands. A fast-moving page-turner, Pig Park is an excellent example of how young people, through creative action, really can bring about personal and political change. It’s highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/18/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission. 

Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta 
translators: Jorge Tetl Argueta and Elisa Amado 
illustrator: Alfonso Ruano
Groundwood Books, 2016 
grades 2-up 
Pipíl, Salvadoran

Even before the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that all of the Americas belonged to the US, this country has wreaked havoc through invasion, setting up companies to put native products in the hands of American corporations, and creating and supporting regime change to fit the agenda of big business, all of which have resulted in political and economic destabilization. What ensued is mass unemployment, social chaos, and the terror of government death squads and the murderous narcotraficante gangs. As of now, few holdouts remain—among them, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, refugees from the most dangerous of the US “client” countries—such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico—have fled by the hundreds of thousands into the US. They are not coming here for a “better life”—they are fleeing to save their lives. And they flee, as a colleague aptly described, “into the mouth of the shark.” 

In Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, poet and storyteller Jorge Tetl Argueta—himself a refugee from the 12-year war following the US-sponsored military coup in El Salvador—writes from the perspectives of the frightened children caught up in the horrific  aftermaths of these wars of conquest, understanding only what they see around them, yet still with large hopes and limited choices. Argueta told me that, as a Salvadoran man, he “can’t do anything else but talk about this great injustice; to be the voice of the voiceless children, whose hearts, minds, souls, and spirits have to endure such sadness in their young lives.”

Argueta’s evocative free verse in Spanish and English communicates to young readers the dreams, fears, and hopes of the refugee children who have been forced to leave everything—and sometimes everyone—they know, to get to a temporary place of safety where strangers will decide their fates. Some will be reunited with their parents or other relatives. Many will not. But for now, they are safe.

Accompanied by paid “coyotes” who guide them—the children, carrying only backpacks and jugs of water, sometimes with a parent, most times only with each other—take the perilous journey for hundreds of miles through the desert, cram themselves onto the top of “La Bestia” (the train they call “the beast”), encounter the Border Patrol, and pray to El Santo Toribio, saint of the immigrants, to be shown the way:

Don’t let us fall
into the hands of the migra,
and never into the hands of the traffickers,
or worse, the minutemen.
You who are the good coyote,
protect us, lead us.
Deliver us from all evil. Amen.

Ruano’s acrylic on canvas paintings beautifully show, rather than tell, the children’s emotions. Here is a young child, covering his ears, not wanting to hear the voice of a gangster. Here, in the background, are tiny figures of a family, leaving their neighborhood, in which there is a whistling dog, a dancing cat, and a rooster looking in the mirror. Here are the scary, expressionless, one-eyed, tattooed gangsters, one holding a machete. Here are lots and lots of children, seen from the back, beginning their dangerous trek, some holding the hands of even younger children. Here is a little boy, in the desert, riding on his father’s shoulders. And here are perhaps hundreds of children, piled onto the top of “La Bestia.” Of all of them, only two children in the foreground are looking directly at the reader.

Finally, for these children, there is shelter. A mother tells her child in his dream: “This is not a dream. You are in my arms.” And in Los Angeles—the City of Angels, where the children will stay, for now—there are paletas, fruit popsicles in every color and shape:

Llevo paletas
para cantar
y paletas para volar.
Llevo paletas para bailar
y paletas para soñar.
Llevo paletas
como las nubes.

Somos las nubes.

In the end, “Somos como las nubes”—the simile, becomes “Somos las nubes”—the metaphor. We are the clouds. We will reunite with our families. We will get through this. Nothing and no one can stop us. A strong message of hope for lost, lonely, terrified young children. An important and gorgeous book, Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds is highly recommended. It’s my hope that Groundwood will donate a copy to every Spanish-speaking child in every refugee center in el norte.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/10/16; revised 9/11/16)

Thunderous Whisper

author: Christina Díaz González 
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012 
grades 5-8 

Díaz González’s second novel mines her rich family history originating in the Basque region of Spain, specifically the experiences of her grandparents and great-grandparents who came to the Americas following the Spanish Civil War. Drawing from their lives and culture, she weaves an original and powerful story of a 12-year-old girl caught up in this war, which began with General Francisco Franco’s invasion of the Spanish Republic from Morocco with the help of Hitler and Mussolini in 1936. While the war continued until Franco’s victory in 1939, the novel culminates with the bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by Nazi forces allied with Franco’s Nationalist (fascist) army.

Anetxu (Ani) lives on the outskirts of Guernica. Her classmates call her “Sardine Girl” and bully her relentlessly because she is poor and smells of the fish that she and her mother sell in the marketplace and deliver door to door.

My father would say our family’s clothes carried the scent of the sea, but that was just his fancy way of saying that we reeked of fish. It made sense since Papá had worked as a merchant seaman before joining the army and Mamá had always been a sardinera, selling the sardines that were the size of my feet, but stinkier… No wonder everything they owned, including me, smelled of fish.
At home, things aren’t much better. Her mother still mourns the death of Ani’s brother from illness years earlier. Ani endures both physical and emotional abuse from a mother who won’t call her by her given name but merely “neska”—the word for “girl” in the Basque language—and she misses her father, who has volunteered to fight against the fascists.

One afternoon, while sitting under her favorite tree outside the city, Ani sees a slightly older boy with a limp. She has never seen him before, and she learns that he has recently moved to Guernica because his father manages movie theaters for a large company. Mathias’s father is of Basque heritage, and his mother is a German Jew; for that reason, he too supports the anti-fascist cause. After some mutual distrust, Ani and Mathias become friends. He brings her to his father’s theater, where they eavesdrop on his father and other community leaders who have become spies. Soon, the children are carrying messages to the anti-fascist resistance about the location of Franco’s ground forces and Hitler’s planes and ships. However, they are unable to protect their city against the devastating bombing that destroys Guernica and kills hundreds of residents.

Many young people learn about Guernica from the famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso. Díaz González’s novel portrays the people in a way that contributes greatly to our understanding of the painting, of the war that has widely been seen as an Axis testing ground for the Second World War, and of the lives of children living in a war zone. The author realistically depicts life on the home front and the longing of many children to become part of the fight and to “make a difference” with little understanding of the true costs and horrors of war. A Thunderous Whisper is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/9/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.